Chef and restaurateur Anthony Demetre has set about creating a new buzz around Wild Honey after he moved it from Mayfair to its new home in the Sofitel London St James. He tells Neil Gerrard how he plans to make the new restaurant a destination in its own right, what it has been like going it alone after 20 years working with Will Smith, and how his passion for road cycling has informed vermouth bar Vermuteria
“I suffer enormously with OCD, like a lot of creative people,” explains Anthony Demetre, after he has finally extricated himself from Wild Honey St James’ new kitchen, nearly half an hour after our interview was due to start.
A couple of minutes later, he underlines the point by pausing our discussion to gently yet firmly explain to a waiter that he doesn’t need to refill our water every time our glasses are drained. “Just leave the bottle on the table, it’s fine,” he instructs.
If part of Demetre’s mind is still on the finer details shortly after the official opening of his latest venture then he can easily be forgiven. After all, he has a considerable reputation to uphold.
Demetre has enjoyed a long career as a chef, initially at Lucknam Park in Colerne, Wiltshire, then as pastry chef to Gary Rhodes at the Castle in Taunton, Somerset, and the Greenhouse, London, before going on to work with Bruno Loubet, eventually winning a Michelin star at London’s Putney Bridge restaurant. He then graduated to the role of restaurateur when he embarked on a highly successful business partnership with Will Smith, opening Arbutus in Soho in 2006 followed by Wild Honey in Mayfair in 2007 and Les Deux Salons in 2010.
Demetre and Smith sold the Les Deux Salons site in 2014 before closing Arbutus when they went their separate ways in 2016 after Smith decided to move to Scotland. But Demetre held onto Wild Honey and continued to run it on his own.
Towards the end of 2018, Demetre realised that Wild Honey was in need of a new home. “The toughest challenge for any West End restaurateur is escalating rates and rents,” he explains. “For me at Wild Honey it was getting tougher and tougher. The hospitality business is constantly moving and there was a need to evolve Wild Honey, which was 12 years old. That is an awful long time for a restaurant of that size.”
As it happened, he had already been doing consultancy work for Accor’s luxury hotel brand Sofitel, and when the management there got wind of the fact that Demetre was considering moving on from Wild Honey in Mayfair (the site is on the point of being sold), they invited him to relocate into what was previously the French-themed Le Balcon restaurant at the Sofitel London St James.
In addition to looking after the restaurant for lunch and dinner (but not breakfast), Demetre and his team, under head chef Simon Woodrow, also have responsibility for the adjoining bar. The switch did prompt Demetre to think about consigning the Wild Honey name to history, but in the end, he decided to hold onto it.
“The last thing I ever wanted was my own name above the door and I had such a loyal, regular customer base, who were gutted that Wild Honey was closing,” he says. “This is a hop, skip and a jump away from Mayfair and, after a close conversation with the owners of the hotel, they thought it would be an ideal time to take over the space and plant Wild Honey here. There is also a synergy with bees because we are going to put multiple hives on the roof and supply the restaurant with honey.”
The cavernous new restaurant retains the same light, airy feel that Le Balcon had, but one of Wild Honey’s predecessor’s most obvious features – the balcony with metal spiral staircases straddling the bar at either end that gave it its name – has gone. “It was a waste of space,” declares Demetre, bluntly. Other features, such as the enormous chandelier above the main dining area, appear to have remained, but the restaurant does look significantly different.
“There have been teething problems with getting the light and the music just right,” he adds. “The staff front and back of house are getting there. It takes time and most of them are relatively new, although some have come with me from Wild Honey, so they have bedded in pretty quickly and they know my standards and my style.”
Accessible and affordable
The food is in a similar vein to what Demetre was producing at Arbutus and Wild Honey, in the sense that it is modern European cooking. “But I never stand still,” he emphasises. “It is hugely seasonal and constantly changing. I would say it is accessible and affordable. We have starters using luxury ingredients like fresh Dorset crab, scallops and octopus from £8. We also have bouillabaisse and crispy pig’s head. You can come in and have a plat du jour and a carafe of wine for under £20 or you can have macaroni cacio e pepe and crisp boneless wings. There is no formality. It is not snacks and it is not grazing menus, but it is something which is not too formulaic.”
Part of the reason for keeping the menu flexible and relaxed is Wild Honey’s presence in a hotel – the first time Demetre, who is currently spending five full days a week in the kitchen, three of which he works alongside Woodrow, has run such an operation. “Jumping from a restaurant to a hotel is a massive change in culture and management, so there was a lot to take on board,” he says. “Because we are in a hotel I wanted to make it a really casual, all-day affair. The bar too will be heavily influenced by snacks and cocktails, as well as vermouth. We want to make the bar its own destination with its own clientele.”
Although it has been three years since he and Smith parted company, going it alone is still a relatively new experience for him. “Will and I worked together for 20 years and that is a hell of a long time. It was great, but the time came when we just wanted different things,” he says. Describing it as an amicable split, Demetre nonetheless found going it alone after two decades “daunting”.
“He was almost my right arm after all those years. I didn’t have to worry about the front of house or the HR side and all those kind of things. When Will departed, it was tough. I went through a couple of turbulent years. You are only as good as the strength of the brigade around you. Will and I were great together and we had each other’s backs. We knew where the problems would happen and we supported each other 100%. We have always both been very much hands-on, and I know that Will still is at Sugar Boat [a bistro, bar and wine shop in Helensburgh],” he says.
Having since found his feet again – and forged another partnership with designer Michael Sodeau at Vermuteria (see panel) – Demetre now has grand ambitions for the reinvigorated Wild Honey. “In the next two or three years, I hope that Wild Honey St James has become a great establishment in terms of food, service and concept,” he says.
“Changing the way diners think about hotel dining rooms is hard, but I don’t want to appeal just to the traveller. People use the term ‘destination’ casually, but I do want to make this a destination where people can come once a week and enjoy great value. Wild Honey is going to be constantly moving and evolving. It’s exciting.”
Facts and figures
Menu prices Starters, £8-£13; main courses, £14-£45; desserts, all £9
Head chef Simon Woodrow
Restaurant general manager Julien Davain
Bar manager Enzo Sigaut
Typical dishes Burrata, trumpet courgette, nasturtium and dukkah; pig’s head, endive, pickles and ‘nduja mayonnaise; Daphne’s Welsh lamb, sweetbreads, peas, pearl barley and mint; warm chocolate soup with toasted rice ice-cream; Wild Honey ice-cream, milk wafers and honeycomb
Wine list Around 100 bins with 50 options under £50
Restaurant capacity 110 seated (including a private dining room for up to 16)
Staff 32 front of house, 10 in the kitchen
It doesn’t take long to figure out that Demetre is a huge fan of road cycling. A member of high-end cycling clothing brand Rapha’s Rapha Cycling Club (RCC), he has already played host to Rapha founder Simon Mottram at Wild Honey St James and is sizing up the walls of the restaurant for some prints by sports photographer Michael Bland of Mont Ventoux (which Demetre has climbed by bike) and the Gotthard Pass in Switzerland.
But it’s at Vermuteria, the all-day café and bar in London’s Coal Drops Yard, where Demetre and business partner, fellow cycling fan Michael Sodeau, have the opportunity to express their passion for the sport.
Vermuteria specialises in vermouth, and Demetre claims it is the first bar dedicated to the fortified white wine in the capital. Vermouth has its own place in cycling history, with big brands sponsoring teams in the sport’s golden age of the 1950s and 1960s – perhaps most famously in the case of the Carpano team, for which Italian legend Fausto Coppi rode.
Sodeau and Demetre have amplified that association by inserting black and white photos of cyclists from days gone by into the menus, as well as placing a beautiful pink bike frame made by legendary Italian frame builder Dario Pegoretti on the wall, alongside vintage artwork for French and Italian drinks brands.
Team Ineos (formerly Team Sky) owner Jim Ratcliffe has reportedly already visited, as has former pro cyclist and now commentator and arbiter of cycling style David Millar.
“There is more to Vermuteria than vermouth. It is a café, bar, restaurant, meeting place – all those things have a huge synergy with cycling,” Demetre explains. “If you meander through Italy by bike, you will stop and have a plate of macaroni or arancini, so the menu has been designed to echo that. It captures that whole European feel.”
Then again, Demetre and Sodeau have been careful not to make Vermuteria a haven for cycling geeks, and Demetre is keen to emphasise that it is accessible to all. “We are categorically not a sports café. Cycling is just one of the angles. There is great coffee, vermouth, food, pâtisserie and gelato,” he adds.
There are plans afoot to expand the brand, with Demetre keen to find a bigger site in London, but also potentially abroad in the future, with Asia being one of the regions of the world where he and Sodeau feel it could work well.
Anthony Demetre on….
…the state of the restaurant market
“I feel really sorry for someone like Jamie Oliver, because he employed more than 1,000 people and tried tirelessly with escalating rates, prices on produce, minimum wage and pension contributions. The government unfortunately doesn’t help small businesses. Retail and hospitality run side by side and retail is shot to pieces. I won’t say it is easy, but it is an awful lot simpler to run single sites. When you start to expand, that is when inconsistencies can creep in. It is a very discerning market and you have to be consistently good.”
…French cuisine’s bright future
“French cuisine has fallen out of favour and there has been an explosion of different types of cooking from around the world. But when I look at the next generation of cooks and you see Merlin Labron-Johnson, Alex Jackson at Sardine, William Gleave at Bright, even Tomos Parry at Brat – they are great young cooks resurrecting European cooking, but in a really relaxed, informal manner. There is more to French food than fancy fine dining and that, in essence, was what Arbutus was about, and Wild Honey too.”
…why he won’t resurrect Arbutus
“We had 10 good years there, but it was definitely time to move out of Soho. It sounds awfully arrogant but Arbutus was unintentionally a game-changer. Will and I had – and still have – the same ideas about how food should be and what price you should pay for it. But I never live in the past. There will be flashes of Arbutus at Wild Honey St James. We have already had people coming in who were massive acolytes of Arbutus, saying: ‘Oh my god, the bouillabaisse is back, the pig’s head is back’.”
“The industry has been through a tough time in terms of finding staff, so for us, it is not only about attracting them, but retaining them. Staff here get a great work-life balance and salary. With Sofitel being part of a French company, they also get help in terms of Eurostar and accommodation discounts in other hotels as well as heavily discounted meals, staff uniforms, staff meals on-site, and help with travel and private health. Chefs work a five-day week and only two double shifts, making up seven in total. The days of split shifts have gone.”