2020 is here. How did that happen?
Well, we can tell you that we planned for how 2019 would happen, and 2020 will be no different.
You can’t plan for everything, of course; there are always ‘unknown unknowns.’ But because restaurants by nature have to move with the seasons, there are many reassuringly familiar touch points throughout the year which provide the ‘scaffolding’ that allows us to build on our successes (and remedy the failures) of the previous year.
Restaurant life has a certain structure. And each kitchen and restaurant floor has its own rhythm – one that hums and thrums below the surface of what, to customers and people outside the industry, can often seem overwhelming. The hours, the energy, the level of organisation, the being on your feet and on the move for long stretches.
Chapter One is in a beautiful Georgian basement. And when the first customer of the day descends the stairs, it’s a call to action: “On stage!” Because in many ways, running a restaurant of this size to the standards we aspire to and customers expect is a performance.
So staff know to do what every great actor does to excel. They learn their craft and they rehearse. Before anyone sets foot on the floor for service, they’ve analysed mistakes from the previous service, resolved them and determined to do even better. Because they want to do better. As a collective, we work hard to foster a learning culture where people get to feed their curiosity, nurture their talents and express themselves professionally in the ways they want.
So we plan and we plan. We look to the months ahead and schedule in time for teaching, learning, collaboration, relaxation, support and challenges (like wine exams!). Because it’s all about marginal gains, across all areas of service we consider how the dining experience can be improved – from booking to paying – and how the professional lives of our team can be made even better.
2019 was another big year for us. Another good year, and our first in over 25 years where for 12 months straight we didn’t do lunch Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. We still do dinner Tuesday to Saturday, but we’re now firmly a Friday lunch-only restaurant.
A strong, enduring trend for premiumisation across the industry is now apparent (even your local German supermarket has a ‘luxury range’ now, and why not!), but it was in its infancy when we decided to open earlier for Pre-Theatre – at 5 instead of 5.30. Our Premium four-course menu allows people who want to dine early the opportunity to enjoy dinner, but at a lower price and still be home to put the kids to bed.
The benefits of shorter opening hours continue to be felt everywhere across the restaurant. One of our key motivations for cutting lunches was to give the team a better work-life balance. Shorter hours means fewer shifts and leaves them more time and energy for the things they enjoy. And it is so important to be able to switch off in an industry that too often is fuelled not just by adrenaline, but by energy drinks, cigarettes, poor sleep and an even poorer diet.
Fewer shifts also gives people more time and energy for learning. So they get to study wine (and gain valuable qualifications), hear talks from Ireland’s best food producers, make off-site visits to see what’s happening in the food production business, and get nuggets of wisdom from mental-health professionals so they can thrive in an industry that is wonderful but which at least in the past, could be as punishing for your head as it was for your body.
And then there is the food. Chapter One introduces new dishes regularly in response to the bounty that Irish producers deliver every season, but particularly at this time of year, our team is full of ideas. Recipes are forming, techniques are bubbling away in the grey matter, waiting to be tested – to find the dish they were made for. Maybe it’s the kickstart that is every New Year, or the R&R that the team get over Christmas (we close on Christmas Eve for at least two weeks), but more likely it’s the food they’ve cooked, eaten or seen, or perhaps something about the restaurants they’ve visited. Inspiration can come from anywhere. And for that we’re thankful.
But we wait. Every year when we return from the holidays, we like to wait a while before introducing new dishes. We want them to be perfect, and like everything else, recipes have to be rehearsed, over and over, so that by the time they hit the menu, they’re as good as they can be, with all the ingredients and constituent parts singing the same hymn. It’s as good as it gets. And we’re hoping – no, planning – that 2020 will be no different.