The best chefs trust her with their secrets, and she, like a fairy godmother, makes unknown restaurant popular and respected among the guests overnight. I discuss the recipe for success with Sarah Canet – the owner of Spoon PR in London.
Please tell me, what’s important in a PR person’s cooperation with chefs?
I have a genuine interest in food, so I will meet the chefs through my work, but also through being at the same events that they are at, and not because I’m going there to meet them, but because I’m interested in this world. You know, I have no tricks up my sleeve. I take the time to understand what they do. I have an understanding of how restaurants work. I worked at restaurants for seven years, among others within Oliver Peyton’s group.
How does one create a hype around a restaurant?
I only work with people that I admire, so I don’t know if I’m actually the best person to ask about this. My work is about telling people about the restaurant and telling them what’s coming and then getting the publicity around that. It’s about telling people the truth and explaining it in a way that hopefully is entertaining, but is also accurate. Other people have other techniques.
Foe example they persuade celebrities to come to a given restaurant. I remember I was talking to a restaurateur who wanted me to work on his restaurant. His dream was to have a restaurant in London with celebrities knocking on the door and him turning them away. And I said to him that I didn’t think that I was the right person for him.
Do you think those are short-term solutions?
You can’t build credibility based solely on the presence of celebrities. The perfect situation is when the guests come to a restaurant, appreciate the food and service and will pass the positive message on.
And what kind of tools do you use to promote restaurants? Events, meetings with journalists or social media?
I use all of them. I use social media a lot, I like using Twitter. I meet lots of journalists and I take them to restaurants. Events at restaurants are part of the toolset, but I personally don’t like having big parties. It’s usually so that people come and have champagne, but they can’t really experience the restaurant. I’ve been to lots of parties like that and I’ve had great fun, but I don’t think that it’s necessarily the best way to showcase your restaurant. Of course everything depends on the place. But I like people to see and understand what this place is about and is going to be about.
And what about the bloggers? There is a discussion between chefs and bloggers – that they lack experience and knowledge to write about restaurants. On the other hand, they invite the bloggers to tastings.
I do wonder somehow, whether the chefs can really assess how influential the bloggers are. Chris Pople from Cheese and Biscuits is a positive example; he writes very well, he is very well travelled. Journalists visit his site and see what’s he talking about, where’s he going. But should a restaurant pay the same attention to every blogger? It takes time, knowledge and experience, to know the difference between who is who. It’s really, really hard for restaurants, because you’re paying attention to other things, so that’s where someone like me comes very useful.
Does every restaurant in London have its PR manager?
Many of them do. But you know, there are huge amounts of restaurants here.
But it’s common?
I think that for a lot of restaurants it is helpful to have someone within their organisation to help manage communication. A PR can be expensive as well, so you really have to find the balance between how can I launch my restaurant and keep telling people about it and have a good relationship with the journalists and not bankrupt myself by spending too much on PR.
How did your cooperation with Massimo Bottura start?
I first met him through The World’s 50 best restaurants awards, but he didn’t approach me then. He approached a British journalist and said “I think I need someone to help me do my PR”. And this journalist very kindly suggested that he talks to me about it. We started working first just a few weeks before he got his third Michelin star. Now we’ve been working together for over two years and we look after all of his PR around the world, except for Italy
It would be mad for an Italian journalist to call up an Italian restaurant and to be told “you need to speak to a girl in London, who doesn’t actually speak Italian”. I don’t think it would foster a very good relationship.
So what is your part about?
Massimo is the type of chef that travels a lot. So we make sure that these travels are worthwhile. Let’s say he goes to an event in Toronto. It’s a long way for a busy man to go. So we make sure, that he gets to meet other people that we think he might enjoy having a relationship with, other journalists who might like to visit him in Italy and write a story or interview him when he’s in Canada. And also when he goes to an event, we make sure that the people who organise the event have correct information and that they have his story.
What can you say about the trends in European restaurants – which way do they go? What types of restaurants are popular now according to you?
For example the mini-chains. I mean a restaurateur or a chef who opens 3, 4, 5 restaurants, a mini chain
Like Burger and Lobster in London, for example.
Yes, it’s a mini chain. There is definitely the trend for more casual dining. It’s still fine dining, but in a relaxed way. The fact that Noma was voted best restaurant in the world and it has no tablecloths is no surprise to anyone. The trend is not new, but I definitely think that it is a trend that is here to stay, because I think that people like myself, my age and younger, who have the resources to eat in fine restaurants, want to be comfortable.
So fine dining is over?
No! The concept of “fine” is relaxing, so that the food can be extremely worked and technically very accomplished. The changes are oriented on other details. A waiter wearing jeans and trainers, and not a suit, doesn’t stop it from being a fine dining restaurant.
It makes me think of Sergio Herman’s Oud Sluis.
His restaurant has just closed. I went there in October and, yes, there are tablecloths, but the waiters are wearing jeans, turn-ups, and they’re all very chatty. And they don’t do classic table service. I spent a fortune, but it was worth every single penny. So in that respect fine dining had, I think, permanently changed. Producing fantastic food in a relaxed setting, that people enjoy means that it really can be one of the best restaurant experiences that you can have.
Let’s come back to the question about the trends. We talked about the restaurants, the atmosphere, but what about the food, drinks, wines, cocktails?
There are two trends that might seem to be completely different. One is the futuristic, modernist food or techniques, and the other is very simple, traditional, in some cases almost prehistoric food. In both cases it’s about using modern know-how to produce fine food with almost prehistoric cooking techniques. For example in Ekstedt in Stockholm, the only power that they’re using in their kitchen is wood flame. And yet they are producing this extraordinary fine food, it’s got a Michelin star. But fire, here in the UK, is a definite trend.
Did you ever experience a big PR crisis, for example a chef losing a star on your watch?
We have had restaurants lose a star, but it’s not necessarily a crisis. If it’s because the chef has left, you have to start the clock again. Then you have to explain to the guests what is happening at the restaurant and why it’s still a good restaurant to go to.
But people usually lose trust to such a restaurant…
Some people might go to a restaurant only because it’s got a star or because it is a certain position in the The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and if falls down in the ranking they think, “oh, it can’t be as good”. But I don’t think that anybody thinks that if The Fat Duck isn’t number one anymore, it’s not worth going to. That’s not the case. I haven’t had to promote any restaurant where there has been a real disaster, so I was very lucky, that I wasn’t promoting The Fat Duck when all those people fell ill because of the food poisoning.
Which Chef is your favourite to work with?
Massimo is an incredible person to work with. He is not only intelligent, but he is extraordinarily generous with his time and emotion. Nathan Myhrvold… to meet a man like him is an extraordinary honour. I listened to him as he was being interviewed and he can jump from one subject to the next with no effort whatsoever. He can explain to you complicated concepts, ideas, theories, practice, and in such a way you can understand everything – his intelligence is extraordinary. And I remember my mouth is open and, I could listen to that man all day, but what on earth am I going to talk to him about?! We once went to Clause Bosi’s restaurant. Nathan put a small amouse-bouche in his mouth and he shouted “Holy shit, that’s good!!!”. If this genius can express the same thought that I’m having and can love his food in such a similar way, we have something to talk about, always. It has been an amazing experience.
And where do you search for inspirations for future activities?
I really like having a bath. In the bath, or when you wake up at night, that’s when I get the most ideas. And, to be serious, I think what helps is keeping an open mind, travelling, eating out, reading and inspiration from outside the food world.
The interview was published in the Food Service Magazine (www.foodservice24.pl)