Simon Hulstone, The Elephant Bar & Restaurant, Torquay

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 6th April 2011
Simon first and foremost great to see you again thanks for inviting us down. Let's start by talking about the number of menus you run here at the Elephant Restaurant, which I know is slightly different because you've got a fine dining and a brasserie and I know the brasserie is 365 days a year whereas the fine dining isn't. So how does that work and how do you structure that? Basically what we do is the brasserie runs throughout the year, we just close for two weeks in January every year. So the brasserie is a normal set up it's  8:8:8 style menu. Fine dining (The Room) closes from April to October so what we actually do, is we bring a tasting menu downstairs during that closure because we still have people who want to have a little bit more of a fine dining experience but we don't class it as our Michelin starred restaurant we just have it as a trial and error menu that we use ready for the opening of the room. When the room opens we have that á la carte menu which is normally a 4:4:4 plus a tasting menu and we have a vegetarian menu that runs through the whole building. That's the easiest way to explain it. Is there simply not a market between October and I guess what would be the traditional closed season April? Is there just not a market to keep the room open? It's not so much there's not a market there's just not the footfall. There's no one around and obviously having a Michelin starred restaurant everything needs to be fresh, consistency-wise, we don't want anyone slacking off. We don't want anyone keeping the fine beans for an extra day than they should. It's all about consistency and freshness. So it's easier to run the one menu downstairs where we can use much cheaper cuts of meat, it's more accessible option to everybody all year round. When The Room is closed we do bring an element of the fine dining downstairs so it lifts the brassiere. In some ways the brasserie's a bit of a bargain when The Room is closed because we're still using the better dishes but mixed in with brasserie style dishes that everyday people want to eat. We like to have people eating once or twice a month, we'd like it to be every week but that's never going to happen. And in terms of staffing then do you have to staff that differently? What happens normally is if we lose anybody after the summer we don't replace them until Easter. We just keep the numbers down, the costs down but we've been very fortunate we haven't lost anybody and I don't want to lose anybody. All we do is we keep the staffing costs down by limiting the hours of the hourly paid staff, the kitchen porters, the guys'll do the kitchen work themselves, do all the floors, the pots and pans. They understand that they've got to do the work to keep them in a job, so it's easier to get a kitchen porter than it is to get a trained chef, sometimes. Okay then so the brasserie's open 50 weeks of the year basically. How often do you change that menu? We can change it every day. We print in house. Okay. But what we tend to do it on a fortnightly basis but we will offer word of mouth specials, and if those work, then we'll lose the bad selling dish and replace it. The problem is with that you could end up with five beef dishes because everybody wants beef and that's quite hard to get round at times. We can put a steak on, we could have put a burger on, we can put a pie on, we can put a braise on, but it all ends up being from the same bloody animal"¦from beef. Trying to get people round that or even through using menu descriptions you start going on to things like ox cheek, even though it is still beef it's got a different description to beef itself. We use steak puddings, we use the liver, calf's liver, so again you're moving away from the word beef. It's quite hard for us to get the customers on to pork, we don't really like having chicken on the menu, it's just a bit dull and boring and you can go to a Harvester and get that. Lamb works very well but again it's the cost, we're still in a brasserie menu and we've got to be careful of the costs. Do you have a repertoire of dishes then that you use and maybe tweak or do you"¦ Yeah I think so yeah. We have the base dishes that we know work. We have dishes that are easy to serve. It's all about ease of service. The brasserie obviously we're banging the food out quicker than we would in the fine dining. We're not messing around with amuse bouches and things like that. Is that one thing you take into consideration when you're putting a dish together do you look at ease of service, speed of service"¦ Yes. "¦and the ability to physically get the dish out? Definitely yes. It's more the fact of less moves on the plate. We very much try to keep away from over-complicating things. I've really learnt the hard way, being told off by Michelin that my food was too complicated,we thought we were moving forward we were actually being slapped on the wrist and saying, "You're not going in the direction we want you to," which is important to know because it was good to have that feedback, but it was also good for us because it's not really the way I wanted to go getting complicated. I like to keep my food, quite simple, a good piece of meat, cooked well, a very good sauce, and a simple garnish, but then if people come to eat and they come for a Michelin experience, they do tend to expect it to be overworked, and that's where we're between a rock and a hard place, because people want to be wowed but we're trying to wow with flavour.. You say you can change your menu every day what's your thought process behind a dish change? Is it a product from a supplier? Is it an idea from the team? A dish change is pretty much everything from customer feedback if something's been sent back we get a lot of problems a lot of the time with steaks, people not understanding what cooking degrees  actually are. It's the biggest pain in the arse ever. So they wanted medium rare but they don't want no blood in it. Yeah medium rare, no blood. They want it blue but cooked. ((laughs)) It's, the rib eye's got gristle through it, it's not gristle it's natural marbling. We don't want to serve a fillet steak all the time because it's just a boring piece of meat"¦ It's bloody expensive as well. Yeah you stick a nice rib eye on the menu it's just hard work and you're just trying to educate people and in the end you just say, "Fuck it," you know, and stick a fillet on. And they win and at the end of the day they're not getting a better product for it they're just getting something that they can chew with false teeth and less flavour but saying that our butchers are fantastic and we get good meat but we always want to try and do something a bit different. Seasons obviously effect change, what's around of course. We struggle with quality suppliers down in Torquay in the fact that if we want to get something a bit specialist, for example Jerusalem artichokes we struggle to get it. We don't have a market near us. Everything goes to London then comes back to us. So Torquay being surrounded by big, big hotels which are coach orientated, blue rinse, everyone's on dinner, bed and breakfast, they don't want the ingredients that we use. So we have to use specialist suppliers which then costs us more.. We've had a Devon micro herb guy come to us yesterday which I never knew about, everyone's used Richard Vines, Richard Vines' got gazumped pretty much by Wow Herbs which was unfortunate and now people are jumping on this bandwagon of micro herbs but you think these guys are selling it for £2 a punnet it must cost a fortune to set up these poly tunnels, heaters, just to send a tray of herbs out but they're local and I don't know if it's going to taste any different if it's local but it just stops the middle man of driving up to London and bringing it back to Devon again. Yeah absolutely. I guess most of the fish goes past your door to London and then back down again doesn't it? Well we're very lucky to be honest with you. The story we always tell is when I lived in the Cotswolds we used to get our fish at six o'clock and when I moved here our fish turns up at one o'clock in the afternoon and I said to the supplier "Why if I'm 200 miles away?" and he said, "Well you get today's fish." And that's all right I can cope with that, they might be bullshitting or on their lunch break and they just say, "Oh all right we'll drop it off now and tell him it's today's fish." ((laughs)) But yeah it's quality. I mean obviously you're a business as well, two restaurants, one Michelin star, one a brasserie"¦ Yeah. "¦talk us through the costings of your menus for the brasserie. You mentioned items like fillet steak which we all know as a core item of very expensive. So how do you go about costing your menus? We're very lucky on the costs that we pretty much swallow anything that we need to. We're not a massive profit maker, we're more here to keep roofs on our heads, keep ourselves going, everyone's paid, all the suppliers are paid, so as long as we can keep that turning over we're happy. Obviously we want to make a profit but we also don't want to lose out on money. So our idea is we've got to offer quality food because there's so much shit in the bay but we've also got to keep it to a price range that people can afford. So we lose on some, gain on others. It's the normal way. So a fillet steak will go on and we might lose a couple of quid on that but we'll gain it on the beef cheek which we're selling just under a couple of quid of the fillet price or pigs' cheeks, pork belly, even, you know, it's residual stuff. When the fine dining's running we buy in our meat whole so it goes from upstairs to downstairs. So we'll buy a whole lamb in and then we use the primes and then take it down to the stuff downstairs. We make shepherd's pies and whatever. Would you avoid things like turbot, lobster and that type of stuff in the brasserie? No we don't we just charge accordingly. Really? Okay. Basically we'll charge a market price for lobster and it does sell. It sells yeah? Yeah no problem at all. In the summer we'll probably buy in three a day and they'll be sold normally by lunchtime. Fantastic And we can pretty much get away with charging three times the cost price which is what we want to make on the GP. And I don't really rate lobster that high to be charged for it that much but people think they're having something a bit special don't they? Yeah I think it's about the, "˜Oh look at me,' factor isn't it? Yeah I don't get lobster, oysters, personally I think it's just snot isn't it but people will pay for it because they think they're a bit special. Yeah absolutely. Do you have a GP that you work to then? Do you say, you know, "My GP is 70% or"¦" Yeah we still work on a 70% GP. Do you, it's 70% is it? Yes we work on a 70% GP. Like now we tend to get it better in the winter than we do in the summer. Really? Yeah. You'd have thought it would be the other way round wouldn't you? Well we're doubling the amount of work in the summer. Right okay. So there's an extra 20 dishes going on with the room so there's an extra 20 dishes that are going older every day that we've got to get rid of, staff food's better in the summer. ((laughs)). ((laughs)) If you're listening kids don't work here in the winter. Yeah. You mentioned earlier on about customer feedback as a driver behind change, how important is customer feedback to you and none of us like to be criticised but inevitably it's going to happen. Yeah it's very hard, you know, this year we've very much focusing on the restaurant, going the PR route everything like that. Are you? Yeah it's something that we have to do. It's something that's come on the back of Bocuse D'Or that my profile's risen a little bit, customers have seen us on TV and in magazines and they want to see me in my restaurant which I'm not comfortable with going round"¦ A lot of chefs aren't. Yeah I'm just not comfortable with talking to them, you know, I'm very happy to"¦yeah how are you doing? Blah, blah, blah. That's happening ((laughs)) Yeah you've just done a service, you're stinking, you're a bit sweaty and it's"¦ You could wear a shirt. Yeah and it's also the fact do you go out in clean whites and not look like you've been working? It's a Catch 22. I'm not a great fan personally. You don't want to see the chef do you? I don't personally. No disrespect to any chef. No, no, no. If I wanted to see the chef I'd go in the kitchen and have a chat with him. Yeah and I think that's some sort of way that"¦ But that's probably because"¦ We might even say that, you know, if you want to say hello pop in and see us and it also gets rid of them a bit quicker because they'll come in and feel in the way and get out but it's"¦ But then people do like that to chef in a restaurant. They want to see the chef yeah. They want to see the chef, they want to know the chef's cooking and when the restaurant's open I am cooking. We are there but it's just very uncomfortable. Then again the other customer feedback is you get twats like Trip Advisor and stuff like that which"¦ It's getting a bit of a kicking at the moment Trip Advisor isn't it? It's getting a little bit of negative press. Yeah I sort of laugh at it now, you know, our reviews are very, very good, we've got some fantastic reviews and we appreciate getting them but then we get absolutely slated ones that just don't exist from our restaurant. It's like you haven't eaten here you've made something up which is just so naughty. It really is so bad. My biggest thing on Trip Advisor is, and I can only speak from a personal perception is if I came and had a nice meal somewhere I'd be very uninclined to go and write about it"¦ Yeah but that's the thing yeah. "¦if I had a bad meal I'd be more inclined to go, "I didn't like that." It's the English thing isn't it if you have a good meal you don't really tell anybody because it's your little secret and if it's a bad meal you tell everyone because yeah you feel ripped off and you want to tell everyone. So you're almost creating the website that drives a negative to a degree. Yeah, yeah without a doubt it's a totally negative website. They say they're informing people but I think it was David at the Champignon had a really bad review by A A Gill about ten years ago and it was a horrible review, it was really, really nasty but he said that on the plus side he had so many people coming to see him to see if it was that bad that business went up but I don't agree the same with Trip Advisor. That happened with Paul Gayler with the Michael Winner years ago, do you remember at the Lanesborough, he went into the Lanesborough and he ordered kedgeree and then he ordered this really finite wine to go with it and then he slated the kedgeree"¦ Because it didn't go with the wine ((laughs)). And everybody went, "Do you know what you're actually a bit of a knob." A knob. ((laughs)) And it kind of worked for Paul Gayler in that scenario because most people looked at it and went, "You're just there to sell a paper." Yeah, and a lot of the stuff they write just goes on and on and on and on and on. Let's talk about PR then you're going to PR and at the end of the day we've said before in various circumstances that is there now more to being a chef than just the food you put on the plate? Yeah I think there is we've become almost a little bit of a parody of ourselves in some ways but we need to be out there. We're a well known restaurant now in the area and we need to take that out of the area because we've actually scared people in our area of coming here because"¦ What it seems too finite to a degree? They think we're posh yeah. Right. And because we're popular and we're in the papers they don't actually think t we need customers which is the bad side of the publicity. "Oh they're doing all right because they're always in the paper so we don't need to eat there," or, "We can't get a table," which is definitely not the case. So we tend to be picking up people from probably ten miles out of the bay that are coming in because they've only got Exeter to go to and they've done their Exeter base and now they're coming into us, coming from Plymouth, which is great, you know, we have customers who eat with the Tanners and Michael Caines' restaurant and that's what we want but obviously we're a local restaurant and we still need to get locals in. So the PR that's to get us back in there really. It's something that's been quite hard to decide to do because you're basically paying for a member of staff that doesn't work in the kitchen or front of house and you don't know what results you're getting because unless you're going up to everybody, "Tick this box - did a PR tell you to come here to eat?" it's very, very difficult and unless we see a turnover increase in the overall yearly budget we don't know if it's working. No absolutely I think it's the only way you can measure it is are you doing more sales than you were before. Yeah and like the problem is with magazines it's trying to get in magazines, they're being printed four months in advance and the lead time doesn't really work to your advantage. No, no not at all. Okay last but by no means least then what's your favourite season and why? I think we're pretty much going into it now, spring. Oh really. Yeah it sort of starts off with"¦ Well a lot of people say autumn that's why"¦ Yeah autumn is great, I love the wild mushrooms in autumn and all the chestnuts, the pumpkins and all that sort of set up. That was really good this year because we made an effort to go and look for things which we've never really done before, we've just left it for other people to deliver it. I think it's a bit of the old Noma effect of going out"¦ Is foraging going to become a bit of the next bandwagon though? I think it's going to be a bandwagon and I also think it's going to be a bad thing. I think there's going to be a few illnesses. Yeah there's some dangerous stuff out there. Yeah there's going to be some illnesses, there's going to be some people being caught out picking the wrong thing and picking in the wrong area and being sold stuff that they don't really understand. I mean I can see it going crazy is that everyone's going to be foraging the "Noma Effect". Yeah you can almost see the Noma influence coming through on a lot of menus already but that was the same with Heston and people making ice-creams for starters and never eating at the Fat Duck and doing a massive big ball of ice-cream where Ashley and Heston were doing a teaspoon quenelle and people were saying, "Well"¦" And having them brought in from Movenpick ((laughs)) Yeah exactly it's just"¦ Not Ashley and Heston by the way. No, no it's just totally understanding the food and I've eaten at Noma so I understand how it works but I could never be Noma. No Noma's Noma. Yeah exactly. So sorry spring yeah go on. Yeah so we look at spring, the wild garlic is something that we enjoy. I think it's the enjoyment of going out there and not just going with my chefs. You do that as a team? Yeah I go with the kids, my kids love it as well and they're really into it, you know, picking the mushrooms again. Fantastic when you walk in the woods you smell the garlic. Yeah and people ask you what you're doing and you're saying, "We're picking wild garlic," and they say, "Well is it the bottoms or the big bulbs?" and you say, "No this is the wild garlic. It's like a sort of pre-scented spinach." "Oh right that's what my dog craps on." "Oh right, yeah, yeah, that's the one." ((laughs)) But no I like spring and I think it's pretty much because it's the start of it and winter's just been that hard root vegetable and pretty sort of boring style comfort food that we're going into winter [sic] and it's all lightening up, you see everything coming through, all the herbs are coming through in the gardens now and you're sort of getting geared up for summer. I don't think it's so much the produce I think it's just"¦ There's a feel good factor. It's the change good yeah. It's getting lighter at night, you know, the days are getting longer. That's it, it's starting to come and your brain starts getting into it and I think that's more of it for us. Well listen thank you very much. Don't worry. I wish you every success as always Can I say hello to my mum? Of course you can. Hi Mum. ((laughs)) Do you want to say hello to the kids?

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 6th April 2011

Simon Hulstone, The Elephant Bar & Restaurant, Torquay