David Bowie – The Next Day

I’ve refrained from writing anything about David Bowie’s new album before now because I haven’t quite been sure what to say. As I wrote in my earlier blog about his comeback single ‘Where Are We Now?’, I can’t think of very much in music that’s made me happier than Bowie’s entirely unexpected and surprising return, and to some extent the fact that he’s producing new music and (as far as the photos and videos of him seem to suggest) well and happy is enough. Frankly, the quality of the album is near-immaterial.

However, after repeated listenings, The Next Day seems to be a very fine album indeed. Of course, it isn’t up to his 70s peak, an era where he could apparently effortlessly produce classic song after classic song, but it’s a good deal better than the vast majority of what he’s produced since 1980. (And for the avoidance of doubt, I like much of what he’s done since then – any best of I compiled would have to have, for instance, Loving The Alien, Everyone Says Hi, Absolute Beginners, Slip Away, Never Get Old, New Killer Star, Hallo Spaceboy, Seven and many, many more on it…)

Bowie has returned, and he’s come back in style. Musically, the album is a constant wonder. I’m not wild about the second single, ‘The Stars Are Out Tonight’, and a return to experimental Earthling-era material in ‘If You Can See Me’ (I’m sure that’s a pun, but can’t figure out what at the moment) feels ever so slightly like your 66-year old grandfather trying to get down, y’know, with the hipster set. Everything else is peerless, musically and lyrically. Song after song sees Bowie look at his past with amused, jaded eyes and refer to it either directly (the Berlin of ‘Where Are We Now’, the ‘Five Years’ drumbeat at the end of the gorgeous, swooning ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’) or obliquely. Thus, ‘The Next Day’ itself recalls ‘Fashion’, just as the snarling chorus of ‘Here I am/Not quite dying’ seems a definitive two-fingered salute to all those who wrote off Bowie as a man on death’s door, and ‘Love Is Lost’ seems to take on the Coldplay/Arcade Fire style of organ-led homage to his 70s work, and then, almost casually, better it with ferocity and grace.

Over and over again, he seems vastly more engaged than he did on his previous two albums, Heathen and Reality, both of which were stuffed full of good songs but lacked a certain something. I saw him live a few times as he performed an apparently never-ending tour between 2002-4, and it was something to behold, with Bowie in fine voice and full fettle. Now, with no tour or live dates planned and no interviews, he seems to have taken a step backwards from the limelight. We don’t know if he’ll ever perform again, give another public statement of any stature or record another album. But then we never expected a work as magnificent, as well-thought-out and surprising as this, and we should be grateful that if Bowie does decide to leave this as a swansong, that he’s still raging against the dying of the light.

Blazing Star – 3rd July, 2014

Hello, my poor neglected blog. First off, big and exciting changes are coming very soon indeed, so watch this – or a very similar, an alexanderlarman.com shaped – space. And secondly, I’m pleased to say that today I’ve had the first proofs of my Rochester biography, which now rejoices in the title above.

If you are so moved, you can pre-order it from Amazon here, find out more about it and order the E-book over here or just keep visiting here for the latest updates, including the cover art, which I’ve had an early preview of and looks fantastic.

As anyone who’s been reading this over the past few years knows, I’m incredibly excited about publishing this book with the superb Head Of Zeus– it’s only a few months away now, and I can’t wait to share it, and talk about it, with you all. Until then!

The Duchess Of Malfi

It’s always exciting to visit a new theatre in London, and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which opened at the start of the year, is one of the most ambitious that the capital’s seen in years – quite probably since the opening of its stablemate, the Globe. It’s an indoor theatre, designed for use in the darker months when the Globe can’t be used for performances, and is based on some 17th century designs for an indoor playhouse that were discovered in Oxford in the 1960s, and which have now come to pass.

There are numerous interesting quirks here – the theatre is entirely candlelit, for one thing, and the stage is a simple one, albeit not without some adornments that are very much in the Elizabethan-Jacobean style that the Globe has become famous for. Another, less pleasant, factor is that the seats are every bit as uncomfortable as those in the Globe, mainly consisting of backless benches with the minimum of padding. Those settling in for a long play (and Malfi is anything but short) might be advised to bring a comfortable cushion, or to pay extra for the ‘premium’ seats.

But what of the opening play? Webster’s ever-popular examination of sexual and social mores in Renaissance Italy can normally be guaranteed upon to attract a good cast, and, with a good director, it can hold up the mirror to our own society. However, this determinedly old-fashioned view of the play highlights other aspects instead, namely the uneasy correlation between male power and violence, and also the inevitably debilitating effects of obsession. This is borne out by the performances. In Dominic Dromgoole’s production, the Duchess (as played by Gemma Arterton) is not played, as she has been in some stagings, as an opportunistic sexual predator, or as someone whose apparently good nature conceals a Machiavellian mind, but instead as a pleasant, upright and likeable protagonist whose moral stature compares favourably with those of the degenerates around her. Arterton is a naturally charismatic actress, but perhaps lacks the nuance that Eve Best memorably brought to the part at the Old Vic a couple of years ago; dare one suggest that, at 27, she is around a decade too young for the part?

Much of the pleasure is instead to be found from the supporting cast. As her vaguely incestuous and decidedly nefarious brother Duke Ferdinand, the ever-excellent David Dawson gives a performance that acts as a dry run for many of the great Shakespearean roles, simultaneously at points channelling Hamlet, Iago and Measure for Measure’s Angelo as he moves between vitriol, conspiracy and despair. As his corrupt brother the Cardinal, James Garnon gives a broad comic performance that elicited hearty, if sometimes surprised, laughter from the audience, especially as the final act’s body count rises to near-absurd levels. And, in the pivotal role of Bosola, the malcontent who eventually develops a conscience, Sean Gilder offers a drolly bemused account of a character involved in greater nefariousness than he had bargained for.

Thanks to the fragrant presence of Ms Arterton in the lead role, tickets are unsurprisingly hard to come by now. Nonetheless, it’s well worth trying to get one, if only to attend the maiden production of what promises to be one of London’s most exciting theatres.

Until 16th February at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Beijing – pt 2

I arrive in Beijing early evening after a flight on the appropriately named Dragonair, which gets me from A to B without much in the way of unnecessary fuss or comfort. Beijing airport is a near-clone of Hong Kong’s – perhaps unsurprising, given that both were designed by Foster and Partners, amongst others. The first impression is that of luxurious opulence, but in a more watchful, contained manner than before. People stand around watching arrivals, and the queues are long. An unsmiling man taps away at a computer for what seems like an eternity, and it’s only when I’ve resigned myself to ‘re-education’ somewhere that all is apparently well and I’m allowed through to head to The Opposite House.

Like its Cantonese sibling, the Opposite House is an extremely slick and successful operation. It has a more opulent and grandiose feel to it, thanks to a courtyard-like design in the centre where the rooms all lead off, and also because of its multiple restaurants and bars. The accommodation itself is as comfortable as before, but with a slight twist; the white-hued walls and austere light wood make the place feel like the most luxurious monastery known to man, a feeling enhanced by the slightly off-kilter modern art that adorns the public spaces. (Again, it was designed by Andre Fu; my feeling is that he was given freer rein here.)

The first place that I sample dinner at is the Sureño restaurant, a Mediterranean spot lurking snugly in the basement. Conceived on a grand scale, it serves exemplary tapas on a scale that would impress the most hardened of Catalonians. Dishes including focaccia y jamon, oysters, mussels, excellent anchovies (and I loathe anchovies) and more come, one after another, and I’m powerless to stop adding them to my plate. The embarrassment is only slightly ameliorated by two factors; firstly, it’s my birthday and I feel some self-indulgence is vaguely in order, and secondly, a Wagyu rib-eye steak that comes as a main course puts a halt to any more gluttony. As I stagger up to bed, replete and more than satisfied, the vague thought crosses my mind that the local dishes I try had better live up to the foreign ones.

I soon find out, thanks to a cookery class I undertake at the Hutong cookery school nearby. I am not, nor have never been, one of those fortunate coves who is handy in the kitchen, but I embarrass myself in even more comic ways by failing to get to grips with the meat cleaver-esque knife with which I’ve been tasked to chop up cabbage. Once the mocking laughter dies down and my talents have been transferred to something more suitable (mixing), I can watch with wry interest at the way in which dishes such as cold noodles with soy bean paste and (a curiosity, this) stir fried fermented tofu with lamb are created, as if by alchemy. The eventual lunch is delicious, although I skulk in a corner as I eat it, vaguely ashamed of my utter incompetence.

A swift tour of the streets of Beijing follows, and I begin to get an impression of the place. While there are certain fleeting similarities with Hong Kong that extend beyond the airport, there are also substantial differences. There, a freely Westernized attitude holds sway that allows a certain sense of familiarity to set in immediately. Here, the lasting influence of the successful 2008 Olympics has been to set the city up as a world-class place for tourism and culture, but also the sense of otherness remains. Communism may be long dead, but Chairman Mao’s face still adorns banknotes. The days where tourists are required by law to stay in certain approved hotels are gone, but obtaining a visa remains a Byzantine process. It is fair to say that Beijing is not a place for anyone wanting an easy time, but the rewards – cultural and culinary alike – are considerable.

Ah yes, the food…we were going to mention that, weren’t we? Dining out here is a big deal. Restaurants start to fill up at ludicrously early hours, and queues persist for ages afterwards. For traditional fare at somewhere like the Najiaxiaoguan restaurant, expect excellent food along with a few oddities (but the more adventurously you order, the greater the rewards will be) at prices that are very low by Western standards. A modern alternative is the superlative Yunnan establishment Middle 8, which offers a more conventionally comfortable experience, albeit with the same, shall we say, ‘casual’ level of service. (Bowing and scraping certainly aren’t the done things here.) There are touches of quirkiness everywhere you look, whether it’s Najiaxiaoguan’s birdcages or the candied worms that are served up at Middle 8 as an amuse-bouche. I managed two.

A visit here wouldn’t be complete without heading to the Forbidden City. It’s simultaneously hugely impressive and rather repetitive, offering vast scale and a sense of hundreds of years of history in awe-inspiring fashion, and yet without any real sense of how the residents of this mighty palace lived and died. Perhaps one day this will be rectified, but in lieu of displays or explanations there’s always the kitsch appeal of wandering round and looking at the Forbidden gift shop, selling anything from Forbidden burgers and popcorn to Forbidden dolls. A brisk walk round Tiananmen Square afterwards was similarly impressive and daunting; the enormous portrait of Chairman Mao adorning the outside of the Forbidden City reinforced the idea, had we needed to remember, that this is still a country in a state of flux.

Before too long, it’s time to head home, but there’s one final treat left to come, in the shape of dinner at the Opposite House’s new restaurant, Jing Yaa Tang. Designed in association with Alan Yau (who is to open a version of it in London imminently), it’s got the sleek, classy feel of his establishments such as Hakkasan and HKK, but with a particular ace up its sleeve in the form of its roast Peking duck, which is miles ahead of virtually every other form of this animal I’ve ever tasted, and served with smiling panache by the staff. As I munch on the bird, reflecting that it probably had a short but happy life, I reflect that in an odd way it’s the national symbol of the city; it might look somewhat unappetizing on the outside, but it offers a smorgasbord of delicious flavours and unexpected delights that mean that experiencing it is an absolute pleasure.

Stay at The Opposite House from RMB 2,300 per night in a Studio 45 room, excluding 15% service charge. Add a breakfast package at Village Café for RMB 180. www.theoppositehouse.com

Hong Kong/Beijing pt 1

I was lounging around, doing little or nothing as is my wont, when an email from Larry arrived in my inbox. It was short and sweet. ‘Larman, old boy. Trip to the Far East. Hong Kong, Beijing. See the sights, stay in some fabulous hotels, and eat a lot. You game?’ It was possibly the easiest invitation I’ve ever said ‘aye’ to in my life, despite the worries of the Lady, who expressed concern that I’d end up making a fool out of myself over a geisha girl. I was able to put her doubts to rest. ‘That’s Japan. Not even sure that they know what a geisha is in Hong Kong.’

So, a couple of weeks later, I was bound on an easterly flight on Cathay Pacific, who lived up to their stellar reputation with a comfortable and relatively easy journey, although I fear that a comfortable night’s sleep on a long-haul flight is a Holy Grail that can only be reached with Zen-like patience and determination, or maybe Xanax. Nonetheless, arrival at the airport saw a seamless transfer to my first destination, the Upper House.

Currently ranked by TripAdvisor as the city’s finest hotel (‘We don’t like to set much store by these things’, grins Michelle, the communications manager, ‘but it’s certainly very nice’), everything about this rather divine Andre-Fu designed spot radiates a sort of easy peace and calm, from the sumptuously appointed studio bedrooms that are larger and rather more comfortable than the average London flat to the beautifully decorated public spaces, not least the Sky Lounge on the top level with breathtaking views over the skyscrapers around and the stunning floor-spanning atrium, complete with genuinely tasteful modern art that stimulates the senses, rather than overwhelms them. Service is perfect, offering just the right combination of friendliness and efficiency, and the minibar is free, save for the fine wines and champagne offered. I could warm to life here, I thought as I sank onto the absurdly comfortable bed for a quick pre-dinner nap.

And, oh my, dinner here is something worth getting up for. Eschewing lazy ‘pan-Asian’ clichés, the menu here, supervised by Gray Cunz (hence the name of the restaurant, the Café Gray Deluxe) is a thrilling mixture of American, European and Eastern influences. An appetiser of butternut squash soup and sweet potato pierogie is complemented by applewood smoked foie gras, followed by red rice crusted lobster and tea-smoked organic chicken. The fine wines accompanying each course are delectable – the Franck Bonville Cuvee Prestige champagne, previously unknown to me, was an especial highlight – and, after a scrumptious passion fruit omelette soufflé, I retire to bed, replete, to shake off the last of the jet lag and prepare for a foray into Hong Kong proper the following day.

After a splendid American-influenced breakfast to set the day up (the ‘Upper West’ option – there are plenty more, roughly according to Asian, healthy and minimalist), I journey into the centre of the city to resume my mission of expanding my belt a couple of notches, by visiting the new bistro Plat du Jour. A rather self-conscious attempt to recreate a classic French establishment, albeit in the setting of a café, it got points for its faithful execution of the sort of dishes that you’d find in any self-respecting backstreet Parisian brasserie (escargots, steak au poivre), but lost them again for the absence of a wine list. (‘No liquor licence’, apparently – in HK, this is an occupational hazard, with places having to wait up to six months before one is granted.) Thence round the markets and bazaars of the city, via the Wong Tai Sin Temple, where I had my fortune told in a bizarre ritual involving much palm-crossing with silver. Apparently, 2014 is going to be ‘a big year, with much change.’ That’s me told.

The first properly Cantonese place that I dined in was the famous Under Bridge Spicy Crab. (Somewhere, a grammarian is mourning the lack of a comma). Ironically, the spicy crab is probably the least interesting thing in the smorgasbord of delights we sampled, with a succulent platter of roast meats and a clam broth that wouldn’t disgrace a Michelin-starred establishment the highlights. Service is of the brusque but efficient variety; English is hinted at, rather than spoken. To cool my head and fire my heart thereafter I headed off in search of the much-heralded pubs of the city, finding a particularly fine example in The Globe, which, when you get past the unappealing draft selection (Old Speckled Hen is highly thought of here) offers some excellent beers by the bottle at relatively wallet-friendly prices.

Wandering round the streets of Hong Kong, by day or not, the impression given is that of a place in flux. There’s a strong European (if not American) element, with English as widely spoken a language as Cantonese, and the likes of Marks and Spencer and Harvey Nichols selling their wares as if we were in an upmarket British city. Set against this, the impression is of a hugely cramped place, with thousands of tiny apartments, especially in Kowloon, where the rather dismal spectacle of washing being hung outside a window is de rigueur. As a city, the resemblance is less with New York – a comparison often made – and more with Dubai, if that city had an ounce of the class and style that this one has. One hopes it might, one day, but holding one’s breath seems a bad idea.

At last, it’s time to head off on the second leg of the adventure, but first a stop at the ‘traditional tea house’, Luk Yu (yes, and luk you too), where I’m fed a bewildering variety of dim sum at far too early an hour, and where the highlights (perfect char siu buns; delectable green tea; succulent shrimp dumplings) easily outnumber the more ‘eh?’ dishes on offer. (I’m sure I ate tripe, although it’s described as beef.) Then it’s off to the airport, for a rather different and less obviously Western-friendly experience. Beijing awaits!

The Arbuturian travelled with Heathrow Express – saver express return from £34 at www.heathrowexpress.com. Stay at The Upper House from HKD 4,800 per night in a Studio 70 room, excluding 10% service charge and room only. www.theupperhouse.com Cathay Pacific flies five times daily between London and Hong Kong with connecting flights to over 170 destinations worldwide, including 22 in China.
To book flights, visit cathaypacific.co.uk

St James Theatre interview

Heading to London’s newest theatre, the St James, in the pouring rain on a grim early February day is something of an endurance test, not helped by a tube strike which has paralysed the city. Victoria currently resembles a building site, and virtually every single street is either blocked off, semi-demolished or has a forbidding aspect to it. Therefore, it’s something of a relief to turn into Palace Street and find myself in the regal surroundings of the St James, where the smiling staff of the box office represent a welcoming vision of tranquillity in the depressing bleakness of the day.

The theatre, which first opened its doors in late 2012, has attracted plaudits for a distinctive and eye-catching programme, including staging Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage and, most recently, Sondheim’s revue Putting It Together on its main stage (as the press officer proudly informs me, ‘300 seats and a great view from all of them’), and a variety of offbeat and interesting work in its rather cool studio theatre, including everything from jazz and cabaret to one-man (and one woman) shows. It’s an eclectic and exciting place to see a variety of shows, but it’s also a friendly place to pop into for a cup of tea and sandwich, or an evening glass of wine. Unlike most comparable places, it’s open from noon until 11pm, and there’s likely to be something going on most of that time.

It’s also blessed with an excellent restaurant, Carrara, where I meet the charming duo of Director of Development Lady Lucy French and Associate Artistic Director James Albrecht for lunch. Dynamic without being overbearing, they represent the best of what the world of theatre has to offer, and prove a splendidly entertaining pair of guides to the world of St James. Lucy – who refuses a glass of wine on the excellent grounds that ‘I have a meeting with the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Culture this afternoon’ – is clearly passionate about all things Victoria and St James, but all too aware that, in an economic climate that isn’t as favourable towards the arts as many involved in would like, getting audiences in can be something of an uphill struggle. As she says, ‘While we’re delighted about the way that it’s all gone since we opened, it’s always a challenge to launch a brand new theatre in the midst of the recession, and it took a year to establish ourselves. Now, we’re having a fantastic time – two completely sold out shows this year already – and our reputation in both the studio and the main house is growing.’ This comes in no small part because of an eclectic programming policy that includes the Broadway smash hit Urinetown (‘getting in some of our more conservative audiences with that title might be a struggle’, James wryly notes) and the return of the great Max Stafford-Clark to direct a new NHS satire, This May Hurt A Bit.

It’s important for both Lucy and James that the theatre appeals both to the local community and wider afield – it’s a source of mild surprise to them that the third most popular postcode that their visitors hail from is ‘leafy NW3’. Nonetheless, they’re both aware that SW1 isn’t an area oversupplied with things to do of an evening – ‘the Royal Court being an obvious exception’, as James interjects – and that it isn’t enough just to provide somewhere to pop into, but to be a destination in its own right. James points out that, while both reviews and visitor numbers have been encouraging, ‘we’re not in a position to relax – it’s still early days and, while we get a feeling that there’s a buzz about the place, we have to keep ourselves from being complacent.’ One area that attracts a raised eyebrow is that of star casting; the theatre has been attracting excellent ensemble casts of superb actors but none of the A-listers, to date, who regularly appear at the Donmar and Almeida. As James says, ‘We never felt that we had to populate our plays with recognisable names and faces from TV and film, rather than we wanted the best actors for a part. However, getting the volume of people in that a new theatre needs does seem to require well-known people…’ He looks almost apologetic at this, and Lucy interjects ‘I think it’s important to strike a balance; we’re a serious theatre, and we want to balance high quality work with commercial success, which has been a chance to bring plays that might not suit a West End slot.’ Nonetheless, the appearances of the likes of Julian Clary and heartthrob Hadley Fraser at the studio seem a happy marriage of artistic integrity and A-list glitz.

It’s a pleasure to discuss the past, present and future of the theatre with two such obviously committed lovers of drama, and I’m particularly pleased that James wants to stage ‘a big, hilarious comedy’ in the main theatre in the near future, which he hopes will be their answer to One Man, Two Guvnors. As we finish our lunch, Lucy looks at me as we’re saying our goodbyes, and says, mock-imploringly, ‘You will come back and see us again soon, won’t you?’ My ticket to Urinetown is already booked.

To find out more about the St James Theatre, visit http://www.stjamestheatre.co.uk.

1984 at the Almeida

If you want to be a pedant, then the Almeida’s production of Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s staging of Orwell’s classic dystopian novel is actually misconceived from the outset. The man formerly known as Eric Arthur Blair never wrote 1984; instead, his grim tale was published as Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, there is every chance that Icke and Macmillan are fully aware of this, as their bold and visionary staging, in association with Headlong and Northampton Playhouse, offers several twists on Orwell’s original while managing to keep the indelibly chilling storyline intact, making it as much ‘their’ 1984 as it ever was his. Those who enjoy the vicarious thrills of reality TV shows and ever-present social media might well watch it and shiver, knowingly.

The production initially appears to be as much an abstract fantasia on Orwell’s novel as it is an adaptation. Opening with a group of apparent strangers seeming to discuss ‘Newspeak’, at a safe distance removed from the events it describes, the focus gradually comes onto Mark Arends’s anguished (and surprisingly young) Winston Smith, whose small acts of defiance against the omnipresent Big Brother are aided by his lover Julia (Asha Banks) and apparently helped by the fatherly traitor O’Brien (Tim Dutton). However, as anyone who knows the book will remember, all roads lead to Room 101, and the unimaginable horrors that lie within.

Played straight through at about an hour and three quarters, Icke and Macmillan never allow things to become flat, even as some of the digressions and political allegories feel either overstated or somewhat obscure. In an age where the likes of Edward Snowden are either praised or castigated for their actions in standing up to intelligence services routinely described as ‘Orwellian’, it’s certainly a story that speaks to our times, 30 years after it was initially set and 65 years after its first publication. I missed some of the imagery of the book, such as O’Brien’s prophetic description of things to come – ‘if you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever’, but this is clearly inevitable in an adaptation of this sort. The only really jarring nod to contemporary sensibilities is that Orwell’s famous phrase ‘If there is hope, it lies in the proles’ has been bowdlerised to ‘If there is hope, it lies in these people.’ ‘Prole’, clearly, is the most deeply non-U of words in 2014.

Performances are all strong, although this isn’t really a showcase for actors. I especially enjoyed Tim Dutton as the most fatherly and considerate of Party operatives, who maintains the air of a stern but fair schoolmaster throughout. The use of video and at least one spectacular set change keeps the visual interest strong, and the clever use of repetition and timeshifts makes this feel a good deal fresher than a more literal adaptation of the novel would be. While this certainly doesn’t count as a fun night out, it’s a gripping and intelligent fantasia on the themes and issues that have never gone away since Orwell first headed up to the isolation of Jura to meditate upon man’s inhumanity to man and write the book that seems to define the relationship between the individual and the state better than any other.

1984 at the Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, London, N1 1TA, until Saturday 29 March 2014. For more information visit the website.

Running Free review – a year in the Northamptonshire countryside

Couch potatoes and immovable lazybones might react in horror to Richard Askwith’s third book, an account of a year’s running through the Northamptonshire countryside, but those of a more active or curious disposition ought to race to the shops and savour his idiosyncratic, enjoyable tale. After his earlier acclaimed books about fell running and rural England, Askwith combines the two in his autobiographical tale of how his unfocused lifestyle was given shape and purpose by a running hobby that gradually turned into a near-obsession. It’s a serious book, but never po-faced. An account of how he used to be voluntarily chased through the countryside by bloodhounds in all weathers verges on the farcical, and Askwith is sensible enough to understand that not all of his more sedentary readers will necessarily understand the thrill of what he describes, so his evocative descriptions of powering through the wild, unfettered landscape go a long way to making it feel vivid. At the end he writes “each life is a journey: and in each runner’s life there is a journey within a journey”. This particular journey is never less than compelling.

HARD WAREING

Marcus Wareing interview

[/lead_p]Rightly regarded as one of Britain’s greatest chefs, the charismatic Marcus Wareing takes no prisoners. He tells Alexander Larman about why he’s relaunching his flagship restaurant at the Berkeley[/lead_p]

‘The most important thing about opening a restaurant is to be the best bargain in town, whatever the cost.’

Meeting Marcus Wareing in his ‘other’ restaurant, the Gilbert Scott in the grand surroundings of the St Pancras Hotel, feels a slightly strange experience. For one thing, its grand, slightly surreal environs are a world away from the opulent David Collins-designed luxury that used to epitomise his flagship restaurant at the Berkeley, and secondly he’s takes something of a back seat there these days, instead entrusting its day-to-day operation to the ‘extremely able’ GM Chantelle Nicholson. The reason why we’re meeting here is because his main base – which he refers to throughout our chat as ‘his house’ – is currently undergoing a significant refurbishment, which should bring it firmly up to date. At a cost of £1.4 million, it’s not something to undertake lightly, but then the tenacious and charismatic Wareing isn’t someone who does things by halves. Had he not been a chef, it’s easy to imagine him as a CEO or visionary leader, for whom 99% is one per cent off where he wants things to be.

He’s just returned from a few days on the Mont Blanc slopes on a cookery festival with his culinary peers Heston Blumenthal and Sat Bains – ‘a rather enjoyable experience’. However, his thoughts are now wholly on the work being done at the Berkeley. His stated purpose in doing this is to make fine dining more accessible; as he says, ‘my job is to make this sort of dining more relaxed, quicker and more adaptable to what people want. Eating out isn’t a luxury, it’s part of life, but we have to respond to a changing market, and my idea is to change the perception of fine dining as being stuffy. And I want to start having a bit of fun – I’ve found the last few years very tough, for a number of reasons.’ It isn’t hard to see why, as Wareing has not only successfully weathered the most difficult recession in living memory, but also has had to emerge from under the shadow of his former mentor Gordon Ramsay, a man of whom he once said ‘If I never speak to that guy again in my life it wouldn’t bother me one bit.’

Having already changed the name of his restaurant from Pétrus to Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley (‘I wasn’t going to call it ‘Courgette’ or something like that’) when he severed ties with Ramsay, he’s now changing it again, to the rather snappier Marcus. As he says, trying to get people to adjust their perceptions of his restaurant is going to be difficult. ‘I want to change the formality of the service, but that was very hard before, because you have to completely undo their entrenched training. What I want to do now is to give something back to the Maybourne group, who believed in me. I have absolutely no plans to leave the Berkeley; I’ve extended my contract with them for another 10 years, and then I’ll be looking for another 10 years after that. I see it as my life’s work, rather than just somewhere I happen to be for a few years.’ To this end, big changes are afoot. ‘I need to change my management team, and lead from the top, with the idea that you’re still in a five star hotel in Knightsbridge, but without the preconceptions that this entails. The place will still be luxurious, but without the Bordeaux red we had, and with different coverings and décor. If someone wants to come in, have a glass of wine and one course and be out in half an hour, they should be able to have that. I think people are going to be surprised, but also pleased.’

Without being at all self-deprecating, Wareing is contemptuous about the idea of ‘the celebrity chef.’ ‘The idea that you come to some sort of Mecca where you bow down is complete rubbish. A restaurant is a business, and a chef’s part of that. If it’s not his money, it’s someone else’s money, and there has to be a profit made. You can be the best restaurateur in the world, but if you’re not getting the customers in, and keeping them happy, you’re f*cked.’ As for what new dishes he’s going to be serving, he’s deliberately vague – ‘we’re developing those at the moment, there’ll be an extension of what we’ve done before’ – but he confirms that there’ll be a far greater degree of individual choice, with groups no longer required to have lengthy tasting menus.

Wareing manages to be both a very tough and immensely engaged interviewee, frequently disagreeing with assertions and questions but nevertheless offering a strong and forthright opinion with intelligence and charm. As we part, he’s off to a menu tasting, and then back to the Berkeley to observe progress. It’s a hard and no doubt demanding life, but a thrilling and stimulating one as well, and it’s impossible to avoid the sense that the utterly committed Wareing would ever have it any other way.

BIBENDUM

Simon Hopkinson and Matthew Harris interview

There are few finer restaurant buildings in London than the one that the iconic Bibendum is housed in, namely the 1909 Art Nouveau Michelin building that sits snugly on the corner of Sloane Avenue and the Fulham Road. Even a casual visitor can’t help but be impressed by the elegant contours and calm air of comfort that the place exudes. Just as well, then, that the restaurant has continued to go from strength to strength since it first opened in 1987, the brainchild of Terence Conran, publisher Michael Hamlyn and chef Simon Hopkinson. Offering classic Anglo-French (or, as Hopkinson quibbles during our chat, ‘French-Anglo’) cuisine, it refuses to rest on its laurels, opening a new and very chic oyster bar downstairs that’s designed to be a more affordable and casual style of dining.

When I head over to Bibendum for a chat with Hopkinson and Bibendum’s long-standing head chef Matthew Harris (whose brother, Henry, is chef-patron at the wonderful Racine up the road in Knightsbridge), the first thing I see is the oyster bar, which has been made…magnificent’s the only word that comes to mind, really. The lovingly decorated interior, complete with stained glass and vintage tiling, looks like a fantastical recreation of what a turn-of-the-century establishment should look like, and yet the menu’s stuffed full of contemporary dishes and the very best seafood, all at prices that are remarkably kind, for the area.

Chatting to Hopkinson and Harris, it’s clear that their long-standing friendship (Harris was on board at Bibendum from the outset, and became head chef when Hopkinson stopped working there full-time in 1995) and partnership has been a fruit(de mer?)ful one, encompassing tradition and innovation alike. The creation of the oyster bar is typical of this. As Harris says, ‘We’ve always sold oysters out the front, and people liked to have a glass of champagne with it, and so it’s become something more elaborate – we’ve actually got more seats downstairs than up now!’ Not bad for an establishment that sits a fairly substantial 170 covers in total, and can fill them without much difficulty. ‘Good Saturday, I heard’, Hopkinson says solemnly.

Even a place as well-known as Bibendum has to deal with the various tribulations of the restaurant trade. Harris thinks about the major problems they’ve faced, and cites two in particular. ‘Staff’s a big one – it’s hard to find people with the right skill, and then keeping them on, although there are a handful here who have been here over 20 years, which is very gratifying. And the other problem we have – although it’s a very nice problem to have, in a sense – is that we’re a Grade 2 listed building, which means that we have to be very careful about all the changes and improvements we want to put in.’ He glances around at the sumptuous room, briefly interrupted by a conga line of tourists filing glossily into the Conran shop beyond. ‘I think we got there this time!’

When Bibendum opened in 1987, it was something of a revelation, offering a combination of excellent food, a stunning setting and something less quantifiable – the alchemy of some brilliant people coming together to create something great. Hopkinson claims that its continuing success comes down to something relatively straightforward. ‘We have a beautiful dining room, and it’s always been an extraordinary place to sit and watch time go by. Lots of new restaurants open, and a lot of people are obsessed by going to the new hip thing, but I, and I think a lot of others, would prefer to go back to somewhere that they know, where they’re known in turn and looked after, and there’s that continuity.’ A relationship, if you will, rather than a series of one-night stands. Although there’s something chic and exotic about Bibendum that makes it feel more like a very classy mistress than a dependable wife.

The basics remain the same – there are dishes on the menu, such as escargots and fillet steak au poivre, that have never changed since the restaurant’s opening – and many of the regular customers would be up in arms if their favourite dish ever disappeared from the repertoire. Nonetheless, Harris and Hopkinson are well aware that resting on their restaurant’s reputation isn’t an option in a city where dozens of new establishments open every month. As Hopkinson says, ‘Opening the oyster bar is the biggest thing we’ve done in years, and it’s a big step away from what we used to do downstairs, where the only hot food we did was soup.’ Harris chimes in – ‘What’s nice is that you can stand on the other side of the street now and clearly see that we’re a bustling restaurant upstairs and downstairs, whereas previously perhaps we had a few too many flowers, and it was harder to see what we were doing.’ Hopkinson chortles merrily. ‘We looked like a florist! It’s the only negative comment Terence has made about the revamp – he wishes that the flowers were back!’

Harris and Hopkinson prove a most entertaining double act; Hopkinson’s the more mischievous of the two, ever ready with a dry one-liner or witty retort, whereas Harris is the straight man, albeit with a twinkle in his eye at all times. It’s easy to forget that between them, they’ve created one of the country’s best-loved restaurants – until, that is, you get them back onto food, and then their passion really shines through. When asked about what their desert island meals would be, Hopkinson, perhaps unsurprisingly, plumps for roast chicken (arguably his best-known book, Roast Chicken And Other Stories, was once voted the most useful cookbook of all time) followed by chocolate pithivier, while Harris chooses the oysters Rockefeller, which we’d been discussing with great enthusiasm a moment before. As he says it, his eyes mist over slightly. ‘I could do with those right now, actually…’

We also had a chance to hear from the great Sir Terence himself, whose comments on the refurbishment are ‘I love the new space which has really opened up the downstairs area while retaining the beautiful, industrial feel of the original Bibendum garage. The redesign has also allowed us to introduce hot, brasserie style food influenced by Simon Hopkinson so people can enjoy a more substantial meal in the surroundings of one of my favourite buildings in the world.’ And you can’t say fairer than that.