Words by: Ian Cameron
Xavier Landais is in charge of 23 bars at some of London's most iconic venues including the Ivy, Annabel's and Le Caprice. As group head bartender for Caprice Holdings and the Birley Group he is in the midst of a project to rejuvenate and reinvent the company's cocktail prowess. CLASS gets exclusive access to some of the capital's hidden gems.
Xavier Landais occupies an unusual, privileged position. He is in control of the drinking habits of London's elite at some of its most exclusive bars, restaurants and members' clubs.
Behind those famous stained glass windows in Covent Garden is The Ivy, with its members club above (and a home in Dubai). Nearby, there's the Diagon Alley-like surroundings of J. Sheekey off St Martin's Lane. In Mayfair, there's upper class seafood restaurant Scott's, and steak restaurant 34 close by in Grosvenor Square. Ladies who lunch in Piccadilly head to Le Caprice, in Fitzrovia is its Asian outpost Bam-Bou, and then there are the Rivington Grills in Shoreditch and Greenwich (again with an outpost in Dubai). Together, these form Caprice Holdings.
However, there's also a tier of venues even more exclusive, so much so that they are all but hidden from all but the most privileged in society: a network of members clubs for old money, aristocrats and the establishment. There's high class shenanigans at Annabel's in Berkeley Square (think private performances by Lady Gaga), with Mark's Club round the corner (dress code: 'dark suit and tie'). There are the old school haunts of Harry's Bar and George on South Audley Street. These form the Birley Group, and there's a long wait for membership.
It's no surprise that the reverse of Xavier's business card carries logos for each of the sites: a helpful aide-memoire, if nothing else, for each venue has at least one bar (even its sports venue the Bath & Racquets Club has a bar in the wood-panelled changing rooms), most have two or three.
What each site has in common is that they are known for being comfortable venues, oases from the urban jungle, safe havens with good food and exemplary service. But drinks?
Against the background of the wider cocktail renaissance, in 2009 the group decided to appoint a group head bartender to coordinate efforts across the group, to make sure the bar culture was up to date and the drinks as good as any you'd find in a cutting edge independent.
Did they turn to a big-name bartender, a famous mixologist? Not so much. Instead, with typical understated discretion, they appointed someone relatively untried, untested - largely unknown in the wider field. Xavier Landais, a quiet (but, you suspect, ruthless) Frenchman, was managing the two bars at J. Sheekey at the time.
"The job was created because there was a need," he says. "In the last ten years the cocktail world had exploded and we hadn't jumped on the wagon soon enough. Where you have kitchens it's common to have a chef director, but there was no-one to drive the bartenders.
"Some of the restaurants, bars and clubs are very classic and that was reflected in a choice of drinks that was very safe. Some of the sites were a bit behind in drinks and the bartenders weren't at a level where you would give them the 'key' to their own bars."
Xavier's had to tread a careful line, running a gauntlet past five internal colleagues to the job, but more significantly, as a 34-year-old, because some of his staff have been working within the company for longer than he's been alive.
He admits he was green when he won the role. Although he had worked in the group for eight years, the group had expanded hugely in that time and actually he had only worked at J. Sheekey. "It was a massive jump, from managing two bars to 16, so the first few months were spent looking around understanding the business," he admits. "Looking back, the first few months were a bit wobbly. A few of the sites I had never even been to before. I didn't have any experience of negotiating contracts. And it was difficult because I had to balance wanting to make my mark and not having to wait years to change things.
"I never worried about a lack of credibility - I'm a hard-working guy, and when you pull in the hours I think that wins respect. But I definitely learned diplomacy. So even if you think a drink might be considered average by an outsider, it's probably the way guests are used to drinking them, so you can't change things too fast."
Under Xavier's tenure, changes to the bars have been manifest - firstly by improving the bars physically. "It used to be like this: here's a Boston and glass, a hawthorn strainer and a 50ml measure, now off you go. No one had heard of julep tins, Japanese spoons or Yarai mixing glasses. Some of the bars had no proper station or even a decent ice well - just a half-gallon stainless steel well."
"Now bar equipment is now up to date with current trends, cocktail menus have been created where there weren't any, and the spirits selections have been fully reviewed where they might have been 'dated'," says Xavier. "We've developed our bars more in the last three years than in the previous ten. Every bar in the group has been tampered with in some way."
He's talking wholesaling rebuilding of some bars, and proper stations and ice wells built into others; jiggers made by a silversmith; bespoke glassware including champagne saucers (for bottle serves only, flutes the rest of the time); Hoshizaki ice machines and freezers; out goes Smirnoff and Jose Cuervo in the speed rails, in comes Ketel One and Tapatio, joined by Tanqueray and Hine.
More than those physical attributes, Xavier's sought to instil a bar culture that was lacking. Once a month, he takes six bartenders out and treats them to drinks at the best bars in particular areas - Mayfair one month, Shoreditch the following month, Notting Hill the next - so they stay up to date with wider trends. It's not just a free night out - Xavier makes bartenders write a report, with criticism, comments and feedback. "It's not all rosy just yet - training is an ongoing process: you can't fall asleep."
There's a full training calendar in place for bartenders - tastings, trips and practical classes every week of the year, covering not just spirits and cocktails, but wine, coffee and the business side of things too. "Now my bar managers have full control over their own bars and could open their own bar next week if they wanted. They understand profit and loss, GPs, and costings. Previously that was a bit of a challenge, particularly for the Birley Group." It's all had a knock-on effect on recruitment, he says, and word of the changes is spreading: "Now I have bartenders knocking on the door."
Xavier denies that any one venue is any sort of 'flagship' over the rest, but if any one can be called his baby, it's 34, the steak and cocktails restaurant with a bar designed to Xavier's specification. It sports a vintage collection of cocktail paraphernalia and a list of classically inspired original drinks served in lavish crystal glassware. Its bartenders, led by Renaud de Bosredon, a bartender from Quo Vadis, are capable, precise, geeky (in a good way) and competitive. The idea is to sweep away the perception that 34 as a 'mere' restaurant bar is in any way inferior to a standalone cocktail bar.
Even though there was months of preparation behind the bar, in the end the cocktail list was formed in a few days ahead of opening. "The brief went into the bin and we put the list together in a week, but it was really collaborative. We had a sea of ingredients in front of us: everyone went to Whole Foods, bought a basket's worth of ingredients, or brought in bags of whatever they had. It was a very bonding experience.
"Garnishes are not over-board but are certainly cutting edge for Caprice Holdings. They're simply cut, citrus peels cut with old barbers shears, half crushed-ice shells, a little bit of foam, that's all."
One sign of the confidence with which Xavier wields his power is his choice of a replacement bar manager at Annabel's for the outgoing Mohamed Ghannan, who had been at the helm for more than 44 years.
In a mirror of his own promotion more than two years before, he went for someone relatively untried and untested. Step forward fellow Frenchman Mickael Perron, previously of the Sanderson Hotel and a brand ambassador for Angostura Bitters and Marie Brizard: a big name in drinks competitions but only 32, sporting long hair and totally unschooled in the ways of Mayfair members' clubs
"I interviewed more than 40 bartenders. I took it down to a shortlist of two, took that to the operations director and we agreed who we would take to the chief executive. But he said no way: 'no Mayfair experience, too young'. But I was convinced he was right - he's a legend, has amazing techniques, could drive the team up technically and was focussed on cocktails as much as on hospitality. And, of course, he's French.
"He has had to prove he can do the job, particularly when his colleagues have worked there for longer than his age, but now he is liked and loved by the members."
The changes Xavier has put in place are helped by the fact that he has worked his way through the company and seen it at all levels. And if he was green when he took on the group bar manager position, he was an even more lurid limey hue when he originally chanced upon the Ivy, knocked on the door and asked for a job in what was then pigeon English. With classical catering training he had held only one previous job in London, at Bank restaurant at Aldwych. As a combination of naivety and chutzpah it was a brilliant move.
"I had never even heard of the Ivy before I walked through the door in 2001," he says. "I saw the windows and thought it looked nice, so I went straight in. I didn't have a CV but they said to go upstairs - that's when the offices were above the restaurant, now it's the Club. Straight away I had an interview with the HR director and the next day I was told there was an opening in J. Sheekey.
"For me it was like watching a show, there was a full house with 130 covers and there was this synchronised flow, people crossing past each other. I was struck by the professionalism, the mise-en-place. It beat by a mile any restaurant I had worked in France or England and I told my girlfriend 'this is incredible'."
After six months, Xavier got a lucky break - a job opening at the bar and the opportunity to learn the ways of the cocktail under Tower Isho, an Iraq-born old school bartender who had trained in California. "I was extremely lucky because no one ever moved, so someone must have left. Tower wasn't a creative bartender as such, but he had a great overview of the job and a profound sense of hospitality. He gave me my first real idea of what proper hospitality was - he'd give you a smile and a hug and customers would come back again and again.
"He taught me that it wasn't enough for a bartender just to do a good cocktail. We were working a bar with great cocktails - 50 classics but no list - incredible food, a wine list of 150 bins and coffee, so you have to master it all. Formal French training on the floor did little to prepare me for any of that."
After two years, Xavier returned to France but it felt 'backwards' and he quickly realised his destiny lay in London. After a brief spell in the Wolsey, he walked back into a job in J. Sheekey as assistant bar manager, took over as bar manager a year-and-a-half after that in 2006, and stayed.
Today, Xavier is modest about the journey he has taken and the responsibility he bears - which you might consider surprising given the sheer economics of 16 sites that collectively get through 45,000 bottles of champagne, 7,000 bottles of vodka and 4,000 bottles of gin in a year.
"It's been very hard, sometimes it's felt very slow progress, but three years is really a short amount of time and actually we've achieved a lot."