Will Ricker photographed at Mr Hive Kitchen and Bar / Crown Casino
Will Ricker hasn’t always lived the glamorous life. When he arrived in London in 1989, having left his job in real estate in Melbourne, he found himself working as a doorman at a nightclub.
“I was standing with a policeman who was moonlighting as security,” he says. “I’ve got my penguin suit on and he’s chatting to me, starts talking about family. Gets out a picture of his wife, who’s topless in a spa bath. What do you say? ‘That’s a great-looking spa.’ I thought ‘OK, this is too comical’.”
From this less-than-high-end beginning in the hospitality industry there was only one way for Ricker’s career to go, and that was up. “I was unemployable, without any money and lacking a skill, so there was only one career path – the restaurant business!”
Through his undeniable charm and determination he found money to fund his first project, the conversion of a block of rundown flats into residential apartments. He opened his first restaurant, Cicada, in London’s Clerkenwell in 1996, followed by the Great Eastern Dining Room two years later. The pan-Asian food and cool vibe attracted a hip young crowd and set the tone for all of Ricker’s restaurants.
“It was something I could relate to,” he says. “I understood the property side of it, the development side of it, and it was great because you could bring a creative side you couldn’t normally do in property. When you’re dealing with architects it tends to be a belt-fed process where they do it all for you. You were able to do things and add your own flair. So of course that didn’t work.”
He’s joking. Of course it did work, spectacularly. He backed up with E&O in Notting Hill, Eight Over Eight in Chelsea and XO in Belsize Park. Two months ago Ricker opened his sixth restaurant, this time Mexican, La Bodega Negra in Soho.
We’ve met at a bar in Crown, where Ricker is staying. He introduces his partner Amy, with whom Ricker has three children, Billy, 10, Rudy, 5, and Marley, 3. In conversation he is hilarious, razor-sharp, strategic and despite, or maybe because of, his huge success, self-deprecating.
Today Ricker offers us a detailed insight into how a restaurant mogul moves out of his comfort zone, away from the pan-Asian food he became famous for and into Mexican, which was as foreign to him as it is to most people whose knowledge is limited to enchiladas and salsa.
“We’d never cooked the food before,” he says. “What you see these days is an American twist. So Tex-Mex is not Mexican, it’s a hybrid made up by people near the US/Mexican border.”
To investigate the world of Mexican food, Ricker organised his business partners and two chefs to take an eating tour of Mexico. “We went to (a town) about an hour from Mexico City by plane and visited the restaurant of a guy called El Negra. He had this huge scar down the side of his face. He had a truck with a fake scrotum attached to the back of it. And you could tell that he was the man. You don’t mess with El Negra. He reeked this very pleased-with-himself stature. So it became La Bodega Negra – the black cellar.”
To fit out the restaurant Ricker enlisted the services of Serge Becker, a hot designer from New York “who’s really very revered, in with the itinerant cool musical art crowd”. A DJ would play in an enclosed area. Everything was in place.
But the start-up was not easy. “It’s a lot more complicated than we thought,” Ricker says. “The prep time in Mexican food is exhaustive, and we weren’t aware of that. All the fresh ingredients and stocks and salsas take a lot of manhours. We didn’t see that coming. That was mistake number one.
“One of the biggest problems in London is finding skilled people. We realised we didn’t have as strong a team as we needed and the space we were in was very small. All the things you realise once you’re open.
“When we opened, the place exploded. The first night we did 70 covers. It felt like 2000. It was so clunky and difficult, all the systems, the computer – all those things that can go wrong (did), perfect comedy moment.
“I was quite sanguine because I’ve been through it before, I know the issues: yes, the computer’s going to blow up; that person’s going to cut themselves with a knife, they won’t be able to work; the food’s going to go to the wrong tables; drinks take forever. You just say ‘Well, this is going to happen’, so what do we do? We make it free for everybody for the first week. It was an abrupt smashing together of different types of people.”
The “soft opening” allowed mistakes to be rectified and it soon hit its rhythm. “By the end of the night people are dancing. It’s like entertainment for older people – for us – because you don’t need to go anywhere else. If someone says to me (now) ‘Let’s go somewhere else’, I’ll say ‘You’re having me on. I thought we were trying to have a nice night’.”
I asked Ricker how he juggled six restaurants. Was it like spinning plates in the air? “That’s who I am,” he says. “The circus guy with the plates. I haven’t been in a massive hurry to open new restaurants, so they’re set in stone. The first five are all doing the same food. That was great for human resources and efficiency and purchasing but after 15 years it was getting a bit ho-hum. I was getting typecast. I’m always the guy that did the pan-Asian. Let me do something else. And we’ve demonstrated that we can with this food.”
He is passionate about keeping it authentic. “To do good Mexican, to get the nuances, when you’re a couple of gringos and haven’t been brought up with it, where there are 20 different words for avocado …”
He says people who think they know about Mexican food have very strong views because “they’ve gone and eaten a burrito”. For the most part they’ve only been exposed to Tex-Mex. It’s a massive country with two seafronts, Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific. A huge variance of food. It’s not all about beans. We misunderstand Mexican food.
“I was unemployable, without any money and lacking a skill, so there was only one career path – the restaurant business!”
“We’ve adapted, as you do with fashion or music, to the country you’re taking it to and try and make it strike a chord with the people there, knowing the sensibilities such as (knowing) they can’t handle that much heat. So you’ve got Mexicans coming in saying ‘It’s not hot enough’ and the locals saying ‘You’re killing us’.
“We hired consultants to keep the Mexican-ness. My head chef comes from an Asian background, previously (doing) French, he can’t help himself, you know, bring out some cream. He can’t help himself. It’s got to be authentic.”
I asked how the global financial crisis affected his places. “The marginal ones got more marginalised and the good ones were having record years,” he says. “London is outside of the UK. It is its own isolated city of the world, When the rest of the world was in turmoil, London was booming, with the Spaniards, with the Portugese, with the Greeks, with the Italians, with the Swiss. People were piling into London because the currency was devalued against the euro.
“In London you can’t get into a restaurant – the good ones. It’s kind of counter-intuitive. I would have thought you would have seen more opportunities coming up, more distressed restaurants being sold. There weren’t any. There’s 20 Will Rickers ready to take up the space and they seem to be not scared of any amount of money to open a restaurant. We are talking unbalanced amounts of money going into them.”
Ricker has a very loyal following. “E&O has been going for 11 years. We still turn away 300-400 people a night. Cicada is 15 years old. That’s the beauty of London. When you become part of the vernacular, people are very loyal.”
He ensures customers remain loyal through a loyalty program, taking £50 off the bill after a certain amount of visits. “Captains of industry are going ‘Oh my god, I don’t know when to spend it, I’m with these guys but I don’t want to use it there, I’m going to come back with my wife.’ We started the program with 8000 email addresses. We’ve now got 35,000.”
Ricker loves being a father and explains how they chose Marley’s name. “Amy’s sitting here like this (in hospital), water everywhere, and we still hadn’t got to it and had to cancel dinner that night. The person who answered said “Hi, Marley speaking’. I said (to Amy) ‘What about Marley?’ and she said ‘Yes’ and I said ‘Hang on, it’s a girl’s name’, she said ‘Too bad, I’m taking it’.”
I asked how having kids had changed his working life. “Of course you slow down, but you work different hours. I was (developing) a lot of property. Through the recession it was working the margins, really concentrating on the business side of things, keeping the staff happy, keeping everyone motivated. I’ve got a guy who’s been with me 15 years doing the same job.”
He still visits restaurants every week. “We have to have live-in help otherwise you can’t be fluid. I want to visit the restaurants, you ring a babysitter, it’s not going to happen at 8.30 at night.”
When he arrived in London aged 26, what dreams were in his head? “I had a big ambition. I didn’t realise the tidal wave I was walking into. It was the recession in Australia, and by the time I touched down it had gone global. An Australian property analyst was laughed at. ‘You want to do what? And you’re from where? Get in here, Joe, I’ve got a live one’.”
The recession was short, and in 1993 came the boom. “And then there was this ridiculous proliferation of wealth that happened in the 2000s,” he says. “Things just exploded.” And Ricker’s dreams started coming true.
“I couldn’t have achieved all this in Melbourne,” he told The Age in 2003. “The peer pressure would have been enormous. In London I could fail without anyone knowing who I was, but I had to succeed because there was no turning back. If I’d returned to Melbourne, I would have been a real-estate agent...”
It was a steep learning curve. “You learn on the hoof. You go ‘That was going off a cliff, OK, so why don’t we pull it up a bit and try going down this path – that everyone suggested’. And then I was able to start packaging things up and putting a financial package into place.”
I asked Ricker if he was surprised at how well he did so quickly. “I don’t think you think like that. Nothing I do satisfies me. I am always looking over my shoulder.
“I don’t have any hobbies. Just work. And skiing. But that’s not something you can do all the time. I don’t have an aching itch to go fishing or go for a hike or I must read that book.”
That focus has and will continue to work well for Ricker. He wants to remain engaged with his loyal customers, and to do that he sends out Twitter messages with news of his places. “It keeps us relevant,” he says. “The one thing you have to be in my game is you’ve got to stay relevant.”