Will Smith, Restaurant Manager, Arbutus, Wild Honey and Les Deux Salon

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th November 2014

Will Smith is co-owner of Arbutus Restaurant, which hold a star in the Michelin Guide UK, Wild Honey London and Les Deux Salons.

Will didn’t follow a traditional path into restaurant management, as he first studied geography at Kingston University. He then decided to follow it up with a diploma in hotel management at Manchester Polytechnic, sponsored by the hotel company Swallow Group. Will's first foray into hospitality was in hotel management working in notable establishments such as Cameron House Hotel on Loch Lomond and The Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh which piqued a passion in Will to pursue the restaurant side of the hotel business.

Will relocated to London in 1997 taking on the role of Restaurant Manager at L’Odeon on Regent Street. Here he met his now business partner, chef Anthony Demetre and a joint venture followed with the opening of Putney Bridge Restaurant in 1998.  This iconic restaurant situated on the start line of The Boat Race became renowned for its excellence in both food and service, winning the team a Michelin star in 1999. 

Following the sale of the building in 2005 Will and Anthony had the perfect opportunity to follow their dream of opening their own business in London's West End.

Arbutus opened on Frith Street in Soho in May 2006 and within eight months of opening, Arbutus was awarded a Michelin star. Wild Honey in Mayfair followed in June 2007 again achieving a Michelin star in its first year of trading. Their most recent opening was Les Deux Salons in Covent Garden in October 2010, an all-day brasserie which has received unilateral praise for its food and service.

Will Smith
Will Smith

We spoke to Will about fine dining, social media and how to break down the barriers between the floor staff and the kitchen:What made you choose to become a restaurant manager?

Where do I start? (laughs) I found out that I loved the world of hotels but I wanted to specialise a bit more in food and beverages. So I secured a job as a restaurant manager in a luxury restaurant in Loch Lomond; I sunk my all into that and we got a Michelin star which was great. I found myself spending what little money I made as restaurant manager, eating out. My friends were in London so I’d go to places like Aubergine, Pierre Koffman’s La Tante Claire – I just loved it. When I moved on to Bruno Loubet's L'Odeon in Piccadilly, it was a real baptism of fire. I hit the ground running! I suddenly had a team of 30 and it was completely different ball game to the hotels I was used to.

So how did your partnership with Anthony Demetre develop?

We worked well together, I think he saw I was hard working and that I had a modicum of a brain.

Why did you decide on Putney Bridge for your first joint venture?

It was failing but it was iconic, it was an amazing building but the product wasn’t doing it justice. The owner wanted to change the team and he wanted a Michelin star. We got the Michelin star, but it was a very serious business. It was very formal, with elaborate chairs and tables – it was fine dining, and I still meet people today who say it was one of their best experiences.

Thinking about Putney Bridge we said ‘is this the sort of place we want to go and eat in?’ Once in a blue moon of course I do, but this is special occasion dining and not really my bag every day of the week. We still wanted fantastic food, great cooking and a nice environment but much more affordable.  Back then if you wanted Michelin quality food you had to go to a Michelin star restaurant – why not be able to have the same standard of food but in a less formal environment? We decided to step away from the formality of dining and offer something great value.

5 best service experiences: Gleneagles Hotel, Scotland – in general across the whole hotel the experience is seamless. Staff are warm, welcoming and will go out of their way to be helpful. In particular dining at Andrew Fairlie was exemplary with his FOH mainstay Dale completing the experience. Lupa, Thompson Street, NY – one of the original inspirations for Arbutus. Typically straight up NY service; knowledgeable, enthusiastic, efficient and polished. Hibiscus, Mayfair - an inspirational and polished experience. Claude Bosi's cooking is modern and truly exceptional. The front of house team is excellently conducted by Laurent in a charming and effortless manner. Le Domaine de la Rose, Orgon, Provence – I wish I could spend a month here. I adore the wildness of the surroundings - Les Alpilles - but within the hotel and grounds you are made to feel a part of a large family. The owner is ever present guiding a loyal team who have worked there for many years. Babbington House, Somerset – from the moment we arrived we felt we were in a great retreat. The ban on mobile phones, the enforced dress code banning suits and ties is cleverly achieves a sophisticated country house feel.

Worst behaved customer ever served: A guest who claimed we broke his tooth on a panna cotta of all things. Before we'd even had a chance to discuss with him he'd spoken with his lawyer, booked emergency dental treatment and was demanding a letter admitting all. We see all sorts, we have to tread around some situations with grace and elegance. This one was difficult. In the end he refused to leave, called the police and the EHO. What a great start to the weekend.

After Arbutus, you branched out into Mayfair with Wild Honey. Why did you want to go back into that typically formal area of restaurants?

A site came our way in 2007 and we thought it would be perfect for Wild Honey. We were chasing our tails but it was too good a site and opportunity to miss. It’s a different ball game and we had to adjust the menu to suit the Mayfair crowd.

>>> Read more from Are You Being Served here

You and Anthony have been partners for a long time, does this friendship extend within the business? Do your teams communicate well?

We all work together as a team. The feedback from the front of house is equally as important as feedback from the kitchen. Diners are coming out for great food always but less for the chef and more and more for the environment and the front of house team who add that certain something that makes a meal an experience. People are going out and they want to be relaxed and feel good. They want recognition, eye contact, a smile and they want to be well looked after. All of the barriers have been broken down between the departments. The floor staff need the knowledge of the products and the chefs can provide this, there’s a mutual respect.

Do you feel that chefs are always the ones in the spotlight?

There are dozens of cooking programmes on TV now and everyone, including my non-industry friends are fascinated by chefs. They ask how do they do it? And the answer is they are creative, have developed their palates and have a keen eye for presentation. People think it’s easy to run the restaurant floor and the business side of things - so chefs always get the limelight for that magic they have created. But I know Anthony couldn’t do it without me! (laughs) Being the face of the business is very humbling, I never get a chance to get a big head – you may think you are doing something perfectly and then a diner will tell you differently and bring you down a notch or two.

There’s more to your role than just running the floor, tell us about that. 

I'm very hands on and my role is very varied. Yes I talk to guests and make sure they are getting a great experience, I walk the restaurant floors and host during service but there’s the business side too. Dealing with the wine lists, budgeting, meetings with anyone from a utilities supplier to the bin company to the credit card machine people to an interior designer.   That’s branched out into working with PR’s and social media – which is fun, I like that.

You mentioned social media, what do you think of online reviews and how do you deal with these comments?

I just get on with it, I’m not 20, I’m 46 so a bit of a stick in the mud, but it’s the way of the world – I embrace it and work hard at it. Everyone has a smart phone, yes even me, and everyone takes pictures. We can’t stop that and I suppose it’s good. Often the food from a mobile phone doesn’t look as good as it does on the plate and I don’t think the pictures sometimes do us any favours but this is the way it is and it will continue. Twitter, like Facebook, is increasing our brand awareness.

Les Deux Salons
Les Deux Salons

With Tripadvisor it’s difficult – we all get it wrong sometimes but we are always trying to train our staff to the level we and our diners expect.

So what makes your restaurants different, what make you stand out among the other London restaurants?

We are surrounded by dozens of great places so we’ve got to stick our heads above the crowd. Too many restaurants open, get a six month buzz but then how do you keep it going? We have to use every single option to develop our menu and develop the product. At Arbutus we offer great value and to do that we use underutilised cuts. So lamb breast and Pollock were two items we used when we opened – now we don’t because everyone is using it! Anthony is very good at taking under used cuts and turning them into something really special. He works with them cleverly to make everyone go ‘wow that’s amazing’. Also our whole wine list is available by the carafe at Arbutus. The idea behind it was diners may not want a whole bottle, so they will settle for a glass of house.  The way we do it makes all the wines accessible, there’s no risk involved. If you don’t like it it’s not a problem – there are plenty of other wines that you will like! We’ve tried to break the snobbery, take the pressure off people who don’t know and try something different and experiment.

You’ve taken informal dining to the next level but do you miss the old, traditional skills associated with fine dining?

Wild Honey
Wild Honey

It’s sad that key table skills have gone away. Forty years ago it was an everyday occurrence but not now. I was at the The Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh 20 years ago and we had a beef trolley. We would push it around the room and people loved it, they could have steak tartar, there was a duck press you could order in advance, Caesar salad prepared at the table- it was very classic. There’s less showmanship now in restaurants and I think that’s a sign of the times. I also think it’s down to neurotic chefs wanting control over how the food is presented and the overall look of the dish!

You talked about guests reviews on social media, what about guides? Does Michelin put pressure on you and the restaurant?

We get on and do what we do.  That that has been rewarded with a Michelin star is wonderful. Losing a star would be worse as it would be read as a sign things are going downhill.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th November 2014

Will Smith, Restaurant Manager, Arbutus, Wild Honey and Les Deux Salon