10 Questions for… Des Gunewardena

Everything you’ve ever wanted to ask Des Gunewardena, our co-founder, Chairman, CEO and one of the ‘D’s in D&D London…


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Why restaurants?

Why not? I love restaurants: the food, the atmosphere, the buzz, the people – I eat out six nights-per-week and I never get bored of it. Thank god for Monday night training sessions with Rui at South Place Hotel – he’s what’s stopping me from getting very fat!

Do you have a favourite?

A favourite D&D Restaurant? No! That’s like asking me to choose between my children! I love them all equally, but my favourite at any one time can be dependent on mood, weather – anything. For example, in summer I love to eat on the terrace at Le Pont de la Tour, or the roof at Coq d’Argent, whilst in winter Quaglino’s or 100 Wardour St would be more up my street. It also depends on location – when I lived in Wimbledon all week I spent a lot of time at Bluebird, whilst now I’m based in Clerkenwell midweek I’m spending more time in our City restaurants like Paternoster Chop House and in South Place Hotel.

Outside of D&D that’s tough to say as there are so many great restaurants opening every week – I’m a big fan of Clove Club and last week went to their new restaurant, Luca – Isaac McHale is a brilliant chef. Recently I also enjoyed dinner at Stevie Parle’s Sardine – it’s simple, delicious food with a great atmosphere. I had a pre-mixed Negroni there which really changed my perception of pre-mixed cocktails – mixologists like Mr Lyan are really pushing the boundaries there, showing that with pre-mixing you don’t need to compromise on quality, and  of course it’s great for speed of service.

Bluebird
Bluebird

What inspires you?

For me, the most inspiring thing will always be the next big project… Developing the concept, getting to know the restaurant scene if we’re opening in a new city, designing it and making the restaurant a success once it has opened. When we started work on German Gymnasium, people thought we were mad to take on such a gigantic site and then to announce we were doing German food? They thought we were nuts! Then when it did open the critical acclaim wasn’t exactly unanimous (people had a LOT to say about the schnitzel) but we’ve worked hard to make it the best it can be and now it’s one of our greatest achievements.

The larger London restaurant scene in general is also a source of constant inspiration – seeing new places, new ideas, new cuisines, new drinks and great chefs opening restaurants all over town is incredible to see. There really isn’t a better city to be in if you love restaurants.


What’s been your biggest challenge to date?

Our first foray into NYC – we spent a lot of money to launch in a city we honestly didn’t know all that well and whilst there was initial success – we did $15m revenue in the year 2000, but still couldn’t make a profit.  We had to move with the times and constantly evolve Guastavino’s in order to make it a success. It is now a fabulous events venue and a firm fixture on the New York scene.

I guess an even more important challenge was founding D&D with my business partner David Loewi, buying Conran Restaurants. We both had a lot of experience in running those restaurants and were confident of success, but confidence and achieving results are different things. We both invested significantly in funding the buyout and knew it was going to be a gamble. Luckily it paid off!

Des Gunewardena & David Loewi at the launch of German Gymnasium

What are you most proud of?

I think the launch of South Place Hotel was something special – whilst we had launched the very successful Great Eastern Hotel in our Conran days, opening a hotel on our own, as part of a group which had become exclusively known for restaurants and make that a success was a risk. But we did it and are very proud of what we created.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the restaurant trade in the next 12 months?

Without a doubt that’s Brexit and all it entails, with cost going up on all fronts: wages, food and wine prices and now business rates. But I don’t like to dwell on the negative and I am confident that we will emerge with London and the UK in good shape. That’s not just talk either – we are putting our money where our mouths are and opening seven new restaurants in the next 12 months!


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Des Gunewardena & David Loewi at Sartoria

 

What do you think is the most exciting thing about the restaurant scene at the moment?

London’s like the Premiership in football – everyone wants to come here, be a part of it and make their mark, regardless of Brexit. I literally cannot keep up with the sheer number of amazing restaurants opening here. So the most exciting thing for me is the fantastically innovative food and restaurant culture in the UK today. I had to get rid of my wishlist long ago as there aren’t enough days in a week to try out all these great new places. I also think that the scene’s overall cultural diversity is a key part of what makes London and the UK so great to live in. My wife Liz and I are keen theatre and film-goers and the choice available is brilliant.

What are the best three dishes you’ve tried recently?

Nordic fish roes with potato blinis and sour cream at our new restaurant  Aster in Victoria
The entire tasting menu at Bak, Amsterdam, all served with natural wines
Ben Murphy’s presa Iberica with aubergine, ponzu and crackling at Launceston Place

Iberico presa, aubergine, ponzu, crackling
Presa Iberica with aubergine, ponzu and crackling at Launceston Place

What’s next?

We’re about to announce some very big projects both here and overseas in the next few weeks. Also our expansion of Bluebird is starting at Television Centre in White City, so lot’s more to come. Watch this space…

What’s the most important thing for an aspiring restaurateur to know?

Don’t bother! Only joking. If you’re opening somewhere new you need to be secure in your USP and know you’re doing at least one or two things better than anywhere else. That could be anything from the vibe you are creating in the restaurant to doing the best roast chicken in the capital. Whatever it is, you need to stand out – there are 20-30 restaurants opening here every month so setting yourself apart and making your place worth visiting is key. Opening is when the real work starts, and that there is no substitute for assembling a team of talented, passionate people who love what they do.

Also, I always say to budding restaurant entrepreneurs, come and spend some time working with us! As part of a big group you can explore every area of the business and gain all the experience you need before striking out on your own.