Q&A: ANDREA FRAQUELLI
The co-founder and manager of La Brasseria on working with family, falling in love with Paris, and the difference between ambition and greed
Interview: Clare Finney
Portrait: Orlando Gili
First thing’s first: what was your relationship with Getti, the Italian restaurant that was here for over a decade before La Brasseria opened?
Getti was one of four restaurants my dad owned through his restaurant group Metropolitan, and I worked here as a manager during my twenties. It did very well when it first opened, and even towards the end had loyal customers, as the food was excellent. But it was tired. Outside, Marylebone was changing a lot, especially in food and drink, but Getti was in a bit of a rut. The ambition was zero.
I worked here under my father for a decade, then three years ago we had a bust-up: admittedly I didn’t always behave as well as I should have done—I liked a party, and it wasn’t unknown for me to wake up in New York when I was meant to be starting a shift—but I was also fed up of having no stake in the restaurant. In the end, it was a good thing: we re-established our relationship on better, more honest terms, and when my brother joined me in the business we seized the chance to transform Getti into La Brasseria, and our father happily took a step back.
So, it’s a totally different restaurant?
For a while, we were going to hold on to our heritage by including Getti in the name. Then to our designer’s dismay, three weeks before we were due to open, my brother and I sat down and said: “It’s do or die. Let’s drop the whole thing and start afresh.” I’m so glad we did, partly because of the number of people who have since come in here saying how much they disliked Getti and avoided going in! I’m not offended: we’ve had almost as many people telling us how they loved Getti, and hoped we were still the same place—because the food was good. It was the best thing about it. What was bad was the restaurant’s appearance.
I’m not sure I should tell you this, but if people come in and say they hated Getti, I tell them it is different, because it is different. They stay, eat and leave happy. And if people come in saying, “You haven’t changed it have you? I loved Getti!” I say, “No, not at all,” because in many ways we haven’t changed. We’ve the same chef, the same food suppliers and many of the same staff who were at Getti. And those people stay, eat and leave very happy too.
How has working in a family business influenced you?
I am a third-generation restaurant owner. My grandad, Lorenzo Fraquelli, founded Spaghetti House—London’s first ever Italian restaurant chain—in the 1950s, so he was pretty influential. He worked with his brother and brought over various family members from Italy to work in the restaurants as the business grew, but he passed away when my dad was young. My dad started working there with his uncle, then in 2000 decided to set up his own group of restaurants.
I worked with dad from the age of 13, waiting tables—we have a few employees in the company I have known since I was a child. The chef, for example, is like an uncle. He was a really important person in my unstable twenties—someone who was not my father, who I could be totally honest with. All the best people I have worked with in the past 10 years are in this building. Then of course there is my brother, my current business partner. He’d never been in the family business—he was a lawyer and had worked in the City for 20 years, but he was tired of the long hours and jealous of my freedom. We’re chalk and cheese: he is the straitlaced one with the legal background and nice shoes. I am the one with tattoos and sports gear. If we weren’t brothers, we wouldn’t be friends. As it is, we have a great relationship, and being such opposites has worked very well for La Brasseria.
My brother’s background and professionalism made us look very strong in front of the banks. At the same time, I brought experience in the restaurant industry. Now we’re established, we are run like a very organised British institution by my brother, but me and the boys and girls who work the floor try to bring charm and character. The customer doesn’t get a corporate animal, and the bank doesn’t feel we are unprofessional.
What other restaurant experience do you have?
When I was younger, I wanted to investigate how other people ran their restaurants, so I worked in Zuma, worked at The Wolseley. It was super instructive. I learnt a lot about making money at Zuma—it’s a printing machine—but it was from Wolseley owners Chris Corbin and Jeremy King that I learnt about hospitality and providing the best service. To this day they go from restaurant to restaurant—they are always in them—and all of them provide a human element you don’t get somewhere like The Ivy. Then, during university I spent a year in Paris as part of my degree and worked in Café de la Paix opposite the opera house. It was there that the idea for La Brasseria started to take shape in my mind.
What happened in Paris?
Café de la Paix was—still is—a super Parisian monster restaurant, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner to numbers I had never seen before, and I just fell in love. I had good friends, this job, a little romance, all the things that make you feel at home in a city, so I wrote my dad a letter telling him I was dropping out of university, living in Paris a bit longer, then coming home and taking over his restaurant to improve it. I was very dramatic at the time (I still can be!) and I remember exactly where I was and how I felt writing this letter. Anyway, my dad calmly wrote back and said, continue your studies and let’s talk when you get home.
I ended up graduating and, after a very brief career as a semi-pro footballer, which my dad largely subsidised, he insisted I get a job in his restaurant group again. But what happened there was the start of all of this: I loved Paris, I loved the restaurant business, and I loved all-day dining, which Italian cuisine does not permit.
Why doesn’t it?
In Italy we eat lunch and dinner religiously. We don’t eat breakfast: we have a cappuccino, maybe a cannoli to dunk in it, and a fag—and that’s it. Italian cuisine is primarily based on peasant food from the countryside. The dishes demand time, they form long sit-down meals, and aren’t suited to the eating environment of the city. Here, people want to eat at any given hour of the day—and usually with someone. We consume food and drink in social or business meetings. It’s not always necessary, but it gives us something to do while we talk.
Italian restaurants have fallen behind, I think. The food is as good as ever, but they’ve forgotten the role that mood plays. When you’re arranging to meet someone, you ask yourselves what atmosphere is conducive to what you are doing—and only then do you look at the menu. We’ve tried to accommodate that by having the cafe and terrace upstairs for a familiar meeting place, and a more formal dining room downstairs for special occasions, and the menu is Italian but caters for a busy city that eats at all times of night and day.
Your menu reflects a diversity of Italian cuisine, yet you describe yourself as a Milanese restaurant. How come?
We do have the veal and the risotto alla Milanese, but you’re right: our chef is Tuscan and we have dishes from Sicily, Venezia, Lazio, all over. The Milanese element is really about the metropolitanism and stylishness. Milan is the only city in Italy that is truly international—Rome is internationally visited, but it doesn’t adopt anything. Milan is more open-minded than the rest of Italy, which sells nothing but its own food. The city has opened itself up because of business links, fashion and geography. That is what we wanted to convey.
You have mentioned wanting to open a number of restaurants. Aren’t you wary, given the plight of some chains recently, of over-expanding?
It’s a fine line, but for me there is a real difference between ambition and greed—and I don’t want to be greedy. My dad showed me how to manage a neat company of four to six restaurants. It allows you to be hands-on, and to have trusted staff who have worked for you for years in each place. I don’t want a chain. I don’t want to lose that independent feel, but I think you can have more than one restaurant and still retain that. Our business model is about partnerships: we want our teams to feel they’ve a stake in the business. My second home is New York, because my mum is a New Yorker, and I want a second restaurant there, but nothing unmanageable. The term I despise is ‘roll out’: I don’t want 30 or 40 restaurants, I want three or four.
You fell in love with Paris, lived in Barcelona and describe New York as your second home. How do you identify?
My mum is Turkish and grew up in New York. My dad is Italian and grew up in England, so I was brought up half Muslim, half Catholic; half Turkish-American, half Italian-English, and for a while I was really confused. As it turns out, it’s been an absolute blessing, because I am not fiercely proud of anything. I can go to Paris and fall in love with that city, in a way a real Italian couldn’t bring themselves to do, and I can put French and Spanish wines on the menu, which my dad couldn’t believe. When I came back from living in Barcelona, he laughed that I preferred Spain to Italy. I said, “No, I prefer the Spanish to the Italians.” I can be all of those things and none of those things. I can be at home wherever I am.
My profound realisation over the past few months has been: I am a Londoner. The restaurant is an amalgamation of that feeling, and all the people I’ve met, the restaurants I’ve worked in and the places I’ve been.