Mike Hughes has an excellent cappuccino and an entertaining meeting with the family behind San Carlo restaurants.
It soon became clear I had made a big mistake interviewing San Carlos founder Carlo Distefano and his MD son Marcello. Not the interview itself – that was an entirely enjoyable hour at their Leeds restaurant. But after 36 years in journalism, you would think by now I would know that if you are interviewing people whose lives revolve around food, do it over lunch.
Don’t book them in at 2.30 in the afternoon just after they have walked off their own meal and you have grabbed a bowl of muesli before you left home. Within a few minutes of meeting this family double act I was dreaming of Capesante Con Spinaci, followed by Tagliolini Lobster and then Crostata Al Frutti Di Bosco and one of the outstanding cappuccinos I enjoyed during the interview.
Still, I was served a varied menu of observations, passion and humour from Carlo and Marcello in their South Parade restaurant, where their regular Belgian architect had again worked his magic. Food critic Jay Rayner said it was “just what the city needed” to waken up its foodie focus and the surroundings and atmosphere have as much to do with that as the legendary portions and lengthy menu.
“After having a restaurant on Fountain Street in Manchester called Coco’s, we started San Carlo in 1992 in Birmingham,” said 71-year-old Carlo. “Not everyone thought it was a good idea, but for me it has always been about food and family.”
Marcelo says back home in Sicily, the textbook Italian family kitchen was everyday life for the Distefanos. “We always came together over meals. The morning was spent planning the afternoon meal and the afternoon spent planning the evening meal. Now we still make sure we are eating by 1pm and then again by 6pm.
“So we wanted our first restaurant to be the sort of place we would want to eat at. People told us it was a ballsy approach to go so big in Manchester, but my father knew what he was doing.”
Obviously so, as the chain now has city centre sites in Leeds, Bristol, Leicester, Manchester, Liverpool and London, with Qatar opening in the next few weeks and Bahrain planned for 2016. The Leeds building was bought before Manchester, but the family released the lease to another restaurant so they could concentrate on Manchester. But 14 years ago they knew it was the right place to be and took the lease back.
The Italian ethos has a worldwide appeal and Carlo’s vision, enthusiasm and confidence have given the chain a seemingly unassailable head start over any potential rivals. His influence has not waned – fuelled by his passion to make sure no single detail lets them down. As Marcello tells me how carefully he sources the chairs for their diners (no one likes to be shuffling uncomfortably after the first half-hour in a good restaurant), his father is misty-eyed about his obsession.
“I come to one of my restaurants every day, and if I hear someone saying they have enjoyed their meal and yet there is food left on the plate, I wait until they have gone and go over to see if anything was wrong with the meal.
“If I am at home a little bored, I will come to one of the restaurants and when I see the plates full of fine food I feel better. It’s a passion – I feel it in my heart. Why would I want to retire or take a holiday when I love my work so much?”
Marcello politely interrupts (‘my father likes to talk...’ ) to say that as the company has evolved, so has the taste of its customers and of Britain as a whole.
“There is so much diversity here. In Paris you get French food, but in our big cities now there are so many to choose from. Thirty years ago, eating out was something you did on Saturday night, but now there is such a breadth and array of foods to bring people out. Not every customer will want Veal Tuscany.
“It is about value creation. If you want a longevity in your business, you get good suppliers and good recipes and you will last for decades and develop.”
The suppliers are one of Carlo’s specialities, with equal passion for the right veal, olive oil
or tomatoes to be brought in from Italy. “We could do it all for less money, but money has never interested me that way. Not too many ingredients, but good ingredients. Sometimes there is nothing better than simple fish well cooked.”
The staff – there are now around 1,000 of them – are selected with equal care and educated in the ways of the family. There is a San Carlo instinct that has to be obvious or achievable, a warmth that makes them fit into the ethos of the company.
Carlo still gets regular phone calls from aspiring chefs and waiters in Italy who want to start their careers at San Carlo. “I tell them not to get into it if they are doing it for money,” says Carlo. “If you want to be a restaurateur, you have to have the passion to work a 15 hour day.”
Marcello himself realised he had that passion after he left Bath University with his sights set on a banking job alongside many of his friends. “I was cocky and headstrong,” he admits, “but as I was going to interviews I realised this wasn’t what I wanted. I had grown up with my father’s business and I knew it and shared his ideas.”
The lure of a life with San Carlo now also includes Carlo’s other son Alessandro and renowned chef Aldo Zilli, who is Chef Consilere to the group, advising them on menus and adding his own touch to the restaurants.
San Carlo is a key ingredient in Leeds and in business quarters around the country for two main reasons. As well as the obvious – authentic food very well cooked and presented – there is a way of doing business that is appreciated by seasoned executives and entrepreneurs alike. Years of experience and a complete belief in what they do; market research on every stroll around the city every day; passion for the end product; pride in what is being achieved; teamwork at every level and – enjoy it all.
That’s a recipe we can all use. Adapt where necessary, but stick to the basic ingredients.
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