Chef, author and delicatessen owner Yotam Ottolenghi has launched a new venture, the all-day brasserie Nopi in London's Soho. He speaks to Hilary Armstrong about the challenges of branching out and the pains his team went to to ensure a smooth opening
The Yotam Ottolenghi who opened his first restaurant proper in Islington in 2004 is not the same Yotam Ottolenghi who opened Nopi in Soho at the end of last month. That Ottolenghi didn't have a Guardian Weekend column; he hadn't written two best-selling cookbooks; and he didn't yet have four cafés in London's most chi-chi neighbourhoods to his name. He therefore got away with what he admits was not the smoothest of starts.
Fast forward to 2011 and experienced restaurateur Ottolenghi is not going to let that happen again. This time, the former pastry chef and one-time journalist with a MA in philosophy is going about his second restaurant far more systematically. "Ottolenghi is a well-known brand now and expectations are high," he says. "We're going to be very exposed."
Ottolenghi in Islington was his first go at a proper restaurant. He'd opened one of his now widely acclaimed take-away-focused deli-cafés in Notting Hill in 2002 but hadn't reckoned on the differences between a deli operation and a restaurant. "When we opened in Islington we were really surprised by how busy it got so quickly. That's a great problem to have, but we discovered there were too many things we hadn't thought about. We found out how much we didn't know - particularly about service. We were all a bit traumatised. We learnt as we went and by bringing in people more experienced than us."
This time around it's been a very different process. "A really much more informed process," says Ottolenghi. He is putting his faith in his set-up team (see panel, right), a group drawn from key players at the Islington restaurant. The set-up team started meeting at least once or twice a week six months ago to go into the nitty gritty of the new operation that was to morph into Nopi (so named after its location: "north of Piccadilly").
Once they had their site - the Warwick Street site was once the Sugar Club and was most recently the Club Bar and Dining - they rented an office and co-project managers Noam Bar and Sarit Packer began working full-time on the project. "We had very long discussions about how we wanted it to run. A lot of things had to come together at the same time: service, food, kitchen structure. And we chose a small-dish menu, which complicates things slightly," says Ottolenghi.
"We've all learnt together and it's worked quite well as we divided the planning to play to our individual strengths. Even now, we're constantly in a meeting. There are always fires to put out."
The restaurant interior's graceful curves and brass fittings
Nopi will be very different from the Ottolenghi concept. Ottolenghi himself is at pains to stress as much. There's no take-out counter, "no long white surfaces and piles of roasted vegetables" and "there are no meringues" (a reference to the much-imitated stacks of huge colourful meringues that grace the windows of every Ottolenghi branch). Instead, there will be an all-day menu of "contemporary London" food in small plates characterised by the full-on sunshine flavours of Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean that readers of his "New Vegetarian" column - he's not vegetarian, incidentally - know and love.
In appearance, Nopi is very much the sexy contemporary brasserie, tricked out with marble surfaces, brass fittings and - one fashion fabulous touch - the original 1920s doors from Harvey Nichols. It's also a first stab at a restaurant in a "going-out area", not a residential one. One can also see it as a step up into the restaurant premier league: the café operator joining the big boys.
Behind the scenes, Nopi will be a far slicker affair, too. For example, space has been allocated this time to a decent-sized office, staff loos and staff room. Boring details, perhaps, but they've struggled at the Islington Ottolenghi with minimal back-of-house space. "It's a struggle for the system to cope with staff taking breaks, as they have to use the office," he explains. "Even financially such things make a difference. There's less breakage and lower staff turnover when the environment is easier to work in. It's an expensive space in Soho, but in the long run it's worth it."
They've thought through everything - fingers crossed - as seen on their blog (www.ottolenghi.tumblr.com), where you can even see them checking that the loo door works all right and learn about their grouting.
Meanwhile, on the food side, the menu has been "double- and triple-tested" by the set-up group and select insiders, with many dishes resized or ditched along the way. Hits so far are the twice-cooked baby chicken, lemon myrtle salt, chilli sauce (£10) and baked blu di pecora cheesecake, wild mushrooms (£12) - "very rich, but really, really gorgeous".
All that hard work - weren't they ever tempted to just do another Ottolenghi? "I don't want to create a restaurant empire," he insists. "The idea with Nopi was to create an outlet for our creativity and to share it with others. We don't have a financial motivation. If we did, we would have opened Ottolenghis everywhere and made a killing.
"Ottolenghi is a very successful business but there's a limit to how far you can take it. Once you expand too much, you lose the uniqueness. People suggested we take it national, but the formula would have had to be adjusted in a way I wouldn't have been happy with. We'd have to work with manuals, for example. You grow, you lose flexibility and you lose quality," Ottolenghi says.
His approach has been to grow the group while empowering individual managers and chefs to run the branches with their own independent identity. He concedes that some of his old customers will balk at change, but if all that planning, all that hard work by his crack set-up team achieves anything, it will be to make Nopi work so beautifully that even the die-hard Ottolenghi fans and Guardian readers are impressed. "I hope - I hope - they'll be able to say: 'Wow, this is fantastic too.'"
21-22 Warwick Street, London W1B 5ND
Tel: 020 7494 9584
THE NOPI TEAM
Yotam Ottolenghi Chef-patron of Ottolenghi; author of The Ottolenghi Cookbook (with Sami Tamimi) and Plenty; writes "The New Vegetarian" column in the Guardian Weekend magazine. He left behind a career in academia and journalism to train as a pastry chef at Baker and Spice.
Noam Bar Business partner and "strategic thinker" at Ottolenghi and full-time project manager on Nopi.
Cornelia Staeubli General manager of the company.
Sarit Packer The former head pastry chef at Ottolenghi who project-managed Nopi full-time prior to the opening. As executive chef, she manages the whole kitchen in tandem with Scully. She has also worked at the Orrery and the Oxo Tower.
Ramael Scully Nopi's head chef. An Australian chef of Malaysian origin, he's the creative force behind the menu. About 70% of the dishes are his.
Basia Murphy Former general manager of Ottolenghi Islington, now restaurant manager of Nopi.
Alex Meitlis Tel Aviv-based architect and designer on the project.
10 LESSONS LEARNT FROM A NEW LAUNCH
● Keep communicating. At Ottolenghi, the branch chefs and managers meet once a month. In the run-up to the Nopi launch the team met several times a week.
● Have a task force to concentrate exclusively on one project. Bring in people from outside where necessary, too.
● Have the humility to admit what you don't know. Learn from those who have more experience than you.
● Do your homework. Think through every aspect of the experience.
● Don't assume front of house is less demanding than the kitchen. It's as difficult - if not more so.
● Test the menu and test it again. Don't be afraid to ditch entire dishes.
● Stay hands-on. If you expand, have a structure that allows you to keep up with what's happening all the time.
● Work as a team and play to each team member's strengths.
● Adjust as you get to know your customers.
● Don't be blasé.
LAMB MEATBALLS WITH WARM YOGURT AND SWISS CHARD SAUCE
1kg lamb mince
200g fresh breadcrumbs
70g pine nuts
4tsp ground allspice
1tsp ground cinnamon
2tsp ground coriander
1/2tsp dried mint
4 garlic cloves, crushed
100ml olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
160g Swiss chard, white bits discarded and green leaves shredded roughly
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely diced
300ml chicken stock
40ml lemon juice
500g Greek yogurt
1tbs cornflour, mixed to a paste with 2tsp water
1 free-range egg
150g pomegranate seeds (about one pomegranate)
20g fresh coriander, roughly chopped
Salt and black pepper
In a large mixing bowl mix together the lamb, breadcrumbs, pine nuts, 1tsp of the allspice, the cinnamon, coriander, dried mint, half the garlic, 2tsp of salt and some black pepper.
Once all these ingredients are combined, shape into meatballs weighing roughly 50g each. The mixture will make about 24 meatballs.
Heat 2tbs of the olive oil in a medium saucepan and add the onion and remaining garlic.
Fry over a gentle heat for 8-10 minutes until soft but not coloured.
Add the chilli and Swiss chard and cook for 4-5 minutes so that the chard is cooked and wilted.
Stir in the remaining allspice along with the chicken stock and lemon juice. Bring to the boil and then remove from the heat.
Put together in a large bowl the yogurt, cornflour paste, egg and 150ml of water and whisk well to form a smooth sauce. Gradually spoon the hot chard mixture into the yogurt, stirring well in between each addition, until the two mixtures are combined.
Season with 2tsp of salt and plenty of black pepper and set aside.
Pour the remaining oil into a large, high-sided sauté pan and fry the meatballs in two batches on high heat for 2-3 minutes, until lightly brown all over. Remove to a plate and wipe the pan clean.
Pour in the yogurt sauce and bring to a gentle simmer. Make sure it barely bubbles and that you only stir clockwise to avoid curdling.
Return the meatballs to the pan; they should be just covered with sauce. Cook for 18-20 minutes on a very low simmer until the meatballs are cooked the whole way through.
Divide the meatballs and yogurt sauce between four plates and top with pomegranate seeds and a sprinkling of chopped coriander.