Just when the recession began to bite the luxury sector, the El Bulli-trained chef and entrepreneur, Nuno Mendes, and his elegant partner, Clarise Faria, launched The Loft Project, a ‘chef’s gallery’ in London’s gritty yet trendy neighbourhood of Dalston.
The story goes back seven years to New York when Mendes found himself between projects. At the time, he had been working for a contract caterer who had an amazing, unused space that was going to waste. Before the phrase had been coined, Mendes envisioned an exclusive ‘pop-up restaurant’ – a place you would need a password to get in and that would be promoted by word of mouth.
Each evening at The Loft Project, up to 16 guests pay $200 to visit Nuno’s private loft and enjoy a 14 course tasting-menu in the chef’s signature experimental style, eaten around a communal dining table in the open-plan space next to the kitchen.
In April the couple opened Viajante, a restaurant for the newly christened Town Hall Hotel in the equally up-and-coming area of Bethnal Green. Viajante (Mendes’s nickname, meaning ‘traveller’) was always going to be a fairly personal project, and in some ways he saw The Loft Project as a launch pad or ‘test kitchen’ for it, but it soon took on a life of its own.
Now that Mendes is cooking in his more conventional restaurant, Faria sources talented, out of the ordinary chefs to cook in the ‘gallery’, and artists to participate in a quarterly rotating exhibition. There are no restrictions placed on the visiting chefs. They have already been vetted and deemed to be competent so they are released from the shackles of predictable restaurant cuisine and given a completely free rein. Some of the chefs without the capital to open their own restaurants are perhaps hoping to find an investor around the table – a dream that has already come true for one of them.
Mendes and Faria want to leverage people’s enthusiasm for the project in creating a lifestyle brand, and have already approached a ceramic artist who is set to design and produce a crockery line. During the week, the space can be reserved for private functions. The Royal Bank of Scotland recently had a private lunch for 18 clients who had flown in from Sydney. Having requested an Australian chef, that’s exactly what the couple arranged.
Rick Pushinsky, an exhibitor at The Loft Project
Enthusiasm for a shared experience is central to Mendes’s fresh, understated take on luxury which has no doubt been shaped by a childhood spent in Cascais, a little beach town in Portugal, brimming with staggering produce but fewer flashy restaurants. “Luxury is about personalised experiences. It doesn’t have to be gold-plated and it’s certainly not about bling. It’s seeing something that is produced ‘for me’.”
In his eyes, being made to feel special and not just like another guest is what separates a great restaurant from a good one. That means adapting what you offer to suit your guests, or maybe sending out a complimentary course because you think you have something they might like to try.
And this isn’t just a charm offensive; it is rooted in an understanding of the zeitgeist. The pair believes that the formula of The Loft Project works because it is at a time when people are being more cautious with their money but still open to spending it on a unique experience.
Considering the financial crisis more generally, Mendes believes that it weeded out a lot of the bad restaurants and those motivated by the wrong things. However, he is confident that “the good guys will stay” because they will rethink the market and open something else because the talent and the will are there. This notion of sensitivity to the consumer and subtle adaptability is one which is relevant throughout the luxury industry.
Mendes believes that the current luxury buzz words of ‘authenticity’ and ‘integrity’ are also relevant to restaurants, and to his passion for breaking down the barrier between the kitchen and the dining table. It is a about the value that luxury consumers now place on the process behind the finished product – the same message that underpinned the Louis Vuitton campaign showing the careful crafting of their products. “An absolute parallel,” he says. “It is to demystify the secrets”. Perhaps. Or maybe, to make them all the more intriguing?
Having watched several of the chefs from The Loft Project progress to opening their own restaurants, Mendes is also convinced that “Now is the best time for the little guy to come through”. Rather than looking for glitzy opportunities, he believes long term success lies in getting inspired yourself and inspiring your guests. “You should always adapt your business to who you are,” he sagely advises. “You don’t have to follow a set format.”