Over 30 years as a chef-patron, Martin Lam has seen booms and busts, glitzy openings and high-profile failures, and any number of trends come and go. Chris Losh finds out how he did it – and what he thinks of the current UK on-trade
When Ransome’s Dock closed its doors for the last time in August there was an outpouring of emotion across print and digital media. Journalists, sommeliers, restaurateurs, food critics and wine producers lined up in papers and magazines, as well as on Twitter and Facebook, to register their sorrow – and to wish its proprietor well.
To an outsider, this might seem odd. Ransome’s Dock wasn’t Michelin-starred; it wasn’t especially fashionable, and it sure as hell wasn’t in a trendy address. It didn’t do dirty burgers, blue-collar cocktails or Vietnamese street food, and its closure was voluntary rather than imposed by circumstance or scandal.
In short, it shouldn’t have been much of a news story at all. But it was. And the reason it was is sitting across from my tape recorder in the Groucho Club, placidly sipping a lunchtime cappuccino.
In The Mists Of Time…
Martin Lam set up Ransome’s Dock 21 years ago, in the depths of the last recession, and had been there as chef proprietor ever since. This, combined with a previous 10 years at the heart of the London restaurant scene of the 1980s, made him An Institution. Everybody who was anybody in food or wine had eaten in one of his places over the last 30 years, and now he was gone. Poof! Just like that.
I expect to find him red-eyed and distraught, bereft at having seen the bulldozers go in to take out everything he had built up over so long, ready for the new venue. But he isn’t.
‘I’m always looking forward,’ he says. ‘Like everything else in one’s life, [the time you spend somewhere]forms part of the ground that you stand on. I can look back very fondly on the staff and customers over all those years. But if I didn’t end it when I did, we’d just have kept going and going. We had to draw a line in the sand somewhere.’
The summer months before the doors closed for the last time were, he concedes, ‘quite emotional’, with dozens of regulars appearing to say goodbye, and streams of letters and emails from people who had been taken there as small children, and had since revisited with their own kids.
The Art Of Consistency
‘I had no idea we’d be there for 20 years,’ says Lam. ‘Ten would have been the most we’d have thought about. I hope what we come away with is that we’ve achieved an awful lot in the last 21 years. Some of it has been groundbreaking. An awful lot of it has just been being consistent – being there year after year.’
This consistency is something he returns to several times during our conversation. He’s too tactful to come out and say it, but I sense he feels both a sadness and a frustration at the ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ nature of the UK restaurant scene, whether that means those venues that surf a trend then close within a couple of years, or those chefs/sommeliers who are always on the move.
‘Cooks – as opposed to chefs – don’t stay long anymore,’ he says. ‘And that’s part of the problem. In a good kitchen, where there is skill to be acquired, two or three years is a good time to stay. Nothing has changed except the aspiration to achieve quickly. People think they can do it in six months.’
In Paris, he points out, the public expects a restaurant to be around for a long time. ‘The French want longevity, but we don’t always value that here, and especially in London. I’m one of the few owner-operators who’s lasted anywhere near that long. Le Caprice, for instance, has had three owners in that time.’
Part of the problem, for sure, is the constant search for shiny new trends. It’s particularly an issue in the capital, where there are dozens of openings every week, but Lam is generally unimpressed with much of what he’s seeing at the moment.
‘Look how much comfort food there is in London…‘ he shakes his head. ‘All this American-influenced food, like burgers. Some of it’s quite good, but it’s unchallenging. Burgers and hot dogs? It ain’t new… There’s no way it can be called cutting-edge food. And it’s blue-collar food, but not at blue-collar prices. A lot of these places you won’t get out for less than £40-£50 a head.’
Pick On a Pop-up
Pop-ups are, he concedes, a genuine innovation. And one, moreover, that he quite likes – but as a concept he feels that they’ve lost their initial ingenuous enthusiasm. ‘Pop-ups have come and gone already,’ he sighs. ‘It seems to have become something that’s been cynically manipulated.
I love the idea of someone having a great idea and just doing it for a week. But for most of them it would be more honest to call themselves “short leases”.’
The art of restaurateuring is not a new one. Anyone who thinks they’ve
reinvented it wants to stop and look back a little
This might make him sound like a grumpy old git, but that would be grossly inaccurate. It’s more the reasoned reflections of a veteran of several booms and busts and three decades of Next Big Things, from cordon bleu to comfort burgers and provincial French to Blumenthalian high science.
‘The art of restaurateuring is not a new one,’ he says. ‘Anyone who thinks they’ve reinvented it wants to stop and look back a little. If no-bookings, for instance, was the only way, then wouldn’t everyone be doing it? It’s part of the mix… but no more than that.’
Bucking The Trend
One of the elements that always set Ransome’s Dock apart was the wine list. Quirky, and slightly chaotic, it fizzed with various enthusiasms that owed absolutely nothing to current fashion. Lam, for instance, was championing sherry long before it (finally) became fashionable again, and the number of neighbourhood restaurants in the UK who are sufficiently committed to Madeira to have multiple suppliers (as he did) could probably be totted up on the fingers of one hand.
It’s one of the reasons that Ransome’s Dock came to be known affectionately as the ‘wine trade canteen’ – such was the procession of merchants and visiting winemakers who regularly came through its doors, looking to see what was new and trendy and, doubtless, hoping for a listing.
And yet the move into buying the wine as well as cooking came about almost by accident. When L’Escargot was bought out in the 1980s, the new owners didn’t replace the former GM, Nick Lander. Someone else had to buy the wine – and that someone ended up being Lam.
A Little Help From Friends
He did it for a couple of years, calling on Lander’s wife (a certain Jancis Robinson MW OBE) for help where necessary, then left to set up Ransome’s Dock, where he continued to take responsibility for the wine as well as the food.
It might have meant a fair bit of extra work, but there were distinct advantages, as he admits. Not only was he able to chalk up a list of 35 suppliers without being leant on to cut back, and to go to as many tastings as he could justify, but the fact that he was an ever-present figure brought consistency.
‘The trouble with a lot of restaurants is that sommeliers come and go,’ he says. ‘So many restaurants say “I’ve got all this stuff lying around in the cellar that the last sommelier bought because he had a pet region, and the wines don’t sell very well now because he’s not here”.’
‘cooks – as opposed to chefs – don’t stay long any more.
And that’s part of the problem’
Even back in 1980s Soho, L’Escargot was an early adopter of New World wine, and Lam continued this open-minded policy on into Ransome’s Dock, his ubiquitous presence at tastings and willingness to take on new accounts often making him one of the first to spot emerging talent. Yet when asked to predict the most exciting regions at the moment, he finds himself drawn back to Europe.
‘Eastern Europe is undergoing a massive transformation,’ he says. ‘Every time I taste a new wine from there – a wine that has been cleaned up, in the way that Southern Italy was cleaned up 15 years ago – I’m impressed. Countries like Bulgaria… Hungary… and Turkey deserves to be given more limelight, too.
‘In the last five years there’s been a lot of foreign help to clean up the wineries,’ he continues. ‘Though I’d love to come back in 100 years’ time and see what’s happening with Pinot in New Zealand. I think we’ll see vineyard distinctions there as distinct as Burgundy.’
For now, Lam says he’s ‘just trying to figure out how I can pass on what I’ve learned in a way that earns me a living’ – but this is characteristic understatement. Once he’s back from his ‘first holiday in 20 years’, I’d be surprised if there weren’t a sizable number of chefs, general managers and sommeliers queuing up for his advice on everything from sourcing and recipes to margins and Madiran.
So he may be gone, for the moment. But, like Arnie, he’ll be back. He is, after all, a survivor…
Martin Lam on…
1,000-BIN WINE LISTS – ‘That’s a really lazy way of doing things. Especially when there are multiple listings or vintages of the same wine.’
THE RECESSION – ‘This recession is so different from the last one [in the 1980s]. That lasted four years at most, edge to edge. This one is in its fifth year, and there are parts of the UK – even London – that are really struggling still.’
SOMMELIERS AS SALESMEN – ‘It might be sexy for the merchant to have someone on board with lots of potential contacts. But I don’t think I’d be any more influenced by a sommelier than a salesman.’
SETTING UP – ‘It’s definitely harder to set up a restaurant now. For a stand-alone business, there’s so much stuff you have to deal with. It’s why the chains do better – they have departments that can deal with all that stuff.’
LONGEVITY – ‘It’s food, it’s wine, it’s service… in the right environment. If you compromise on any of those it won’t last very long.’
- 1955 Born in Bristol
- 1969 Starts work doing the washing
- up in Keith Floyd’s restaurant
- 1973 Begins work as chef in Bath
- 1976 Moves to London and goes to work
- at Justin de Blank’s traiteur
- 1978 Becomes chef at the opening of
- The English House in Chelsea
- 1981 Chef at opening of Le Caprice
- 1982 Joins L’Escargot as head chef
- 1992 Opens Ransome’s Dock
- 2013 Closes Ransome’s Dock