DESPITE a string of successes and recognition from his peers - he was presented with the American Express Award for Outstanding Contribution to London Restaurants at the Carlton London Restaurant Awards earlier this week - restaurateur Claudio Pulze has an incredibly small ego.
Driven almost entirely by a passion for the restaurant industry and a love of food - both eating it and serving it to others - Pulze has left his mark on some of the most highly regarded restaurants of the 1990s. Few restaurants have received more column inches than Aubergine, which he founded in 1993 with, among others, chef-proprietor Gordon Ramsay. And Zafferano, which opened 16 months later, is thought to be among the best Italian restaurants currently operating in Britain.
But, as Pulze is the first to admit, his career has had its troughs as well as its peaks. Having set up A-Z Restaurants (the parent company of Aubergine and Zafferano) and appointed himself managing director, he resigned from the post on 1 April 1998 after a five-year tenure.
"There was a philosophy behind A-Z and that was 'good food for good value for money'," he explains. "It was fine at the beginning because there weren't any egos. There was one common goal - to run successful restaurants, enjoy each other's company and make a good living out of it. But then a lot of egos started to emerge and there wasn't a common goal any more. Everyone was pulling to promote themselves and I thought, 'What am I doing here? I'm trying to do something for everybody, while everybody is trying to do something for themselves'."
But he says he resolved to "end on a high note" and despite the initial prospect of setting up as a consultant - he was already acting as an adviser to Teatro in London's Shaftesbury Avenue - he found that the lure of the industry was too strong. By November Pulze had signed a 25-year lease on a site in Soho, spent £300,000 setting it up and joined forces with chef Stephen Terry in a new venture, Frith Street.
For those who can remember the birth and subsequent development of A-Z, it appears Pulze is recreating his small empire. However, he says he does not want to "create an A-Z" to compete with A-Z. "I would like to create another little group of restaurants, all of different ethnic foods."
Hot on the heels of Frith Street is Pulze's first Indian restaurant. Having secured a site two weeks ago - that of Chavot, the 60-seat, one-Michelin-starred Fulham Road restaurant - he has teamed up with former Star of India and Cinnamon Club chef, Vineet Bhatia. He believes this most recent deal to be fate.
"For two years, when I was managing director of A-Z, I was looking for a site so that I could open up a restaurant with Vineet. But I never found anything. I met with Vineet in early January when he left the Cinnamon Club. We shook hands and I said I would look hard for a site. I exchanged on that site a fortnight ago."
As Caterer went to press, the details of the new restaurant were still in the planning stages, but it is expected to open in about two months following a swift refurbishment.
Other "ethnic" restaurants will include Spanish and Italian restaurants. Chefs for both ventures have already been identified, and although Pulze longs to work with Zafferano chef-proprietor Giorgio Locatelli again, he has signed an agreement stating that he will not work with any A-Z employees for the two years following his departure.
The Canteen, which Pulze owns jointly with actor Michael Caine, has had a difficult time of late. P&O, the owners of the building, started work last spring replacing the atrium and it has only recently been completed. "It was a nightmare - we had so many complaints," says Pulze, adding that some people could not find the entrance to the place. Pulze will not say whether or not he and Caine will be compensated for the loss of business, but he does confirm that P&O has been sympathetic and agreed to help in the marketing of the restaurant.
If business does not improve, though, Pulze may consider moving the 130-seat restaurant to the West End, where he would reduce it in size. Ideally, he would like all his operations to seat about 70 people. He believes the larger eateries - the 200-300-seater establishments in London - will find it hard to survive the next few years. "We are in a mild recession," he says. "I don't think it's going to be as bad as the one we had 10 years ago, but without doubt there is less confidence out there."
Despite admitting that the market is currently saturated - "all you have to do is drive through the West End and every other door is a restaurant" - he still keeps opening restaurants. "It's the best time to pick up a bargain," he points out, honestly.
Pulze's involvement with the founders of Vinopolis, the City of Wine on London's South Bank, will also dominate much of his time. Housed in vaults beneath Blackfriars Bridge, the £18m project is a theme park-cum-restaurant complex devoted to enhancing the consumer's appreciation of wine. Together with Trevor Gulliver (of Fire Station and St John), Pulze is responsible for Vinum - Latin for wine - a 70-seat fine-dining restaurant, a 60-seat brasserie, a 250-seat Champagne bar, a private dining room for approximately 25 people, a cigar lounge and a VIP lounge.
The kitchen will be led by Jason Atherton, former head chef of Mash & Air, Manchester, and currently sous chef at Frith Street, whose food Pulze rates among the best five meals he has eaten anywhere in the world. "I think Jason has the capability of being, in four or five years' time, where Marco was 10 years ago and where Gordon [Ramsay] is now. He is so talented, it's unbelievable."
Although Pulze has always maintained a fairly low profile in the industry, when he reflects on the Carlton London Restaurant Awards he concludes that he is delighted to have been recognised. "You do what you think is best and you do it to the best of your ability, and if some of your peers turn around and say 'well done', of course it's flattering. It doesn't matter how small your ego is," he laughs, "you still like it to be stroked."