Sharing Best Practice
As the hospitality industry gears up for NIHF’s annual Taste of Tourism summit this month, we catch up with celebrity chef and owner of London’s The Ninth restaurant, Jun Tanaka. Here he discusses addressing the NI trade at the event, winning that coveted Michelin Star within just one year of opening and the rise of super casual dining...
The Ninth restaurant
The Ninth restaurant
The Ninth restaurant
YOU’RE COMING TO BELFAST TO SHARE YOUR CULINARY KNOWLEDGE BUT WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT OUR FOODIE SCENE?
I’ve never been and it’s a city I’d like to learn a lot about. I’m really looking forward to the experience.
YOUR RESTAURANT, THE NINTH, IS UNIQUE IN THE SENSE IT FOCUSES ON SHARING PLATTERS – WHAT ENCOURAGED YOU TO WORK ON THIS STYLE OF DINING?
All our dishes are made for sharing. They’re not tapas but proper portions and the whole concept came from wanting to recreate the feeling of guests coming round to my house to eat. It gives that warm casual inviting feel and that was the foundation.
HOW MANY PEOPLE DO YOU EMPLOY AND WHAT MAKES YOUR KITCHEN RUN WELL?
We have around 30 members of staff. On a busy night we will service up to 135 covers. The percentage of chefs to customers is not that high and it’s quite a lean team.
When we were recruiting I sat down with my GM and we believed the number one thing for us was to look after the people who were working for us. We can’t do this on our own. We looked at personalities. As soon as you meet them, my gauge is, do I want to be served by this person. People always remember character not if their water is continually topped up. For me it wasn’t about experience, that’s a skill that you can teach and we did a lot of training.
For the kitchen we need some skill and it was really vital that they fit into our ethos of what our restaurant wanted to be – family friendly and if I believed they could fit into that they were halfway there to getting the job, after that I talked about my expectations and in regards to behaviour – this is what I expect in my kitchen.
People are the most stressful part of any job as an employer but if I had to rank order of things that caused me headaches or problems staff wouldn’t be one of those so we have a great team.
IS THERE A SKILL SHORTAGE IN THE KITCHEN IN LONDON AND HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THAT WHEN RECRUITING?
With difficulty, there is a huge shortage of good chefs – there are too many jobs for the number of chefs there are, it’s a continuous cycle. It’s important that you retain the good people otherwise it’s going to be a painful process over and over again. It’s super competitive because there is so much variety.
I’ll get them in for the day when I receive a CV, and that way I see them work and interact with the rest of the staff. Within a kitchen environment you can tell they have the skills.
I’ve got a lot of staff that have been with me from day one, which is unusual for an opening so we look after them. That’s a priority.
YOU RECEIVED A MICHELIN STAR WITHIN ONE YEAR OF OPENING, HOW IMPORTANT WAS IT FOR YOU TO RECEIVE THAT RECOGNITION AND WHAT VALUE HAS IT BROUGHT TO YOUR VENUE?
It was incredible and a complete surprise that was never the goal of the restaurant. When I opened I wanted to be a simple neighbourhood restaurant where people would think, ‘I don’t fancy booking so I’ll pop over to The Ninth’.
It’s a friendly casual service, the decor is warm and inviting. It was about good food and great ingredients at a good price but the Michelin Star was the icing on the cake and it’s been amazing.
It took a couple of weeks to sink in and it’s been amazing in terms of business brought to the restaurant and to get that recognition from the most prestigious restaurant guide is an amazing feeling. It does add pressure. You have to earn it every year but I guess we achieved one because of what we are doing so maintaining the standards and maintaining true to what we set out to do is very important.
WHAT WILL YOU BE SHARING WITH THE NI TRADE WHEN YOU COME TO BELFAST?
I’ll be interviewed about my background and how I came to open the restaurant and maybe my experience after working for other people for such a long time.
YOU HAVE QUITE THE PUBLIC PROFILE HAVING PRESENTED CHANNEL 4’S COOKING IT AS WELL AS APPEARING IN SATURDAY KITCHEN ON BBC ONE HOW IMPORTANT IS IT FOR YOU TO BE RECOGNISED FOR YOUR WORK?
I think doing any kind of PR is incredibly important, being a chef is about trying to get your name out there. TV does work in terms of bringing customers to the restaurant, getting the initial interest but ultimately they’re going to judge you on what their experience is.
IS THE FOOD YOU DO WORTH IT FOR THEM TO COME BACK?
One of the difficult things is to balance the two – a lot of chefs find that difficult but for me that’s fine because I don’t do that much TV. My priority is the restaurant and if I believe in doing a particular show I will.
WHAT ARE THE CURRENT TRENDS COMING INTO THE WORLD OF DINING IN LONDON?
The latest thing I’ve noted has been casual Indian restaurants. I know that’s been around but there are more lower end restaurants and they’re doing really nice food like sharing styles and no reservations. Hoppers is an example even though it’s Sri Lankan and Cricket which offers Indian-influenced food that is very casual and with a good price point.
There’s one Mexican restaurant which opened up in SoHo, Barafina. It has a Spanish tapas concept which is very good. I guess everything is pointing towards super casual and less high end restaurant.
WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR YOUR OWN BUSINESS?
I’ve thought about this and because it took three years to open this restaurant I want to take a moment to appreciate what I have. From the moment I left my last employment I stupidly thought it would take a year to open my own so we looked at over 100 places and it was a real struggle, then we got this incredible location on Charlotte street and after a year we achieved a star. I feel like throughout my career it’s been ‘what’s next?’ In three to six months I’ll probably look for the next thing!
Michelin Star chef Jun Tanaka is a keynote speaker at the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation (NIHF) Taste of Tourism Summit which will take place on Tuesday 4 April 2017 in the Culloden Estate and Spa. For further details log on to tasteoftourism.com or call 028 9077 6635.
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