Multi-talented siblings Layo and Zoë Paskin have transformed themselves from denizens of the London club scene into lauded restaurateurs with a passion for hospitality. Fresh from opening their latest venue, the Barbary Next Door, they tell Neil Gerrard about what drives them to explore different styles and cuisines in their London empire
Layo and Zoë Paskin may have swapped nightclubs and DJ sets for restaurants but they still know how to entertain a crowd – albeit one that's smaller and much better fed.
At the peak of his career as one half of international DJ duo Layo & Bushwacka! (their exclamation mark, not ours), Layo was entertaining massive crowds at events such as Glastonbury and Liverpool's Creamfields. The duo's hit tracks include Love Story, released in the early 2000s, and Layo and his sister Zoë also ran renowned London club The End, in partnership with The Shamen's Mr C.
The End was very much a family affair. Layo and Zoë's architect father found the site, an old stables off High Holborn, and designed it himself despite never having set foot in a club. The siblings got their first taste of hospitality when they opened AKA Bar within The End, which they say was one of the first DJ bars. "When we were building the club, we imagined it as somewhere that we as clubbers wanted to go. So we had a free water fountain, friendly security and really good drinks. Running a cutting-edge electronic music club was different to running restaurants, but the truth is that there were dots leading to it all the time," says Layo.
Despite not feeling ready to call it a day with The End, they sold up in 2009 after an offer from a developer that was simply too good to turn down. "The day it closed, we both felt bereft and a bit lost," admits Layo. Layo still had his DJing career, but he and Zoë knew they wanted to do more.
That led to the launch in 2014 of the Palomar, a 40-cover restaurant that won acclaim not just for its modern-day food of Jerusalem but its energetic, casual atmosphere. Head chef Tomer Amedi was known to keep a pair of drumsticks on the pass and served up impromptu performances on pots and pans at the same time as serving up the food.
But landing on the food of southern Spain, northern Africa and the Levant for their first restaurant was by no means a given for the Paskin siblings. Layo explains: "Three of the countries that I spent the most time in DJing were Japan, Brazil and Italy, and they probably would have been the more natural choices when it came to the theme of a restaurant. But I was doing a DJ gig in Tel Aviv, and our friends had taken us to this restaurant and we met the chefs and it was a very natural conversation about wanting to do something in London."
That resulted in a 50/50 partnership with Assaf Granit, Uri Navo and Yossi Elad, who run the MachneYuda group of restaurants. The idea was that they would put forward Amedi as head chef and take care of the menu, while Layo and Zoë would create the restaurant, the culture and the name.
"These things end up being more complicated than that, but it worked unbelievably well and we were lucky," says Layo. "We hit a real zeitgeist, but I think the background we had in atmosphere and the energy they provide from the kitchen was a very good coming together. Certain restaurants, albums, films, hit at the right moment. You could do a similar thing where you are slightly out of kilter in one way and it doesn't have quite the same cultural effect," he says.
Layo and Zoë then set out on their own to launch the Barbary in Neal's Yard, Covent Garden, in 2016, focusing on the Berber-style flavours of North Africa, once again to acclaim and a popular following. Their next venture, the Blue Posts pub on nearby Rupert Street, opened before Christmas 2017. The ground floor remains a pub, marking something of a departure from their previous ventures, while the Mulwray wine bar occupies the floor above. Downstairs is the 12-cover Evelyn's Table, which is now run by chef-patron and former Roux Scholar Luke Selby with his brothers Nathaniel and Theo.
What used to be the Jacob the Angel coffee house, which sat next door to the Barbary, has now become the neighbourhood restaurant and wine bar, the Barbary Next Door, under head chef Daniel Alt.
While each site is relatively small and intimate, and all sit in relatively close proximity to each other in central London, each has marked a departure from the previous one. Given the initial huge success of the Palomar, why weren't the siblings content to stick with a winning formula for future sites?
"You could argue that it would have been the more financially prudent decision," laughs Layo. "But we are really interested in different cultures and we like the journey of discovery, creating new sites. It's probably a more complicated way of doing things. It's about knowing what the right ingredients are to make something a little bit better.
"As a DJ, you are enhancing the experience and trying to create a dialogue with the dancefloor. With restaurants, you are trying to do that with the team and the guests. I was in a very privileged position as a DJ. You arrive one night in Seoul and the next in Tokyo and you immediately meet young, hip, interesting people who take you to a corner of a city you probably never would have visited, eating in a restaurant that is a passion of theirs. You learn to see things in a different light and I think it makes you very open. That's a very transferable skill."
Zoë agrees that coming up with something new is part of the joy of being an independent restaurateur. "It's challenging, but only because you are starting from scratch with an idea," she explains. "That is a very exciting process as well. It's a different type of white-knuckle ride. It's about chemistry. Everyone we work with is slightly different – not just the chefs, but throughout our career. You build a relationship and trust, and that feeling of collaboration to create something authentic."
Nonetheless, the siblings are careful to pay attention to sound financials when running their business. "We run it very formally and we have worked with the same financial director since The End," says Layo. "But without creating something fantastic, the rest of it is just an exercise on paper. We believe that if we create it and the public think it is great, then behind the scenes we can make it function because we already have something that is working."
"And sustainable," adds Zoë. "People hopefully still love the restaurants years down the line."
It's a case, Layo asserts as he reaches for more terms from the world of music, of making the restaurants a classic, rather than a hit.
No sibling rivalry
As Zoë and Layo speak to The Caterer, they are in the process not just of launching the Barbary Next Door, but also moving Palomar Group's offices to a new, larger head office in their father's former architectural studio in Camden. They seem remarkably unflustered, especially considering that siblings don't always make the best colleagues.
"We've always been particularly close," says Zoë. "We grew up in a single-parent household [with their father], which probably lends itself to being quite supportive. At that point, the age gap was quite big, so Layo always had my back. And from there that gap changed as we got into our late teens and early 20s, and I ended up coming on board with the club."
Zoë says there has always been plenty of "crossover" in their values and their sense of humour, and they have each found their own different ways to help run the business.
"We rarely fight on the big decisions. Obviously we will bicker but I always know when I am going to take Layo's lead on a decision and vice versa. And we are always good at talking it out when there is a lot at stake. We are in a very fortunate position because it would be only a few siblings that could have gone on this journey together," she adds.
The new premises are part of their ongoing efforts to make Palomar Group a better place to work for its employees. Zoë, who handles the people side of the business alongside its head of people Josh Blinston Jones, explains: "The thinking behind it is to have a bigger space with a bigger garden. Of course, it's not going to affect our kitchen porters, but general managers and head chefs will be able to come here and collaborate. And for the office team, there will be things like yoga classes and meditation that take them away from the fast pace that goes with the territory of hospitality."
She adds that the group is working hard on issues like salaries, training with independent management school Watershed, meeting personally with the team, and even profit sharing for longer-serving members of the team.
"Not that this is a big deal, but whenever there are any shortages, we fill the breach ourselves and that does make it much easier to see issues from our team's point of view," Layo says. "We have been lucky overall with our retention [following the Covid-19 lockdowns]. Hospitality can be tough and we are working as much as we can to make it a better place for all the people who work with us. It has always been on our minds, but it is the number one part of the conversation now."
When it comes to the future, following the opening of the Barbary Next Door, the siblings are happy to take their time. Jacob the Angel could be reincarnated in a new site at some point, but beyond that they are more focused on improving the sites they currently have. "We want to be more grateful for what we have and enjoy it, rather than chasing. It is about enhancing our lives and those of the people who we work with. Daniel, Luke and Omri [McNabb, head chef] are so full of ideas and we want to explore those rather than dilute our time further," says Layo.
Nonetheless, they are involved in designing a restaurant for someone else, which is due to open in 2022. "Maybe that could lead to something in the future where we design restaurants on a case-by-case basis," says Layo.
Zoë adds: "We get to exercise our creative side but without worrying about the ice machine or the insurance at the end of it. But we do care about it as if it were our own."
Regardless of whether what comes next is their own venture or curated for someone else, Zoë and Layo look sure to treat it with love.
The Palomar Group
Location 34 Rupert Street, London
Style The food of modern-day Jerusalem
Head chef Omri McNabb
Location 16 Neal's Yard, London
Style Inspired by the Barbary Coast, identified by 16th-century Europeans as the area settled by the Berbers in the Atlas Mountains
Head chef Daniel Alt
The Barbary Next Door
Location 16a Neal's Yard
Style Neighbourhood bar and restaurant with cues from the spices and smoky flavours of Moorish Spain and North African cooking
Head chef Daniel Alt
Location 28 Rupert Street
Style Counter dining experience below the Blue Posts pub on the ground floor and the Mulwray wine bar above that
Head chef Luke Selby
The Barbary Next Door
The Barbary Next Door is a new venture for Layo and Zoë Paskin but not a new site. Attached to the Barbary, it previously housed coffee house Jacob the Angel but has been transformed into a ‘little sister' to the adjacent restaurant.
Open from early in the morning until late at night, it takes its cooking cues from Moorish Spain and north Africa, with a wine list focused on Spanish, French and Moroccan bottles, overseen by wine director Honey Spencer.
The inspiration for the change came after the Paskins applied for an alcohol licence for Jacob the Angel but decided they didn't want to switch between a café operation in the day and something akin to the Barbary at night.
The idea to convert the site into the Barbary Next Door was "something we got excited about pretty quickly", says Zoë. "The team's eyes lit up at the idea of doing something like this."
Layo adds: "The Barbary is a small restaurant but in Neal's Yard there is now a bit of outdoor seating, so there is the terrace, the Barbary Next Door and the Barbary. It all feels like you were walking down anywhere from Marrakech to Seville. It has a very nice, back-street, organic feel."
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