The world has gone mad for celebrity chefs, but one man is campaigning against the tide. “Chefs, in my opinion,” says long-time Financial Times restaurant critic Lander, “have been elevated to an overly lofty position.” It’s not that he’s against great cooks—quite the contrary—but he believes greatness can be attained only through “the partnership of a visionary restaurateur alongside a talented chef.” To set the record straight, Lander travels the world to speak with 20 industry leaders who run the front-of-house of top restaurants, from public figures Danny Meyer (Union Square in New York), Joe Bastianich (Mario Batali’s partner) and Trevor Gulliver (St. John in London) to equally accomplished but lesser-known individuals like Juli Soler—Ferran Adria’s partner in elBulli—and Wagamama founder Alan Yau.
Each portrait incorporates business analysis, personal anecdotes and insights such as the role that restaurants, as vibrant gathering places, can play in urban regeneration. Design, architecture, service and other elements are considered. In the process of unfolding often dramatic tales—bankruptcies, health problems and failed marriages are common—Lander also offers a globe-trotting tour of gastronomic proportions. The culinary writing is restrained—no gastro-porn here, which is unsurprising given his three decades of solid restaurant criticism. Lander recognizes the stress that comes with creating a successful restaurant. After all, he has been a restaurateur himself and begins the book with his own tale of opening the pioneering L’Escargot in London in the ’80s, then having to sell the restaurant due to poor health. (Soon after, his career took a turn when his column was born.)
Lander writes without a hint of snobbery, and an absence of interest in all things trendy. Don’t expect to learn about hyped restaurants like Noma or Faviken. Instead, look for valuable lessons and sound advice—such as these bons mots from a man once called the world’s greatest restaurateur, the late Jean-Claude Vrinat of Taillevant in Paris. What he says might also apply to what we all need: “A love of food, a love of wine and a love of one’s fellow human beings.”