Pascal Aussignac and Vincent Labeyrie's success story began with the opening of Club Gascon nearly a decade ago. Joanna Wood caught up with the winners of the 2007 Catey for Restaurateur of the Year - Independent to ask them about the birth and the future of their empire
Successful business empires are often founded on a combination of chance and a little bit of risk forced on budding entrepreneurs by circumstance. There are other things that are vital to the mix, of course. Passionate belief in what you are doing, thorough market research and the ability to grasp unexpected opportunities to expand when they present themselves. All of these things apply in spades to the small and perfectly formed Smithfield-based restaurant kingdom of Pascal Aussignac and Vincent Labeyrie and in their case, there's one other little ingredient that may not be so apparent: superstition.
OK, so maybe there's a bit of artistic licence in that declaration. But digest this: all of the duo's businesses - they have three restaurants and one restaurant/wine bar - opened on the 13th. "Yes, it's true. Club Gascon opened on 13 September 1998 Cellar Gascon on 13 February 2000 Comptoir Gascon on 13 March 2001 and Le Cercle on 13 May 2004." Aussignac declares. "It was coincidence the first three times, then we realised what we'd done and agreed we had to continue and open Le Cercle on the 13th. The new website went live on 13 March this year, too. It's our lucky number - someone has to take responsibility for the number 13, you know."
Sitting inside Cellar Gascon on a traditional English summer's day, with the rain lashing down outside, 40-year-old Aussignac is characteristically upbeat. He has good reason to be. Nine years ago, when he and Labeyrie decamped to London from France to open Club Gascon, Smithfield - famous for centuries as the site of London's main meat market - the area wasn't exactly a culinary hotspot.
There were no top-notch fine-dining restaurants or bars lurking around the area's tranquil squares and narrow back lanes. Now, it's a very different story: you can't move around the old market without stumbling over a new opening. It's trendy and buzzing - and Club Gascon was the trailblazer.
Admittedly, Fergus Henderson had just opened St John, and there was the Café du Marché near Charterhouse Square, but there was no sophisticated dining spot capable of drawing plaudits from Michelin or attracting the City boys and media tycoons then. "The square around the market had no life. It was very dark and empty at night," Aussignac recalls.
Not only was the area devoid of life at night, but the actual site of Club Gascon was unpromising to say the least. Once a Lyons Tea House, then a bank, it had lain empty for six years. The freehold was (and is) owned by the charity Centrepoint and it hadn't been operated as a restaurant. "Everybody we discussed it with told us Smithfield wasn't a destination and that no one would come to the area to eat at night - we couldn't get a bank loan," Aussignac remembers. Instead, the pair had to look to private backers and Labeyrie's own savings to raise the £250,000 they needed to launch their restaurant. "It was financed 55% by myself," elaborates Labeyrie, "and the rest by investors."
The banks may have thought that Labeyrie was foolhardy for wanting to open a restaurant in a shabby area on the edge of the City, but he had done his homework. For a year before opening Club Gascon, he had scouted out the area, convinced that there was an opportunity to be grasped by anyone creating a restaurant there.
"I was looking for a location in the City, but the City was too expensive, so I looked around its borders and found this Smithfield location interesting because of its proximity to Lincoln's Inn, with its solicitor and barrister catchments. There was space for entrepreneurs," he explains, matter-of-factly.
For those who need a memory jog, their "idea" was to open a restaurant that showcased the food and wines of Gascony, Aussignac's home region in France. There was an extra dimension, too: the structure of the menu was to be based around smaller-portion sharing plates. Sounds familiar now, doesn't it? But in 1998 no fine-dining (let alone French) restaurant had dared to go down that route. "Gascon food is rich, so it was logical to reduce the quantity on the plate - and we wanted to make French food cool again because it had always been considered very grown-up, very elitist outside of France, and not for young people," Aussignac says.
Club Gascon was a massive success from the word go, attracting rave reviews from influential critics followed by queues outside the door every night. Industry awards - the first being the Catey for Newcomer Award in 1999 - came thick and fast, culminating in a Michelin star in 2002 and, of course, this year's Restaurateur of the Year - Independent Catey.
The Michelin star kicked into touch the very real risk of opening an innovative restaurant in Smithfield - but the scale of it, unforeseen by Aussignac and Labeyrie, created problems. "We were getting 600 calls per day with only 45 seats to fill - it was terrible to manage," says Aussignac. It made it imperative for them to expand quickly and when the coffee and sandwich bar next door to Club Gascon became available, they were quick to negotiate with Centrepoint (which, again, owned the freehold) and open up a wine bar, Cellar Gascon.
With the opening of Cellar Gascon, just 17 months after Club's launch, the pair began to show their mettle as restaurateurs. They eschewed the temptation just to expand Club, shrewdly choosing to keep the restaurant small and intimate. Instead they opted to have a wine bar that had its own identity, but which at the same time kept true to the philosophy of serving tapas-sized dishes on the menu and showcasing the produce of south-west France - primarily, in this case, wine.
The opening in 2001 of their deli-bakery, Comptoir Gascon, on the other side of Smithfield Market, was just as successful. Again, the expansion came out of necessity - they needed a pastry kitchen and bakery and there was no room on the Club site - but Aussignac and Labeyrie made it work in several ways: as a unit to supply the flagship restaurant, as a retail outlet and as a kitchen out of which they could supply other leading restaurants in London with pâtisserie and bakery products. "One- and two-star restaurants," nods Aussignac, discreetly declining to name names.
At two minutes' walk across the market from Club and Cellar, Comptoir was ideally located for its primary purpose. However, the site wasn't an easy option, lease-wise. And here, once again, is a lesson for any aspiring entrepreneur: namely, don't be put off by tricky leases, because often there are good deals to be swung.
Unusually, Comptoir has two different landlords. The freehold of the ground floor is owned by the Corporation of London, the basement by London Underground. Add to that the fact that, although owned by the Corporation of London, the ground floor actually has two different leases because Comptoir was created out of two old shops knocked into one premises, and you can understand why everybody before the Gascon boys passed on the site despite its undoubted potential.
"We were the only ones mad enough to go in there and it took three years of dealing to get the lease right, but voilà! - we've got 500sq m of kitchen we couldn't have afforded otherwise," beams Aussignac.
Leaning across the table, he adds, conspiratorially: "We have no premium on the leases at any of the sites because at each of them there were no restaurants before we went in. We had leases created specially for us and because of that we got good deals."
Le Cercle, it could be argued, is the odd one out of the restaurants. First, it's located in the basement of a building housing serviced apartments. Second it's just off Sloane Square, way out west in relation to the other three businesses - and most certainly not within walking distance of the group offices, which are very close to Cellar. Third, it didn't open to unanimous critical acclaim. All of which begs the question: why did they do it?
"The landlords - the Cheval Group - came to us and said they wanted a modern French restaurant. We wanted a presence in the west of London. It's good to be in Sloane Street where there are lots of ladies with money, no?" questions Aussignac. OK, so far, so logical. What about the lukewarm tone of some reviews? - the Sunday Times's AA Gill called the dishes "over-decorated canapés" and disliked the "dungeon" dining room, for instance.
"Actually, at Club Gascon we discovered that if you have too many good reviews it creates a problem coping with the numbers of people wanting to come. It's better to have some good, some mediocre. At Le Cercle we had a better balance, which meant we met expectations better. And, you know, we were the first restaurant of this kind in the West End. Gordon checked us out before he did Maze and I have to thank him, because Maze helped us to survive at Le Cercle even though it's very different. One fine-dining restaurant doing tapas is not a trend: it's better for everyone if the trend is wider."
Le Cercle may not be within spitting distance of the Smithfield restaurants, but both Aussignac and Labeyrie keep a close involvement with the restaurant, visiting the site regularly. Of course, as with all the sites, there are key members of staff who run Le Cercle on a day-to-day basis: head chef Thierry Beyris has full responsibility for the menu, for instance. However, Aussignac is involved in all menu tastings and Labeyrie has a great input when it comes to drawing up the wine list (wine is one of his "areas" at all the restaurants).
Indeed, it's fair to say that their personal touch is a key element in the success of all their restaurants. "You never walk over to Smithfield without seeing one or other of them over there," fellow restaurateur Chris Galvin commented to me recently. It's true - invariably Aussignac is at the pass at Club Gascon for lunch and dinner, saucing the dishes and plating the food, and he walks over to Comptoir every morning, too, to check on things. And Labeyrie often steps in to the breach to cover staff shortages or holidays front-of-house at the various restaurants. They both also personally check-in produce deliveries from France when they arrive, twice a week.
Operating a hands-on approach to their businesses means that the two Frenchmen are not only able make sure their restaurants continue to bear the imprint of their own personalities, but also keep a tight control on budgets. They know immediately if money is being wasted at the coal face, if there is dropping off of standards among staff, or if any given element is not working.
Take the flower arrangements for instance. In the early days of Club Gascon, they were done by a local floral designer. However, Aussignac was dissatisfied with the result and now does them himself, for all the restaurants except bar Le Cercle, which doesn't have any floral decoration. "I go to New Covent Garden and they all think I'm a professional florist," he says with a crack of laughter, adding, proudly: "I spend £150 a week for all the sites - last year I won an award from the Corporation of London for the best indoor display in the City. A huge trophy!"
Like all good restaurateurs, the pair are never satisfied just to stand still. Two years ago, they realised that Comptoir needed to progress to keep pace with the changing face of Smithfield. "When we opened Comptoir, there was no point in staying open at night. Now it's so busy, that side of the market, and we needed to evolve, so that's why we refurbished it and turned it into a bistro. And it has worked really well - 80% of Comptoir's trade is bistro now."
It's clear that neither Labeyrie or Aussignac are given to flights of egotistical self-indulgence in their restaurant group. They have evolved it organically and with integrity over the past nine years, taking calculated risks where necessary. However, given the success of their ventures to date, it would be surprising if the Gascon pair were not toying with further expansion plans, especially as Labeyrie admits to being motivated by "the challenge of opening other units and providing an exciting career for our staff within our bar and restaurants." Getting any more detailed information out of them is difficult, though.
The most obvious brand for the group to roll out would be Comptoir Gascon. "Oh we're always looking for new sites," Aussignac teases. "Yes, all right, I would love to open in, say, Borough Market, that would be logical for Comptoir. Spitalfields could also be great. The logic is that people are living more in the City now and don't want to travel. Our base will always be in Smithfield and our approach artisanal, but we'll look at anywhere that's suitable - I've got a moped (a Peugeot of course), so getting around to different areas is no problem." Remember, you read it here first.
The birth of a partnership
Pascal Aussignac and Vincent Labeyrie were introduced to each other in 1997 by Labeyrie's sister, Fabienne, at a time when both men were keen to open a restaurant outside France. Their skills fitted together neatly. Aussignac was the talented chef Labeyrie the person with good business acumen, having come from a hotel management background. His family were also famous produce suppliers to many of Paris's top restaurants, so he knew his food, too. "I asked my sister if she knew a chef who would be interested in working on a new restaurant concept in London and was flexible and sensible enough to work with a newcomer like me. I had ideas but was missing the skill to implement them, being a neophyte in the industry," Labeyrie says.
They chose London because it was a good commercial city for restaurateurs and its dining public was receptive to new ideas. "The social and tax costs associated with the intensive labour requirements of the catering sector were simply too high to achieve a reasonable profit margin in Paris," Labeyrie says.
"London and Londoners are much cooler than the French, more laid back and much more fun," adds Aussignac. "They're more open-minded than the French and open to new food concepts. We couldn't have done Club Gascon in France. The French are very conservative in every aspect of their lives - not just food. You can't go out without matching socks and shirt in Paris. In London you can be naked in the street and no one cares."
The rival's opinion
"When Vincent and Pascal hit London, it was refreshing - what they were doing was very exciting. And they haven't stood still. They showed that any cuisine was flexible if you had vision - which they have in spades. Their attention to detail is spot on. They can do rustic or haute cuisine just as well. They're a joy, actually, and there's a warmth to what they do - a very personal touch. They're very humble, very upright people. I love Comptoir and when I was involved in setting up the Wolseley I asked their advice on the patisserie - whether to outsource - and Vincent told us to do things in-house. They could have had a massive account from us but chose not to."
Chris Galvin, chef-proprietor Galvin Bistrot de Luxe and Galvin at Windows, London.
- Owners: Pascal Aussignac, Vincent Labeyrie
- Total employees across group: 80
- General manager: Christian Haller
- 57 West Smithfield, London EC1
- Opened: 1998 (fine-dining restaurant)
- USP: food and wine of south-west France, especially foie gras sharing plates
- Capacity: 45 seats
- Key personnel: head chef Damien Bouchery, restaurant manager Loic Creacheminec, sommelier Stephanie Delmotte
- 59 West Smithfield, London EC1
- Opened: 2000 (wine bar with food)
- USP: wine and food of south-west France tapas portions Club de Canailles (just-launched Saturday club for regular customers)
- Capacity: 70
- Key personnel: head chef Pierre Schaeser, restaurant manager Julien Losada
Le Comptoir Gascon
- 61-63 Charterhouse Street, London EC1
- Opened: 2001 (originally bakery/deli, but relaunched 2005 as bistro/deli)
- USP: classic dishes of south-west France (eg, cassoulet) French bakery and pâtisserie
- Capacity: 40
- Key personnel: head chef Julien Carlon, restaurant manager Tim Sutton
- 1 Wilbraham Place, London W1
- Opened: 2004 (fine-dining restaurant)
- USP: modern French cuisine tapas portions
- Capacity: 80
- Key personnel: head chef Thierry Beyris, restaurant manager Virginia Troncoso, sommelier Natalia Zagredina