LONDON: Inside one of the most iconic buildings of London, Martin Milesi has created a unique concept that serves just one table. He has been halted with the COVID-19 crisis but he still believes that his concept is a winning one.
Housed inside the St Pancras clock tower, UNA London, gives him the freedom to think away from the constraints of rents that can bring down restaurants particularly when these are closed down.
The Argentinian born chef reached out to discuss #Whatnext for the restaurant world. In this conversation, we touch upon his concept, why creativity will not come from the kitchen but from the concepts and how restaurants will need to become multi-space, creative hubs where chefs run them as a business.
The chef is also an illustrator and he explains the importance of art for creativity.
Martin, you have a unique concept centred around a table. You pay only rent when you utilise the space. How did you come up with the concept?
UNA is strongly inspired by the history of gastronomy. UNA is the “sobremesa” of Argentina, it is the “txoco” of the Basque Country, it is the Japanese Omakase, it is the British private dining room, it is a mixture of all the gastronomies of the world. I always thought the concept of a restaurant is what attracts the audience. Food is the excuse to attract people. The first restaurant in France in s. XVIII was purely conceptual when Dossier Boulanger invited his clients with a convincing message: “Come to me, all of whose stomachs are in distress, and I will restore you”. Pure concept. He created something that didn’t exist before.
UNA is my ideal restaurant, the one I’ve always wanted to have. Anyone who has had the experience to visit UNA can vouch for the fact is a unique experience. Some say it is like going to see a strictly private show that is completely tailored to the customer who wants to experience it. The success and key to UNA lies in mutual trust and going with the flow. It is a real communion between chef and diner.
UNA defies explanation, it rejects categorisation, disobeys the rules of gastronomy.
Creating a concept is more complex than creating a dish. A recipe is a mixture of knowledge with the way we want the customer to eat what we cook. The concept is the interaction with the client as a result of that. It is more challenging. It is more abstract. It is to connect what we have lived with what we want to live with.
When did you come up with the idea UNA?
The idea for UNA came up in 2007 when I was still living in Argentina. Since then I wanted to have a restaurant with a single table for 12 diners. There is one kitchen working for just one table. Guests are attended to so that they can feel unique and we have a very special relationship with them.
It took me many years until I understood how to transform my romantic idea into a brand and a business that has been open for 7 years. I have never done it in Buenos Aires but I always knew that London would be the perfect place for a concept like this one. So I moved here, I transformed the business model for something ephemeral, ethereal, giving power to the table, rather than my dishes. UNA’s business model is something that makes me feel proud.
Seven years ago it was impossible to think in a restaurant with only one table. Today, I can observe how many chefs chose to open this kind of place where you build a very special connection with your clients. I’m delighted, very proud. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only UNA”.
What are your thoughts about the concept in a post-COVID world?
The model of UNA gives us time to create, to think, to keep learning, to travel.
And this particular system gives us freedom. Freedom makes us better chefs.
Now, with the lockdown I am really conscious that my concept is the evolution of the restaurant. The model allows us to do it as many times as we want. UNA will continue to create different experiences in London always around a table. We work on keeping it ephemeral and special. For me, UNA is a work of art, a performance where the relationship with the diner is what transforms a simple tasting menu into something unforgettable, into a memory.
We want to re-create the concept in different cities all over the world.
Argentina is the first place where we will visit but we are also in conversation to re-create the experience in cities like Miami when Art Basel takes place. Collaborative dinners will stop for a while, but I believe restaurants will travel and open for certain time while they close in the original site.
We look forward to traveling again so we can achieve this dream. The ephemeral concept is getting stronger and stronger.
An Argentinian in London, what have you been up to during the past weeks. What ideas have emerged from the lockdown?
I believe in places that will be multi-space, creative gastronomic hubs where chefs will run as many businesses as they can in one single place. The chef is not a cook anymore, he has to become an entrepreneur. To be the executive chef of a hotel is not our dream. Cooking is no longer enough. It’s time to start getting creative with concepts and convince investors that there are new business models that can be much more profitable than a simple restaurant. “The new normal” is going to be different, things will change and those who learn to adapt to change will survive. Being creative and looking into new opportunities is the way to go.
Delivery is here to stay. Although we we are not delivering food with UNA, we are working on a new concept that will bring fine dining to the home in a different and disruptive way.
Internet bring us new ways to connect with our customers. Not only with bookings, but with the opportunity to continue our relationship with them after their visit. Engagement and compromise is everything. Restaurant service will not be finished once the bill has been paid.
In my particular case, many of you know that I am chef but also a professional illustrator. I have been working in the development of DRÓ ( pronounced Draw) , an old project that consist of a series of Art prints and products dedicated to gastronomy.
Being an illustrator, how does this side activity help you in your core job?
My own concept of art is the capability to change the state of mind of people. I bet you are happier after visiting an art gallery. Being an illustrator gives me the chance to create a concept like UNA where our client is the protagonist of our gastronomy, our performance. If they felt happier after a night at UNA, if they remember that meal for ever, it means we did a very good job, not only as chefs, but artists.
The creative process is quite similar: An empty dish is like a blank canvas. You have the same feelings when you create a new dish or a simple drawing.
Thinking as artists is why I can lead the life I lead, to live the way I live. Art saves lives. Those who connect with art are those who will survive of this crisis. During the First World War, a new way of practicing art emerged from a bar in Geneva.
There is talk of reopening everywhere. Some countries are more advanced than others but the measures are pretty much the same. Will dining out be pleasurable again if there is social distancing?
I think it will be even more pleasurable when some restaurants will have to accommodate the space for less people. Even the small restaurants will provide much better service. While this happens, they will need to think of new ways to generate revenue or have better margins. It is happening already. There is a table 20cm away from yours? Ok, change it. Don’t complain. Just change it.
I am personally starting to crave restaurants again. Eating in restaurants is a form of reward and therapy that people need right now. And we’re going to adapt quickly to being in more empty places.
However, I think people will be scared and restaurants will be struggling for sometime. It will take a couple of years to recoup all the margin lost in the last three months. So the best way to change this is throw away the old business model and start once again in the same place. Do not give up! Change the model! Adapt!
What trends have you seen emerging and what do you think are the ideas that will stick once we exit the crisis?
People will spend less money and they will be more focused to create experiences in their own home. I think restaurants should reduce their fixed costs, as we do with my concept. Flexibility is required from landlords and there is an excellent opportunity to have a great reset of the entire restaurant system. If we believe that by going back to the business model we had before, we are going to save our company, we will not survive. We have to create new formats, because people are going to ask us for new ways to be served.
I believe that chefs need to think of restaurants that can close as many times as necessary. Look at Noma: First at Inderhavnsbroen bridge, then in Tulum while they were building the new place in Christiania. Now as a burger restaurant. SellIng burgers is not forced by the crisis. It is a message to all the chefs all over the world. I love it! Flexibility and love of what we do is the key.
How will the world of restaurants look like this autumn? Will we still have fine dining? Will it be completely different?
I can’t wait to find out how we’re going to transform again as professionals. It happened with Auguste Escoffier who improved the business, with Paul Bocuse that made us to cook better and build confidence, and we are contemporaries of the last big change we had with Ferrán Adria who taught us a lot of things: Techniques, recipes, the use of new ingredients, the brigades of 50 cooks for 50 guests, introduced us to the Tasting Menu, thousands and thousands of new things. But the most beautiful thing we learnt from Ferrán was that a restaurant can be closed and still be kept in people’s minds and hearts.
Successful fine dining restaurants are built on fully booked dining rooms so I think many will have to improve their proposal in terms of numbers.
I think would be a good idea to re-think the time a tasting menu takes. The tasting menu should be shorter, no one wants to sit in the same chair for four hours. In this way, three Michelin restaurants could perform more seatings in the same shift. I would love to taste food for a couple of hours and then walk through the garden and continue my experience while the table is being used by a new customer.
I also think that local tourism will grow, so prices should be more accessible aimed at the local public.
Fine dining is set to be transformed by chefs with even more conscious mindsets. Social consciousness. More ethical.
The anti-establishment restaurant will be successful. Fine dining will be different and very much more exciting than before. It is time to think differently. A restaurant with only one table is possible.