Arjun Waney On His Successful London Restaurants
Amongst the numerous cutting-edge restaurateurs currently heating up stoves in London such as Alain Ducasse, Joël Robuchon, the Galvin brothers, Daniel Boulud, New Yorker André Balazs and Spain’s only three-Michelin-starred chef David Munoz, is a soft-spoken Indian man with a focussed vision and a charming demeanour. Restaurant creator, Arjun Waney, has majority stakes in London’s most fashionable and successful restaurants — Zuma, Roka, La Petite Maison, Coya and the members-only The Arts Club. The buzz about Waney is that he has a spell that adds the wow factor to each one of his ventures, leaving top-notch food aficionados gaping. His eponymous offerings dominate the Mayfair skyline, that particular belt of London that every restaurateur aims to occupy.
Whilst juggling several endeavours, he has diligently expanded some of his desirable dives to duplicate venues in London and established them profitably in New York, Miami, Dubai, Istanbul, Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi and Bangkok. These are high in demand on the list of globe-hopping society foodies and celebrities for their uncompromising authentic quality, innovative style and skilled attention to detail. For those eager to network and hobnob with the stylish lot, there’s always the chance of running into Prince Andrew at the bar of the exclusive The Arts Club, (as I did with my guests) or rubbing shoulders with Hollywood actor, Gwyneth Paltrow, who is a partner and on the board of the Mayfair club.
What attracted you to opening your first restaurant?
“I remember calling the restaurant Nobu in London several times and not being able to get a reservation. I tried other Japanese restaurants but they did not make the grade. Finally I went to Nobu one night with my friend Dasi Bhudrani and found the food truly excellent. It was then that I decided that we should open our own restaurant. Soon after, I was chatting with my hairdresser Nicholas at the Jumeira Carlton Hotel and he told me that there was a manager, Rainer Becker, from Japan, who also wanted to open a restaurant. Rainer came to see me and I told him I wanted him to have some skin in the game though he confessed that he had a limited amount of money. Eventually I invested most of the money and we opened our first restaurant, Zuma, in London. My friendship with Rainer created a whole new dimension of successful Japanese restaurants. We are opening Roka in Dubai and Miami and are looking at another one in Notting Hill in London. We have also opened an experimental restaurant, Oblix, in The Shard in the English capital. It’s based on a ‘one restaurant’ concept and cannot be repeated in multiple locations.”
You are a risk-taker; how do you know what will work?
“To me everything depends on how the food tastes, the presentation and the ingredients used by the chef. Food has to be fresh and authentic. I am also very health-driven due to my family history of heart problems. In our French restaurant, La Petite Maison, we do not allow butter and all our cooking is done in olive oil. I think some of my success is also down to simple good luck. I remember going to La Petite Maison in Nice and finding the food sensational. The owner and I got chatting and he suggested that I buy the world franchise rights from him. I asked him what I would have to pay him. I had been to the casino the night before and had made some money (which I had on me), so I made the deal on the spot and took the rights. We have opened La Petite Maison in London, Dubai and Istanbul.”
Who has been a pivotal influence in your work?
“From the disciplinary point of view, Zuma’s Chef Rainer Becker. From the culinary point of view, chefs like Sanjay Dwivedi of Coya and Raphael Duntoye at La Petite Maison. Prior to working at La Petite Maison, Raphael had worked in Zuma and with Pierre Koffmann. When I had the first meal he created for me in London I knew it was going to be a success. With the world rights of La Petite Maison, every time we open a new offshoot, we give them 25,000 euros, which is a fantastic deal for a restaurant making six million dollars annually! I have a background in corporate finance: I had taken several companies public on the New York Stock Exchange and was the co-founder of Pier One amongst others. But when you suddenly get money, you feel like a nouveau riche, with a predilection towards vices. Even after being successful I went through a phase where I was not at peace. I went to India and spoke to a sister at Mother Teresa’s organisation. They had been given some land near Mehrauli in Delhi and I helped them build a home for the handicapped. That was the first thing I did for my foundation and that gave me peace and a certain feeling of redemption. It is named after my mother, Savitri.”
Which project has been the hardest for you?
“I had invested in a restaurant called Aurelia. It was in a good location in Mayfair in London, but was a basement restaurant. It was started by my chef who was leaving Roka. I was not involved with it conceptually or from the food point of view. When it opened, we got good feedback as a lot of the customers were from Zuma and La Petite Maison. But people in London don’t like going to basement restaurants so it did not work out. When I started Coya, we consciously created an ambience with a ceviche counter and a Pisco bar so that there was a novelty factor. We are now opening Coya in Ibiza and Paris.”
The Arts Club is a great venue to network and relax, in Mayfair. Will you be taking the concept to other countries?
“We are opening the largest Arts Club in Canary Wharf called The Key Club. It’s the same concept, with a brasserie, a Japanese restaurant, a Peruvian restaurant and bar. In LA, an offshoot of the club will be created within a hotel.”
Overseas Indians are being asked to discard a myopic vision and invest in India. How feasible is this?
“It all depends on the kind of connections one has in India. If one is not connected to people who can fast-track business for you, then there can be many hurdles to cross, as there is too much bureaucracy involved. I would rather make my money elsewhere and support charitable causes in India.”
Will you be taking any of your restaurants to Mumbai or New Delhi?
“No. We were approached by Shapoorji Pallonji but I had to decline as it is not only about the money, it is also about feasibility. Hakkasan and Yauatcha have influenced their menus to suit the Indian palate. But our food is authentic Japanese and we stick to high parameters of quality control which we cannot compromise on. Some Indian concepts are working well — my nephew has Mamagoto, which is a pan-Asian food line. If I were younger, I would invest in it.”
Looking back, what advice would you give to your younger self?
“I would do what I have done and follow a niche market. I would recommend that younger people maintain efficiency, try making a mark with special niche markets and be skilled in the art of delegation. When one is building a business there’s no money to hire expertise and you have to do most of it yourself. We did not have children for the first 10 years of our marriage because I was travelling a lot and was in Osaka and Tokyo and it was only when we settled down in London that we had our first child.”
How do you unwind?
“I do yoga with a teacher. I am going to the Lanserhof clinic near Munich, in Germany. It’s a medical spa and they make you work and produce results. They do a full body scan and all medical tests and use those results to replenish the body with the necessary vitamins so that the body can continue working at the optimum metabolic rate. We are tying up with them for The Key Club in Canary Wharf. It will be equipped with all medical facilities to carry out blood tests and will screen the whole body and check for preventative measures to keep diseases at bay. I want to invest in research for the prevention of diabetes and cancer. I know it can be hereditary but one can control it with discipline and by applying certain measures.”
Oh, Decadent Day!
Originally founded by Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope, The Arts Club has been passionately relaunched as an exclusive members’ hub in Mayfair, where creative patrons share and discuss ideas, debate thoughts, enjoy international cuisine and dance the night away. Start the day with a hot breakfast of scrambled eggs with Spanish ham, smoked salmon or indulgent truffle and move on to one of the speaker events. Impress an important business client over lunch at the Brasserie where, with luck, you could be seated next to Cameron Diaz or Jude Law…. Best to order the fresh tian of crab with vanilla miso dressing, baked sea bass with wilted spinach or the fresh burrata gnocchi with tomato relish and coriander foam. Meander to the upper-level bar for an espresso martini and some people-watching. Meet friends at sunset whilst sipping a white peach Bellini on the coolest terrace in Mayfair. Float up to the second floor and feast on salmon sashimi with spicy cucumber and pickled apple, roasted lobster with shiso herbs and chilli miso butter and tobiko and warm aubergine with moromi miso at the cozy Japanese den, Kyubi. Seek closure drinking classic margaritas in the basement nightclub, jiving to a rock band along with Bollywood actresses Deepika Padukone and Kalki Koechlin…. Finally, drift into the elevator, zoom up to a luxurious room and snuggle in for a well-earned rest!