When a devastating fire forced restaurateurs Laurie and Jacqueline Gear to close the Artichoke for 18 months, the couple took the chance to refocus on how to run their business. Since reopening in November 2009, the restaurant has gone from strength to strength. Kerstin Kühn speaks to Laurie Gear
Need to know Located in the heart of Old Amersham in Buckinghamshire, the Artichoke is a neighbourhood restaurant which was opened by husband and wife team Laurie and Jacqueline Gear in 2002.
Housed in a Grade II-listed 16th century property, in 2008 the restaurant suffered a devastating fire which forced it to close for 18 months. However, the closure gave the Gears an opportunity to rethink their business and since reopening in November 2009, the Artichoke has gone from strength to strength, winning a string of accolades including the Good Food Guide‘s Editor's Choice Award for best new entry and a rising star from Michelin.
"Having the time out gave us the chance to really look at our business and refocus," says Laurie. "There are easier ways to learn this lesson, but don't be too blinkered, take time to stand back from what you're doing and analyse why you're doing it."
Target audience As a neighbourhood restaurant, the Artichoke mainly targets local residents from the Chiltern Hills area, which includes the country towns of Amersham, Beaconsfield and Gerrards Cross.
"London-based diners often make the 40 minute journey to Amersham on the train and we also attract company clients who book the whole restaurant as a private room to give their delegates an innovative treat," says Laurie. "We are a neighbourhood restaurant but we want to be at the very top level of our game. We use - where possible - local produce, all of our game is local and we also forage for ingredients."
The future Since reopening, turnover has increased 30% and the refurbished facilities and better equipment have allowed the team at the Artichoke to be more productive.
The Gears are now taking over the restaurant next door, which ironically is where the fire started in 2008. "This will give us the opportunity to double the number of covers, hopefully by late spring this year," says Laurie.
He adds that the idea is to keep the family feel of the Artichoke but with added comfort and luxury. "We will have a downstairs kitchen that will be semi-open. The extra space will make it easier for us to serve our customers - we turn a lot of people away so it will help business. Of course, we'll need to expand the team and we are currently looking for front-of-house staff."
Best business advice "With a small restaurant it is important to set out your market stall and stick to it - try not to be distracted as you cannot be everything to everyone. Concentrate on what you do well and be consistent at it," advises Laurie. He adds that freshness of ingredients is key and getting the best out of your suppliers requires the effort to build strong bonds with them.
"The closure after the fire allowed me to step back from the menu writing and rekindle my relationships with my suppliers. I had the time to visit some of them and build stronger partnerships and since then I have been able to get better prices and better produce. It's so important to have a mutual understanding with your suppliers."
SAMPLE DISHES FROM THE MENU
Starters Salad of breast of quail, ravioli of confit of quail with toasted hazelnut and parsley, watercress, sage beurre noisette; Creel-caught Scottish langoustines, perry braised pork belly, celeriac and apple mousse, wood sorrel, vanilla and cider dressing.
Main courses Cornish herb-grazed loin of hogget, braised breast, spelt, turnips and mint, braising liquor; Saddle of Manor Farm venison with caramelised shallots, kohlrabi, chanterelle mushrooms, pennywort, hawthorn berry and rosehip emulsion, venison sauce.
Desserts Pear and caramelised white chocolate galette, poire William sorbet; Dark chocolate delice, caramel sauce, kirsch griottine cherries, cherry sorbet.
Spotlight on the fire
The fire, which broke out in the spring of 2008, was caused by an electrical fault in the restaurant next door.
"It started during the night, so it had time to catch hold before anyone noticed," explains Laurie. "Artichoke is set in a 16th century timber framed terrace and the flames spread through to our second floor and up into the roof space and then just took hold. We thought we'd been burgled when we were called out by our alarm company and were stunned when we saw our life's work going up in flames. Devastated doesn't really begin to describe how we felt."
The second floor of the property was completely gutted - the roof was gone and it was open to the stars - while the ground and first floors were severely damaged by smoke and water. The £300,000 refurbishment saw the complete rebuilding of the first floor kitchen and prep room, while the former bathroom was turned into a walk-in cold storeroom. The Gears also took the opportunity to redesign the interiors and to add a small purpose-built bar area on the ground floor as well as an office in the roof space.
"We also kept our core team on, sending them off to other restaurants for stages, and worked hard ourselves to keep the Artichoke name alive during the refurbishment," adds Laurie. "I had a recipe column in a local magazine and we sent regular updates to our database. I also took part in various food shows around the country, did demos at La Tante Marie Cookery School and Jean-Christophe Novelli's cookery school and went and did a stage at Noma in Copenhagen."
laurie gear's revelation
Favourite hotel The Scarlet in Cornwall - stunning views and fantastic rooms
Favourite restaurant Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, London
Book that has inspired you Raymond Blanc's Taste Of My Life
Motto Never lose sight of your dreams
If you weren't a chef/restaurateur, what would you have been? Royal Marines commando, it requires the same amount of stamina and grit
Which chef/restaurateur do you most admire and why? Raymond Blanc - his is an inspirational story, he started out with nothing, worked his way up and is now the proud owner of one of the best restaurant and rooms in this country, and a kitchen that has become a real teaching ground for some of the best culinary talent in the country
Describe your business in five words We're back better than ever
Facts and stats
Owners Laurie & Jacqueline Gear
First opened 2002
Reopened after fire 5 November 2009
Staff 10 full-time, five part-time and six chefs
Average weekly covers 200 (24 seats)
Average spend per head £45 at lunch, £85 at dinner