How to build a restaurant

Words: Root + Bone   Photography: Morgan Hill-Murphy

How to build a restaurant

Behind the scenes at Nuala


New restaurants open daily (or so it seems) in London, each promising their own take on a particular type of food. But what’s the process that people go through to bring us, joe public, a new dining experience? How long does it take to start a restaurant? And why would you? By all accounts it’s a tough world to work in. We had behind the scenes access at Nuala, the new kids on the block, to find out the answers.

When did the idea of your own restaurant first really 
take shape?

Well I’m not sure how to answer that question as running my own restaurant stems from the idea of wanting to be self employed. I started buying and selling quad bikes on my granny’s farm in Derry when I was about 14 and I used to love it.

It got to the point where I was skipping school and not telling my mum, because someone was coming from Donegal to look at one that I was trying to flog. I remember being about 16 and I was in form class and I went into school and my form teacher asked why I’d been off for three days. I just told him I was working. I didn’t tell my mum though. But really it was that desire to not have a boss and be able to do what you want to do.

How To Build a Restaurant

Also have some disposable income which you’d made yourself and not depended on anybody else for it. I became a butcher when I left school, after not really doing much for a year and half, and my dad told me I had to do something. So I became a butcher when I was about 17 or 18. I always wanted to be a farmer from day dot, but realised it doesn’t really pay any bills and it’s tough. So I went into butchery and fucking loved it.

I came to London with that, kind of chasing my dreams in essence, and did it for a few years. I worked at Jack O’Shea’s at Selfridges, and he put me in charge of all the wholesale business. Out of that I met the guys at St John Bread & Wine, where James Lowe was, and a guy called Fred Smith who was at The Admiral Codrington. I had two days off and asked him if I could come in, so I was working for seven days but I loved it. My first shift was fucking difficult, I went down so hard on garnish I nearly passed out! But you know when you find something out of your comfort zone and you absolutely love it?

After that experience I felt I’d done butchery. St John Bread & Wine was always my favourite place. I sat on table 21 when I was 21 and ate new season garlic soup and snails, I think. I think Lee Tiernan cooked it and then I asked for a job. They had a breakfast chef job going so I took it. After that I knew I’d found a profession that I loved and a little bit of the entrepreneurship I was looking for. Up until then I really didn’t know what I was going to be. The idea for my own restaurant didn’t really happen there but I knew that this is what I wanted to be. I was addicted to the stress! I could take all that energy from when I was 14 and focus it into hospitality.

How To Build a Restaurant

I kept my head down and just learned. I went to Australia for a bit, set up the Beef Cartel on Maltby Street, which was my first ever pop up and where I met Ian McKay because I really wanted to find the best beef in the world. (He’s now my business partner in Torloisk Highland after 10 years of working with him). People liked it and I had a few offers but I just kept my head down and then maybe three years ago I just thought I’ve got to give it a shot. Try your best and go for it. I knew I had my limitations but felt like it was now or never. Nuala, and we’re standing in it, stemmed out of the love of London. It’s amazing working with people who are great at what they do, but how do you turn that into something that people want two or three times a day.

Did you already know the core team members?

Yeah. Over the years I’d been working with these people and they super impressed me. Colin I met at Jack O’Shea’s and he was working at The Fat Duck and he wanted to learn some butchery so was the same as me. He came in for his first day and made a hare saddle, French trimmed, while I was running around like crazy. I still wind him up about it. But he was amazing and he is amazing. Working with him, we got on really well so about two years ago I mentioned the idea of the restaurant and asked if he’d be interested in joining, thinking he’d be like ‘nah’. But he went yes, sign me up. He’s trusted me to get it going now I’m trusting him to deliver!

I met Charlie at Barbecoa where I was a butcher after Fred’s and we became mates. What I like about Charlie is the attention to detail. It’s that thing about people coming in and being blown away, but at the same time not feeling like they’re being over-served.

As a group we fall out sometimes and there are some strong opinions but I’d rather have that for sure. Do you remember you bollocked me because I didn’t fold the hi-vis jacket last time I was here? I just threw it under the shelf and you took it out, folded it up properly and put it away.

Yeah, it is that same thought process, attention to detail about everything. And it’s hard because now we need to deliver. We’ve got this brand outside – you’ve got myself, Charlie, Colin, Honey, Spencer, Lauren, Ellen, Natasha, you’ve got my dad – all these people that are really fucking great at what they do, but how do you turn this product, which is world class, into something that people can relate to. That’s where the branding comes in. Working with the guys at Drinksology has been great. I’ve always worked for people because I’ve wanted to work for them, not because of the money. Same rule applies.

What’s the general ethos of Nuala?

We want to create a business size to enable people to do what they love. When you’re working in places, you end up working 90 hours a week and end up burning yourself out, losing girlfriends, missing parties and all that. You start to think, if it this difficult, fine, but I’m not going to do that for anyone else but myself. With that, some of the hardest experiences in your life are the ones that teach you the most. You’ve got to start with a business model that makes money. That way you can pay people correctly and you can afford to hire an extra manager so someone doesn’t have to do more shifts.