Simon Bonwick: 'I'm not saying I don't learn from my mistakes, it's just a lot more fun being a bit of an idiot'

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 3rd September 2019

When he opened his first restaurant, Simon Bonwick said he was "completely naive."

Perhaps not the person you would turn to for sound advice - a streak of madness is what makes the chef's genius - the chef landlord of Michelin-starred gastropub The Crown at Burchetts Green ran several pubs at a loss before his efforts paid off. 

He remembers the early days of dancing in the pub with imaginary customers and reflects on how far he (and it) has come. 

This feature appeared as part of a series about how to open your own restaurant.

Other chefs include

Pip Lacey , Hicce

Emily Roux, Caractère

Tommy Banks, Roots

Scott Smith, Fhior

Stay tuned for more!

 Make sure you're ready

At his first pub, Simon said: "I was fully cheffed up and not ready to be a landlord. So at eight o'clock the barrel needed changing downstairs and the customers were waiting for the dinner rush. I go and change a barrel of beer and I didn't know what I was doing." 

His ingenuity lasted longer than you'd expect: when he opened The Crown seven years ago - without telling his wife, because he'd given up a highly-paid job to do it - he said he still hadn't the faintest idea of how to run a successful business. 

"I thought I had all my bases covered on my first night. I stood there alone in the pub with 50p in the till thinking - c'mon, where's all the customers then. And of course no-one came in for about three weeks," he laughed. 

The front of house will become your affair 

While as a chef, he could stand in the kitchen minding his own business, when he became a landlord he had to become "all things to all people," he said, including overseeing the front of house team. 

"When you're under pressure in your kitchen cooking, you have to be prepared to leap out the front and back them up, be there for them, support them, show them what they need to do, because you've got all the knowledge and all the information." 

"With your chef head on, it's very very difficult to adjust initially. It's like swimming in the deep end if you can't swim."

Be prepared for the extremities of different situations 

The Crown

"Having high emotional intelligence is a pre-requisite" to owning a business, Simon explained. "You might even need to deliver a baby."

He laughed, but he wasn't joking. 

As a landlord, you will inevitably encounter "acts of extreme love and extreme violence," he said. 

An example of the former was a customer who lunched at the pub weekly with his family for five years. "They would spend a few hours at the table, they'd be nice, they were civilised and they were great." 

One day, they left a gift and a note on the table.

"I didn't remember but I'd helped this guy out years and years ago with food that wasn't mine to give in a kitchen, he came to the back door and I fed him and watered him."

"That was an act of extreme love to me," he said.  

At the other end of the spectrum, the chef recalled a time where his stress levels had reached an all-time high. 

He said: "I was so paranoid and out of my depth, I thought everyone coming through the back door in a white van was a drug dealer or a traveller - and I ran out with - I've got a baseball bat which I call Slugger Joe and I raced out and started swiping the  this guy's ankles. 'I'm only here to deliver the wine,' he said. Poor guy." 

Simon Bonwick & son Chris Orange
Simon Bonwick and his son Dean

Learn from your mistakes, but don't regret them 

The chef said he's made some questionable choices over the years, but he wouldn't do anything differently given the chance. 

"I'm not saying I don't learn from my mistakes, it's just a lot more fun being a bit of an idiot. Bit naive. It certainly keeps the blood running."

"You get up in the morning, you pull one sock on, you pull the other sock on and you think: 'is this my reality? Is this what I want' and I think: 'Yeah.'"

Given another chance, he said: "I'd do it all again this way. The hard way." 

Don't do it with no money 

In a spirit of 'do what I do not what I say', the chef advises anyone wishing to open their own restaurant to set money aside to make it work. 

"I've done it with no money and on a shoestring it's a killer - but then I like it like that. I'm different to other people," he chuckled. 

Be patient

To be successful, Simon said: "chefs need to learn patience." 

"The bricks and mortar of these pubs aren't going anywhere. They're there. They're solid. They're in our countryside. These black and white, timber-framed sturdy places are there already, they've been there for hundreds of years before you were as old as the hills. They're there, waiting to be taken and serviced and given character and personality. And so there's no rush." 

Don't be afraid to do things differently 

When he opened The Crown, Simon ran it like a traditional pub - but found that he wasn't doing the barrelage to sustain the business. 

"My son [Dean] came on board and said: 'what is going on? You're not very well, you're not really making any money, you need to do this the way you want to do it to get the enjoyment and love out of it.' So we turned the traditional pub business model that every landlord gets given and knows how to do on its head."

And so the chef made a drastic decision.

"On Mondays and Tuesdays we knew we were quiet so we shut. Unheard of. People said: 'What are you doing, how can you.' Yeah, well, cut the losses. Be there for business, when the business isn't there, don't be there. That's how  you run up costs and you might as well put all your money in a bucket, run down the Thames and chuck it in."

Keep it real

To be a chef landlord, you have to show up mentally and emotionally every single day, at the risk of losing sight of what you need to do, the chef explained. "You can't pretend." 

"It's a very real thing, you've got to stay real to do it otherwise you get lost in the idea of it and the ideology of it. It's only fun when you get up and you're ready. Don't roll over. Don't lie down. Pull your socks up. March or die, everyday. Good foreign legion thing." 

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 3rd September 2019

Simon Bonwick: 'I'm not saying I don't learn from my mistakes, it's just a lot more fun being a bit of an idiot'