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Tanners, Plymouth


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Chris and James Tanner run the fine dining restaurant Tanners, the brasserie Barbican Kitchen and the recently opened Kitchen Café, all in Plymouth. They describe their approach to cooking as very focused, and their Modern British food style as simplistic, using locally sourced West Country ingredients as much as possible.

After finishing school, James studied Hotel Management, while Chris studied for a City and Guilds in catering, before going on to work in a number of restaurants, sometimes together. Eventually James was invited by the Roux brothers to work with them in the US, while Chris, after a spell as commis chef at Le Gavroche, worked with them around the world at places such as The Point resort and Hotel Diva. James returned to England to take a job at the two Michelin starred Lettonie, Bath under Martin Blunos and they opened Tanners in 1999 in one of Plymouth’s oldest buildings. Their second restaurant, The Barbican Kitchen opened in 2007. The brothers have also had substantial television careers, appearing on shows such as Food Network Daily, Good Food Live and their own series The Tanner Brothers. James and Chris have also appeared as guests on ITV’s This Morning.

So first and foremost thank you very much for inviting me down to Tanners today. Let's start by getting an understanding of Tanners as a business. Tell us what you have in terms of restaurants, operations, covers you do, sites that you run.

(CT) We run Tanners which is the fine dining restaurant and this year will be our twelfth. We serve round about 60 covers, open Tuesday to Saturday, closed Sundays and Mondays. Alongside that we've got the Barbican Kitchen which is our brasserie, which is a seven day week operation, big, big volume of people, over 1,000 every week that come through that operation. And we've just opened the Kitchen Cafe.

Why the Barbican seven days and the other one five?

(CT) Predominantly I think because of the area that it's in. It's on the Barbican, so it can be seasonal, however, because it's also in the same site as Plymouth Gin that really drives the amount of people that come through. It's such a diverse mix of people & clients that come through there.

Tanners is different, a very different operation logistically, a hard site to run purely as it's a mediaeval building dating back to 1490 it's a succession of rooms which demands much more on the front of house staff and it was always, when we first started off, we needed to get at least a day off which didn't happen for quite a few years and we decided to close Tanners, on Sundays and Mondays.

We've grown again, as now alongside the Brasserie operation is the kitchen café which we opened about four weeks ago, it's just a little addition really, it's very simple, coffees, cakes, pastries, sandwiches, that kind of thing, ideally to complement what we do there in the Barbican site, as it is a heritage site.

So how do you Chris and James divide your time between the business then? Who does what role?

(JT) Dividing our time sometimes it used to be a case of, "Right where are you going today?" "Right well I'm down at the Brasserie, or I'm at Tanners," either/or but as the years have gone on we've obviously got a head chef in place now at the Brasserie and we're up to about a team of about ten and that's over a seven day week, so always keep an eye on it as an operation but you've got to let your team, do their job.

It's a very busy place and there's a lot to organise now with holiday entitlements always on the increase and everything else that come with managing staff and restaurants, so it is a bit of a juggling act. However, they run a very good ship down there at the Barbican and it is a case of now we've finally got to the point where you can rock up, do a service, you haven't got to worry about the doing mise en place there in the morning and a lot more of our time is always at Tanners Restaurant. When we first opened the Brasserie we split and I went down to run the Brasserie and stayed down there, but 18 months on we'd have a head chef in place. Chris and  did swap around at times, but out of the two or three sites we now run,  even when we opened the café there was an initial, "Let's stay down here for the first couple of weeks,"

Tanners to us it's a little bit more personal I think and where it all began and that's the one with our name above the door.

And in terms of different food styles, you know you say one's fine dining, one's Brasserie, is it important in the business then to diversify what you do commercially?

(CT) Yes I would say, I mean you say fine dining, I think our main ethos behind all of it initially is it doesn't matter what you do as long as you do it properly. That was drummed in to me from, a fairly early age and I've sort of been in the industry now for 28, 29 years and worked at different establishments , whether it's three star Michelin to exclusive New York operations, France, to the City of London. I think it's just doing it differently and most importantly I think for us now, 12 years on, bearing in mind we didn't have basically a pot to piss in when we started, is that it's become"¦ our playground really, that's where we want to"¦you know, we can play with a few bits, not complicate it. If that's well received by the clients then hopefully we're doing a good job really. Commercially, we make the decisions together, there's nobody else involved in what we do, there's no shareholders or anything like that. It's nice I mean our board meetings are generally on a Saturday night about half one in the morning with a few Peronis or Kasteel Cru depending what's"¦literally no seriously.

((laughs)) No I can imagine and why not?

(CT) And we've come up with some great ideas at those meeting and also concepts, but it is difficult. It's hard, you know, there's a lot of sacrifice that's gone into where we are today, we've both got kids, and it's trying to get the whole balance right. I think you've got to be fairly strong willed and focused on exactly what you do and just look at the whole bigger picture because all these people you employee are looking at you to lead them and it's like James said earlier you don't want to stifle that creativity, you know, let's cut the shit it's a young man's game there's some good talent coming through. It's no different to what I saw 20 odd years ago it's just everything's different now with just the social media side of it and people's expectations

Do you embrace the whole social media side of it? I've seen you both personally on Twitter but do you have a Tanners' Twitter and do you have the Facebook sort of stuff?

(CT) The three sites are all on twitter, and we are. Yeah I'll be honest we're not on facebook"¦we haven't really"¦we haven't done Facebook it's the time, it's the time with it really.

So you don't have any dedicated marketing behind you like a PR company or anything like that?

(CT) No. We never have done, we've never had a PR no.

(JT) I think TV shows of five million help, you know, that's the bonus of eight years. So yeah, it's good for business but going back to your original question about the commercial viability of the businesses it's great because we've got something now in each section and also where we are. We're not central London, we're not Manchester, we're not an idyllic little place by the sea that's 30 covers or anything like that, we're in a city centre, which is a big city in the south west, we've got high end, we've got mid market but I'll be honest nowadays with the trend of food I can't really tell you what mid market is any more because on one table at the Brasserie for example you'd have a millionaire on the next table you'd have a student and I think"¦

But that's good isn't it?

(JT) Yeah that's fantastic we embrace it I think it's brilliant and it's great to hit all markets, and now with the, coffee shop, if you want a Devon cream tea, you want a quick sandwich, or someone in your office block. We offer great coffee with freshly ground beans and a nice bit of local ham with some mustard and salad it's not rocket science, have a sticky bun on the way out, thanks very much, you're hitting something for every market and I'm a great believer in wherever you are you've got to cook for what your public want around you. It's all very well, you could go to somewhere and you'd have this young hot shot chef that wants to put a foam and puree on everything and he's doing six covers, now if you own that business you're in the shit and you're not making money"¦

Yeah big time.

(JT) "¦and you're not making money, you're not making money and you can be the best chef in the world but if you don't do it business-wise you're screwed and what's the point if it doesn't work and you've got so much on the line.


(JT) Don't get me wrong we turnover a lot of money and a lot of money goes back out again to pay the bills, I don't need to sit here and say but with escalating food prices and different legislations that have come in and, we've always done everything by the book, we're not a couple of wide boy wheeler dealers that'll start up and go under and reinvent the company in a different name the next week, it's business and it's something we've built up, we want to tap into even more, we've still got a few years left in us yet definitely and by working with all the different markets and getting into the outside catering operation side, where there are the biggest numbers, for our company so far we've catered for 550 people, don't get me wrong I've been to ones before, organised gala dinner events with1,000 and 2,000 I mean brilliant, fantastic, so we're always looking at different angles and opportunities for Tanners as a business and brand to move forward.

James, you mentioned TV there and I guess it's impossible to talk to you and not talk about the TV, if you use the term celebrity chef, whatever that means, it will divide opinion"¦

(JT) Yeah.

"¦what's your take on the term celebrity chef?

(JT) To me that was something that was invented years ago, probably about eight years ago or so and you're a celebrity chef and you're the guy on the telly and, "Oh that so and so did you see what he'd did?" Don't get me wrong I used to sit in a split shift and watch programmes"¦

As all chefs do.

(JT) "¦and watch programmes and think, "˜Look at that guy. What the hell's that?' I never thought I'd be one of the guys doing it. The difference was and it always has been a difference, up until more so recently was I had a site, I had a restaurant, it wasn't"¦it's never been my real job, my work at the restaurant was my job, so if I got that train back to Plymouth, and I'd been doing something in the morning and you'd get off at Plymouth station and you'd get a taxi straight to work and go in and do service and sometimes it's like that still now, don't get me wrong not as much and why should it be I've worked my nuts off"¦

Yeah absolutely.

(JT)"¦and don't get me wrong I'm dedicated to my job but there's only so much I'll do now, you know, especially with all these people in place here in the business now

But it must help the business?

(JT) Of course yeah and the thing is

It raises your profile, brings people to the door.

(JT)"¦ the thing is I've had great comments from people over the years in the catering industry and out of the industry, you know, "Well done, or I really liked what you did," or "I saw that and blah-blah-blah," and I've had negative comments as well.

Do you think it's envy?

(JT) Yeah, yeah if there's someone who's had a couple of beers and they're, "Oh you're that prick off the telly," or something like that and yeah there probably is envy there but there's another thing as well and I don't think anyone ever stopped to realise it is I really enjoy doing it. I enjoy"¦to me it's another career, it's another bonus and I'm going to embrace that and I'm also very, very aware, and I always was when I started it doesn't last forever. I'm one of the fortunate ones where I still get the work. I mean as Chris said we've got this meeting on Thursday coming up and I get back from that Thursday night, Friday I've got to go up to do Saturday Kitchen, it's not worth coming back to Plymouth for a day. Don't get me wrong where I live logistically is a ball ache because all of the work's in London and then I'm straight back in the studio and I switch from BBC, I'm very lucky I can work on all channels, go straight over to ITV.

So you're a media whore?

(JT) Yeah why not? Pimp myself out, straight onto ITV and I'm on ITV all week but, you know, that's"¦so from including the Saturday let's say I'm hitting about 14 million over the course of five days, six days.

Do you see in the business, if you're on the telly do you see peaks in the business?

(JT) There was a thing, they always said at the company Cactus Telly that makes Saturday Kitchen that if you do Saturday Kitchen your phones go off the hook for that day, but not being big headed the phone rings but we're already full on that day.

What form of marketing can you get for 14 million people. That's fantastic.

(JT) Yeah it's amazing but what you'll see is the following weekend I'm stood at the end we're cleaning down the ovens and it's quarter to 12 or something and everyone's knackered and been in all day and the good thing is with Tanners you wrap it up for two days, you can forget about it but you've still got 110 cover lunch service at the Brasserie the next day but they'll come up and they're amazed you're there and, "I can't believe it," and they're like, "Can we have a picture?" "Yeah course you can. Do you want to buy a book?" you know and they're there and you sign a book for them and stuff and they're like, you know, "I watched you on"¦" "Where have you come down from?" "Oh Newcastle. We've come down to Plymouth for the weekend." We have people one weekend a month they fly from Brussels to come and eat.


(JT) Because obviously I forget as well it's not just"¦ UK telly gets cut up and put out into Europe which, I didn't realise at first when I first started doing it but you're getting"¦

You better have a look at your contract.

(JT)"¦ you'll get ((laughs)) random people though that have come down for the weekend, which for the south west it's fantastic I haven't got hotel rooms, they're staying somewhere, they're going out"¦they might have dinner with us but they'll want to go to lunch and eat at so and so somewhere else in the area. What we find is people either start or end with us because they do a little foody trail of the south west and they might kick off in Dartmouth or Torquay and then come along to us and then go down into Cornwall and then round and back up and go out of Bristol.I think it's brilliant and also there's a lot more great restaurants in the south west now which is good for all of us, it's fantastic for all of us because they're not going to go in and eat at the same place all the time they're there they want to try different things.

So what can we see in the next five years then for the Tanners? Where are you guys going and where do you want to be?

(CT) We'll"¦I mean it's been economically at the moment it's been"¦

It's a tough time isn't it?

(CT) Yeah it has been it's been like that for quite some time now. We've fielded that to a certain point, like James said earlier we're conscious of prices and it's just gone nuts, you know, food price-- they make it really, really hard in this country"¦

The rate's gone up about 10%.

(JT) Oh easily it's just gone"¦

Are you able to pass that on or not?

(JT) You can't really.

(CT) You can't because you know, like he said earlier"¦

Of course VAT's gone up as well hasn't it?

(CT) Yeah, yeah.

(JT)  We have to do VAT they do PAYE, NI that kind of stuff and to be honest with it now it's the cooking side's the relaxing part. That's the best bit where you can leave the phone in the office, no one's going to disturb you and bang you're just concentrating for service.

And go into the kitchen for a rest.

(CT) Yeah exactly pretty much that's what it is honestly and we can't get away from that. We don't want to get away from it. We very much enjoy"¦I enjoy the business side as much as the cooking side, it's been an apprenticeship on the business side for a lot of stuff"¦

But without the cooking you don't have the business do you?

(CT) Exactly and I think our advantage is that we're guys that own the business and also we cook. So if a piece of kit breaks we don't make the guys wait six weeks for it. We're bang on the phone and we have a new one delivered, you've got to have the tools to do the job. We know it's a hard industry, it's not the easiest industry to be in with the hours that are involved which is again, you know, we understand that people have lives outside hence why our staff turnover is fairly minimal really eight, nine years ago when the TV sort of came knocking its door, you would never in a million years be able to afford to buy that commercially and I mean come on if you've got your cock on the block and you've got your house up for"¦which we've done several times now and could have lost everything who in their right mind's not going to turn that down?


(JT) And people forget there's two of us so you've got each other there for back up people say, "How can you work with your brother?" but it's"¦if we didn't get on we wouldn't have done it properly and we wouldn't have done it together.

Last question do you fight?

(JT) ((sighs))

Not physically but ((laughs)) do you argue?

(CT) Honestly no we don't. You'd like to say, you know, a lot of people want loads of stories over the 12 years"¦

I was hoping for a big scoop.

(CT) Unfortunately it's a bit of a let down.

There's my headline gone.

(CT) It's a bit of a let down really there's no"¦I couldn't even think over the last 12 years if we've had a massive bust up which must say something.

(JT) No.

There's no sibling rivalry then?

(JT) Why we're working together for the same cause which is us. I'm looking out for his interests and he's looking out for mine.

That's fair enough.

(CT) It's a back up.

(JT) And we've been through a lot of sh** together and I think when you've gone through so much together for so many years

Where do you want to be in five years time, honestly? I wouldn't mind if f**king going skiing for the weekend or I'll be lying on a beach.

(CT) Or get a bit more time off"¦

(JT) Don't get me wrong not forever but when you're talking to two guys that's had a week off a year for the last decade, and people say you're not committed to your cause I'd slap "˜em, you know, because"¦

No, no, no there's nothing"¦I think there's nothing wrong with wanting to be successful if it means you have a better quality of life and have more money to spend.

(JT) I want a nice car. I want a nice house, I want a nice school for my child. I want a good experience for all of my staff. I'd like to, get them out of the kitchens even more, send them to places to work. It's work/life balance and we're still working on it now and with the economic climate at the moment it's knocked everyone back a couple of years

I think but if you stick at it and the good thing is about the industry in food,it's always evolving, it's always changing and we're not 21 anymore. We've seen things come and go and come back again. I think that's the exciting thing about what we do. You're never stagnant in this trade and I always think it's very, very rewarding as well. I still get that good thing if you speak to people after service and don't get me wrong we never"¦I never go downstairs into the restaurants we always bring them up to the kitchen, I couldn't think of anything worse, sitting there downstairs talking"¦

And the chef comes down?

(JT) Yeah I really"¦I've always hated that.

I'm not a fan of it personally.

(JT) But it's nice to get feedback from the crew that you're working with and also importantly the customers and to talk to the local guys "What's new and what have we got this season? What's ready this month," it's always changing and it's good to have a bunch of people around you with that vision

Well listen thank you both very much. It's great to come down and meet you. I appreciate your time.

(JT) Cool.

(CT) Pleasure.

Thank you very much.

(JT) Yeah cheers.