Interview with Angela Hartnett

angela hartnett flipped 2013 - Angela-Hartnett_new-08b_resized_flipped.jpgSquare Meal talks to Angela Harnett about her recently launched Shoreditch restaurant Merchant’s Tavern, the soon-to-launch Café Murano, and her other projects.

Have you been pleased with the response to Merchant’s Tavern so far?

Yeah, it seems to be going great. We’ve had lots of lovely busy nights and the lunchtime trade is starting to pick up. But you have to build these businesses – everyone on the outside expects them to be sudden successes.

Was it strange moving from the West End to Shoreditch?

Not really, because you style a restaurant to your area, and Merchant’s Tavern (pictured, below left) suits Shoreditch. I think as long as you understand what you’re offering with your restaurant, it will work very well.

Are you hoping to appeal both to the City trade and Shoreditch’s younger crowd?

The idea behind Merchant’s Tavern was to create a fabulous local restaurant that we would use ourselves, that appeals to City people and local people, but with food that will encourage people to come from further afield. We wanted a really relaxed environment with really well-crafted food, and that’s what we’ve done. So far, people like it.

Why have you opened so many new restaurants this year?

I’ve never really had any kind of plan. Things just happen and you either go with them or you don’t. I get offered quite a lot of things and I probably say no to more things than I say yes to – I only go with things that feel right. For me, it’s not necessarily about the site or the project; it’s about who I’ll be working with.

Do you feel unusual not having a firm career plan – do you think most chefs plan ahead?

I think some people have five- or 10-year plans, where they want to have 20 Michelin stars by a certain age. But I think things snowball – one opportunity begets another.

Merchant's Tavern - Merchant's_Tavern_2013_-_DiningRoom_0012_Merchants_Patricia_Niven_web.jpgHave you ever regretted turning down an opportunity?

I don’t ever regret having turned something down – I’m quite fatalistic, so I think everything happens for a reason. I think if you really want something to happen then you’ll make it work – you’ll pull out all the stops to get it.

Do you get some really strange offers?

You get some quite obscure offers asking you to advise on this and that. But it doesn’t matter how much money people throw at me – if I don’t want to do it, I won’t do it. I can’t tell you any more about those offers though!

How are you dividing your time between your different restaurants?

At the moment I’ve been spending a lot of time helping to set up Merchant’s Tavern, and now it’s getting into its stride, I’ll pull away from it a bit – I’ve no intention of cooking there. Likewise, at Café Murano, I’ll help develop the menu and oversee the restaurant, but [head chef] Sam Williams is more than capable of doing that herself. To be honest, where I want to cook is at Murano and Hartnett Holder & Co because my name is attached to both of those restaurants.

Did you have any doubts about taking on Café Murano, and going back to the site where you trained [at Pétrus, under Marcus Wareing]?

I never had any doubts: I’ve seen the site work as Pétrus with Marcus as head chef and I know that it’s a great site. It’s at the right end of St James’s, so it picks up some of the Piccadilly trade, and you’re right next to Fortnum & Mason and The Wolseley; I couldn’t ask for anything more. It was more a question of time: within a month of me seeing the site we’d agreed everything, so we turned it round very quickly.

Was it weird going back into the kitchen there after all these years?

No, not at all – I was laughing about it with Marcus the other day. I think it’s a great kitchen, it’s lovely and big and and the footfall is great.

Was part of your decision based on knowing that the site worked, or did nostalgia for your time there play any part?

It certainly wasn’t anything to do with nostalgia. I’m going back because I know the concept we’re going to do – an easy-going, Italian restaurant – will work. People will be able to pop in for a glass of wine and a plate of pasta, or they can come and have three courses, or just a drink at the bar.

Hartnett_Holder__14096_Standard.jpgHow is it going with Hartnett Holder & Co (pictured, right) – has it been a learning curve operating a restaurant outside London?

It’s been brilliant so far. I love working with Luke [Holder] – he’s a great head chef, he’s seen a lot and he knows a lot about Italian food, so we learn from each other. It’s nice.

Did you have to change your style of cooking for a non-London crowd?

It was more a case of thinking about the restaurant concept and how we wanted it to work within the hotel. We wanted a restaurant that would allow people who were staying at the hotel to eat there every day of their stay if they wanted to, so it’s a long menu. We also wanted a dining room where people could come either in their jeans or dressed up for a big family occasion. Between all of us, we came up with a restaurant we thought would work – and so far it has done.

What’s next for you?

Nothing at the moment – I’m fine for now. Although I never say never – an opportunity might come up and whatever happens will happen.

This interview was conducted on 5 November 2013.