Businesses ‘in limbo’

Restaurateur Michael Nadra closed his restaurant on 15 March.

“Over the last two weeks business had been slowing” he told me. “If we were the cause of an outbreak because of  a staff member or another customer that would have been a disaster”.

The award winning chef, who gets a mention in the Michelin guide, decide to close before Boris Johnson said all restaurants, cafes and pubs must shut, on Friday 20 March. Now he is now sitting back and considering how his business model might have to change once the current crisis is over.

Michael Nadra studied Naval Architecture & Ocean Engineering. As a student in the 1990s, at Glasgow University, he had no intention of being a chef. ‘When Michael walked into The Canteen in Chelsea Harbour he thought it was only going to be a summer job. But within two weeks he was cooking on the garnish section for up to 200 covers in a Michelin starred restaurant and was hooked’ according to the profile on his website.

From ocean engineer to top chef

When he graduated as an engineer he went to work with Nick Nairn, the Scottish celebrity chef who became the youngest Scottish chef to win a Michelin star in the early 1990s. He was opening his new restaurant and Michael got a part time job with him, as a Chef de Partie. He moved to London to work with Stephen Terry at Frith Street as Pastry Chef a year later, joins Petrus as Senior Chef de Partie and began baking for both Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road and Petrus, St James.

In 2000 he joined Bruce Poole at Chez Bruce, Wandsworth Common and soon became Sous Chef. After a spell at The Square in Mayfair and The Glasshouse in Kew, he joined La Trompette in Chiswick as Sous Chef, from there to Putney Bridge with Anthony Demetre. The Oak in Notting Hill and The Hempel in Lancaster Gate. He became Head Chef at The Waterway in Maida Vale for Tom Etridge in 2003 and moved to The Atlantic in Piccadilly for Oliver Peyton as Head Chef in the same year (who has recently set up Exit Here by Turham Green).

After such a meteoric rise Michael was ready to start his own restaurant. Fish Hook was his first venture, in Elliott Rd, a modern European seafood restaurant which he opened in 2005, but after a while he missed cooking meat, so he refurbished his Chiswick restaurant under his own name, Restaurant Michael Nadra in 2010, opening a second in Primrose Hill in 2012. His philosophy is to offer ‘high quality and great value, contemporary food, served in a relaxed and vibrant environment’.

Michael Nadra restaurant in Chiswick

His entry in the 2020 Michelin guide for his Chiswick restaurant reads:

‘Half way down a residential side street is this intimate little place where the closely set tables add to the bonhomie. Dishes are modern, colourful and quite elaborate in their make-up; it’s worth going for the sensibly priced set menu and the chosen wines’.

Closely set tables are of course the last thing that’s wanted at the moment, but Michael Nadra doesn’t seem to be the sort of person to throw in the towel quickly. He is trying to foresee how the economy will change once the current emergency is over, and how he should change his business model accordingly. They do say ‘every crisis presents an opportunity’ and he is trying to work out how his business can adapt and survive. They are, he said ‘in limbo’.

I asked him what he thought of the Government’s package of financial measures to support businesses. He welcomed the decision to cut business rates for a year. “That helps straight away” he told me. Premises with a rateable value of less than £51,000 will have no rates to pay in the coming year: an immediate saving of £10,000 on a property with a rateable value of £30,000. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s announcement last week that the Government would pay 80% of the wages of workers unable to work because of the Coronavirus emergency, was “great” he said.

“It’s a guessing game as to what people might want”

I wondered if he would consider doing takeaway meals, as many restaurants which haven’t previously are beginning to do. He is considering a ready meal service – providing “nice meals which can be cooked or reheated at home” but is waiting to work out the ramifications before he jumps to that decision. Before he closed last week he was offering a £69 six course tasting menu as well as a £20 express menu.

“We wouldn’t be making anything really” he told me. “We wouldn’t be making money on drink or a service charge and if I employ my staff to prepare food for deliveries, the Government wouldn’t pay 80% their salary” so he prefers not to take any risks at this stage. “In parts of Italy they did deliveries, but then they stopped it. I don’t want to start something and then find it is stopped”.

“After the initial reaction (to the Chancellor’s announcement of financial help) you think who is going to be paying for this? The Government has to do it, but there might have to be more taxes. And how is the economy going to work once this is over? Everyone will be cautious”. He will use these next few months he says to really consider how his business model should change to react to the changed environment. “It’s a guessing game as to what people might want”.