In this edition:
- Festive Glamour: When the festive season throws you an occasion, you need to glam it up.
- Andrew McUtchen looks for fun in cricket with former Australian cricketer Damien Fleming.
- Take a look at our Christmas Gift Guide.
I was standing with a policeman who was moonlighting as security, he says. Ive got my penguin suit on and hes chatting to me, starts talking about family. Gets out a picture of his wife, whos topless in a spa bath. What do you say? Thats 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 Rickers 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 Londons 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 Rickers 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 couldnt normally do in property. When youre 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 didnt work.
Hes 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.
Weve 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.
Wed never cooked the food before, he says. What you see these days is an American twist. So Tex-Mex is not Mexican, its 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 dont 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 whos 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. Its a lot more complicated than we thought, Ricker says. The prep time in Mexican food is exhaustive, and we werent aware of that. All the fresh ingredients and stocks and salsas take a lot of manhours. We didnt see that coming. That was mistake number one.
One of the biggest problems in London is finding skilled people. We realised we didnt have as strong a team as we needed and the space we were in was very small. All the things you realise once youre 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 Ive been through it before, I know the issues: yes, the computers going to blow up; that persons going to cut themselves with a knife, they wont be able to work; the foods 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. Its like entertainment for older people for us because you dont need to go anywhere else. If someone says to me (now) Lets go somewhere else, Ill say Youre 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? Thats who I am, he says. The circus guy with the plates. I havent been in a massive hurry to open new restaurants, so theyre 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. Im always the guy that did the pan-Asian. Let me do something else. And weve demonstrated that we can with this food.
He is passionate about keeping it authentic. To do good Mexican, to get the nuances, when youre a couple of gringos and havent 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 theyve gone and eaten a burrito. For the most part theyve only been exposed to Tex-Mex. Its a massive country with two seafronts, Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific. A huge variance of food. Its not all about beans. We misunderstand Mexican food.
Weve adapted, as you do with fashion or music, to the country youre taking it to and try and make it strike a chord with the people there, knowing the sensibilities such as (knowing) they cant handle that much heat. So youve got Mexicans coming in saying Its not hot enough and the locals saying Youre killing us.
We hired consultants to keep the Mexican-ness. My head chef comes from an Asian background, previously (doing) French, he cant help himself, you know, bring out some cream. He cant help himself. Its 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 cant get into a restaurant the good ones. Its kind of counter-intuitive. I would have thought you would have seen more opportunities coming up, more distressed restaurants being sold. There werent any. Theres 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. Thats 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 dont know when to spend it, Im with these guys but I dont want to use it there, Im going to come back with my wife. We started the program with 8000 email addresses. Weve now got 35,000.
Ricker loves being a father and explains how they chose Marleys name. Amys sitting here like this (in hospital), water everywhere, and we still hadnt 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, its a girls name, she said Too bad, Im 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. Ive got a guy whos been with me 15 years doing the same job.
He still visits restaurants every week. We have to have live-in help otherwise you cant be fluid. I want to visit the restaurants, you ring a babysitter, its 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 didnt 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 youre from where? Get in here, Joe, Ive 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 Rickers dreams started coming true.
I couldnt 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 Id 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 dont 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 dont think you think like that. Nothing I do satisfies me. I am always looking over my shoulder.
I dont have any hobbies. Just work. And skiing. But thats not something you can do all the time. I dont 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 youve got to stay relevant.