Sommeliers everywhere will have been cheered by the success of Thierry Tomasin’s first restaurant. Chris Losh travels to Angelus to meet the country’s most passionate exponent of the art of service and find out how he turned inspiration into reality
The story of Angelus is not just one of rave restaurant reviews and rabbit pie; of a to-die-for wine list and slick service. It is a triumph of hope and persistence over adversity – the ability of its proud founder, Thierry Tomasin, to use his 20 years of experience and formidable energy to snatch success out of the jaws of disaster. And it is a victory for unsung front-of-house heroics over the tiresome celebrity surrounding anyone who can make a half-decent job of cooking a bit of halibut.
The great notices and packed evenings have come at a price. When we meet up, Tomasin looks tired, understandably given the succession of six-day weeks (and seven-day weeks when he first opened). And despite hoovering back a mountainous plate of spaghetti during the interview, he says he’s lost two stone since Angelus opened in August. Still, that we are here at all is something of a minor miracle. A year ago, Tomasin was within 48 hours of signing a lease on a site in Mayfair when the landlord slapped him with a £600,000 premium. It would have cost him over half a million just for the privilege of renting the property.
Disgusted, Tomasin walked away, put his house on the market and started packing, ready to return to France after nearly 20 years in Britain at some of the most respected restaurants in the capital. Here
we must thank a local estate agent, who told him to wait a few months until spring, when he’d get more for his house.
“You shouldn’t be a waiter just because you’re a student and need to fund yfor 20 years. I want cash coming in to fund your Saturday night out”
In lieu of anything better to do he carried on looking, stumbling across the premises in Bayswater that were to become Angelus. ‘I fell in love after just one minute of looking around,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of character and history here.’
Certainly, the high ceilings and dark wood interiors of the 200-year-old pub gave Tomasin something to work with. Now done out in a beautiful art nouveau style, the feel is more Paris than Paddington, and manages to be both elegant and informal. Maybe there is one table too many in the bijou restaurant out the front, but Tomasin is sticking to his guns of keeping the back room as a magnificently elegant lounge for those who want a mid-morning coffee, a lunchtime snack, or simply haven’t booked.
LICENCED TO THRILL
With around 35 covers, plus a private dining room and a chef’s table downstairs, Angelus is not a big operation. It has the feel of a local bistro, which is somewhat ironic, given that there were no shortage of locals opposed to its opening in the first place. The previous (pub) owners let the drink licence lapse, Tomasin’s solicitor forgot to check, and Tomasin himself only thought about it when he woke in a cold sweat one morning, three weeks before the planned opening.
Residents’ objections included: ‘the heavy metal music you’ll be playing will disturb the horses’ (there is a riding school nearby) and ‘your guests will get drunk and wee in our doorways’. Ridiculous, clearly, but Tomasin had to reapply, and the one hour while the judge made his decision was the longest of Tomasin’s life.
Vast amounts had already been spent on fitting the restaurant out, yet without a licence, he had no business, nor, frankly, any chance of selling it on. The £800,000 investment was disappearing before his eyes. Finally, the judge ruled in his favour and Angelus opened in mid-August. Reviews were so good that it has pushed house prices up in the area, so even the locals are happy.
In one way, Angelus is very French. The food and chef, for instance, are French, the wine list is wide-ranging, but indisputably French-dominated, and the slick service owes much to Tomasin’s classical training. Yet the overall feel is not stodgy or suffocating, and it’s probably fair to say that this is the result of its founder having lived in Britain for 16 years. ‘I didn’t want to create another fine-dining restaurant,’ says Tomasin. ‘I’ve done all that at Le Gavroche and Aubergine. It’s the 21st century now. People don’t want minimum charges, or a maître d’ telling them they have to have three courses.’
“I don’t want wine to sit in a cellar for 20 years, I want cash coming in”
Thus, although the prices are reasonable and it’s possible to have, say, a good lunch cheaply, a dreamy wine list means there’s also plenty of opportunity for big-buck splurging. Tomasin tells the story of one group who dropped in at four in the afternoon and spent five hours just buying bottles of Premier Cru Puligny-Montrachet. ‘I love that,’ he enthuses. And not, presumably, just because of the final bill, which must have been eye-watering. ‘It’s what I wanted to create: something informal but chic.’
The wine offering is, unsurprisingly, enormous. Ridiculously so. There is, as Tomasin admits, no way that a 35-seat restaurant should have a 700 bin wine list, but the strategy is one of low margins and quick rotation. GDP is, apparently, ‘way less’ than 65%, and Tomasin claims to be selling more wine now than he did at Aubergine. ‘I want people who were going to spend £30 to look at the list, see something for £50 and buy that instead because it’s great value,’ he says. ‘I told my accountant to forget about percentages. Wine comes in and wine goes out, customers appreciate it and come back. I want cash in. I don’t want wine to sit in a cellar for 20 years.’
There are plans to sell the occasional grand vin by the glass; to pull the cork on a bottle of Lafite, say, and sell it in one evening. This, though, is the only BTG for which he has any enthusiasm, preferring half bottles to single serves. ‘I don’t like selling something that is already open,’ he grumbles. ‘It disrespects the customer.’
So how do you go about selling a Chasselas to a public who might not exactly be beating the doors down to buy Swiss wine? By hand is the answer. Tomasin exerts a massive presence front of house, with the real cognoscenti drawn to Angelus simply because it’s his, and they are usually happy to leave the wine choice up to him as a result.
LONG TERM LOYALTY
Such loyalty is well illustrated by a wealthy American, who used to visit Le Gavroche, tracked Tomasin down on the internet and jetted over to try Angelus. Things like this, you suspect, mean
more to Tomasin than positive write-ups in Time Out. The love of the critics, after all, is fleeting; the affections of the public longer-lived.
You don’t, obviously, inspire such loyalty without being very good for a very long time. So it’s no surprise to discover that Tomasin is a man who takes his profession every bit as seriously as the top chefs. Indeed, he speaks about it with an almost messianic zeal, talking about being a ‘messenger for front of house’, and clearly frustrated when people don’t show the same dedication. ‘You shouldn’t be a waiter just because you’re a student and need to fund your Saturday night out,’ he says. ‘It’s a trade, and you need to learn it. Everyone talks about chefs – they’re on the TV all the time – but no-one talks about sommeliers or maîtres d’. Yet we’re the ones who are dealing with the customers!’
He dreams of one day opening a catering school dedicated to the kind of craft that he learned from Silvano Giraldin at Le Gavroche, and which he’s touchingly keen to pass on to his own staff. Realistically, though, the next year is more likely to see him opening up an Angelus delicatessen or, maybe, another restaurant. Another one, I query? So soon after all the stress and headaches of this one? He looks at me pityingly, as someone who just Doesn’t Get It. ‘To set up a restaurant, you don’t just have to love it,’ he says. ‘It’s more than that. It must be in your blood.’
Thierry Tomasin on…
Angelus… ‘It’s named after the [Angelus] bell that my grandmother used to ring to call my father in from the fields at dinner time. I’ve got it in the bar now. It’s nothing to do with the Bordeaux château.’
Smiling… ‘I tell my staff, you’re not a waiter – you’re a salesman of pleasure. When people leave with a smile on their face, that’s the greatest reward you can get.’
Expectations… ‘People want to work five or six shifts and be paid like the prime minister.’
Socks… ‘At 21 Silvano Giraldin and Michel Roux gave me the key to the cellar at Le Gavroche. I thought, “Pull up your socks, mate, and go for it.”’
Respect… ‘Too many sommeliers are 20 years old, think they’ve tasted all the wines in the world and look down on the customer.’
Service… ‘Whatever your problems, you have to leave them outside. The customer still pays the same for service – and I’ve never heard anyone say, “Our service wasn’t so good today, so we won’t charge for it”.’