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24 July 2014

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Starter for 10: interview with Nicola Horlick

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Nicola Horlick 2012 - Nicola_Horlick_2012.jpg‘Superwoman’ Nicola Horlick made a huge impression on the City when she became the director of a major bank aged just 28; since then, she’s raised a brood of children and turned her hand to film producing, all the while keeping up with her day job of fund management. Her latest project is Georgina's, a neighbourhood restaurant in Barnes (opening this week), in memory of her eldest daughter, who died in 1998. Horlick talks to Square Meal about the origins of the restaurant, her confidence that it will succeed, and her top destinations for a power lunch.

Was opening a restaurant always part of your life plan?

It wasn’t something I’d always wanted to do. But my eldest daughter, Georgie, died of leukaemia and during the last year of her life she was stuck in Great Ormond Street Hospital. A lot of that time she couldn’t eat, so we used to talk about food a lot, and we came up with this plan to open a restaurant and talked about how it would be. After she died, I didn’t get round to setting it up straight away. It’s best to open a business when the economy is bad, so I waited until I thought the conditions were suitable.

Did setting up a restaurant in a recession daunt you at all?

It’s like all retail businesses – you have to have good footfall and you have to be selling something people want to buy. People are still going to restaurants, so if you have a good offering you will succeed. I believe very strongly we have a product that people will like. Opening a restaurant now doesn’t daunt me at all – I don’t see it as any different from fund management.

Has the economy affected the restaurant industry in an interesting way?

When you get turbulent times, it sorts out the good restaurants from the bad, and the ones that don’t deserve to survive won’t. There has to be an emphasis on quality. Very overpriced restaurants will find it much tougher to survive in this environment.

Our offering changes throughout the day: breakfast might be homemade yoghurt and granola, or croissants and pastries; at lunch time we’ll serve salads with all sorts of delicious herbs and do takeaways and good-quality coffee; there will be a yoghurt machine for when the schoolchildren get out in the afternoon; and in the evening it morphs into a full-blown restaurant, with candles on the tables. It means that you are sweating the assets as much as you can.

What was the most important piece of advice given to you when you were planning Georgina’s?

I talked to Chris and Jeff Galvin; Chris gave me a lot of advice. I also spoke to Theo Randall and I know top restaurateur Chris Corbin really well so I asked him. None of them tried to stop me. They just said, ‘make sure you work with someone who knows what they’re doing’.

What they told me is that making sure you have the right premises is key. If you are stuck down a back street, that’s not ideal. Places like The River Café have done very well from an out-of-the-way spot, but in general you need to be in a good location. Georgina’s is on our high street and we’re currently seeing a regeneration of the high street. We hope Barnes will benefit from us being there and that we will attract some more businesses. If all goes well, I have a pipe dream to open a bakery in Barnes. But I want to get this place off the ground first.

How did you get involved with your business partner in this venture, Trinity chef Adam Byatt?

When I told Chris Galvin about the restaurant, he suggested Adam as a business partner. He’s a good businessman as well as being a great chef, and he opened his second restaurant, Bistro Union, recently. Adam has worked on Georgina’s in an executive capacity, overseeing the menu. Greg Hunter, who was trained by Adam, is the head chef.

You’ve said you plan to roll out the Georgina’s concept – how many venues do you intend to open in total?

I think six to 10 would be a good target in the first four to five years. The aim is to open them in leafy suburbs of south-west London such as Clapham, Chiswick and Kew… We chose Barnes for the first branch because it’s where I live and I want to be able to keep an eye on things. With the most successful restaurants in London, such as The Wolseley, the owners are there all the time. I need to be there as much as possible – not exclusively, because I have other jobs, but I need to have a presence.

Have the skills you learned in your job in finance been transferable to this new venture?

There are different aspects to all businesses, but essentially all businesses have the same structure: it’s important to know your costs, know your outgoings, drive revenues and keep an eye on profit. And to make sure that you’re selling something that people want. But a business is a business, and that’s what I do.

Do you see any parallels between being a woman at the top of the finance industry and being a woman in the restaurant industry? They’re both tough career choices for women.

I think with chefs, it’s very difficult to be a mother and a chef because the hours are so horrific. It’s not that women aren’t good cooks but they tend to end up being TV cooks or food writers because of the hours. Fund management is not something that requires you to stay in the office all night. I would be home in the evenings and I would cook dinner.

Do you see yourself as a foodie – do you enjoy cooking?

I just spent the entire bank holiday cooking and I have always cooked endlessly for my children and my husband. I genuinely am interested in it. My mother is a fantastic cook and we always had home-grown tomatoes and basil. Like her, I like to do everything from scratch. It’s about putting in time and effort and getting the best possible ingredients.

What kind of restaurants do you rate for a seamless business lunch, and where do you eat when you’re not working?

I’m in Mayfair, so I have lots of restaurants on my doorstep, but I tend to go to Theo Randall at the InterContinental London Park Lane for business lunches. I adore his food – it’s really delicious and very fresh – and it’s quiet in there so you can hear what people are saying. You need to be able to chat and listen. Nobu is right next door to us, but it’s so noisy that as a business restaurant, it’s not very good.

My husband and I go to Hélène Darroze at The Connaught if we have something to celebrate. We have a house in south-west France, and the food at The Connaught is like the food we have there: it’s a lot of foie gras and duck – heavy celebration food. I also like Scott’s, but it’s more a once-a-month restaurant for me than one I go to every day. I’m not a big lover of Chinese food, but Kai is one of the best Chinese restaurants in London; it does the best Chinese duck. But mostly I go home at night.

This interview was conducted in May 2012.

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