Speaking to Rob Mitchell, it’s clear that the executive chef has a keen competitive streak. When tacos were added to the Drake & Morgan menus, he insisted on including a meaty version alongside a fish option, betting that more customers would order the Korean beef than the Spanish-inspired cod.
“Most of the camp thought the cod taco would be the biggest seller and that was the one to go for, but I said, ‘Absolutely not, I want to do a steak taco,'" recalls Mitchell. "Now there is a competition between the two. Luckily enough, I’ve won!”
Both options have proved popular, he adds, as part of a diverse menu that includes everything from chorizo Scotch egg to salt and Szechuan pepper squid.
Drake & Morgan started in south London in 2008 and now has 22 sites, including a couple in Manchester and one in Edinburgh. Its brands include whimsically named venues like the Refinery, the Anthologist, the Allegory and the Otherist.
As well as leading 21 head chefs across the chain, Mitchell is responsible for overall food development, plus everything from designing the kitchens and buying the equipment to staffing, menus, costings, allergens and computing systems for stocktaking or service.
He talks to Food Spark about how Drake & Morgan’s King’s Cross site is the test kitchen for the group, the vegan dishes that have been a hit, and why tacos and pies have made been successful on the menu recently.
Food development, I really take care of that myself across the group on the whole. The head chefs are able to do their own specials each week, and we try and track how well their specials do. If a particular dish sells well then it has the opportunity to get on the menu at the right time.
All the head chefs are offered input into the menus when we change them twice a year as the best ideas come from your own people. I have 21 head chefs across the group, and between them there is a wide range of diversity of backgrounds and also where they’ve worked, so that really adds to the melting pot of dishes that get added to the menu. There is one menu that goes across the whole group – apart from King’s Cross.
King’s Cross is our playground. I have an excellent head chef in there, he is very creative and I just mentor him to get the best out of him to deliver a really good menu.
Our starter range has gotten about 30% to 40% bigger over the last year just by making sure there is that choice there for people that want to share. There has been a massive trend over the last three to four years of groups of people ordering lots of starters and sharing – a lot more than taking one main course, especially the female groups.
The biggest thing that we have really put an emphasis on is vegetarian and vegan food over the last 12 to 18 months... It’s broadened our horizons a little bit and broadened the stretch of food that we do.
Our artichoke and puy lentil main course with a zhoug spice, that has sold exceptionally well over the last six months, which I’m so pleased about, as it was a bit risky for us in terms of whether it was going to sell and appeal to the main market.
Honestly, the customers will just trust that you are actually being sustainable. They don’t want that rammed down their throat. There is a small minority that want to know the ins and outs of every single ingredient that comes in and where it comes from, but it really is the minority.
This year was the first time we put a vegan burger on, which was our jackfruit burger, and that was definitely an experimental burger for us. But obviously jackfruit isn’t grown in this country, so the next step is to take the jackfruit burger, keep it vegan and produce something very local that will fill that gap.
Breakfast has been our largest growth area in sales over the last two to three years – it’s probably been about 20% growth. Over the last 18 months, every six months we have added to the breakfast menu, changed it slightly, added a few more options and really worked with marketing, as well as appealing to a bigger demographic of people.
At the end of the day, people look at the menu, but the vast majority will have eggs Benedict, full English or full veggie, those big staples that you might not have often. Or the rich breakfast dishes that you may not have at home that are naughty but nice. But having some dishes on the menu that are healthier is important – it doesn’t mean you will sell a lot of them, but it just helps to drag more people in off the street.
We’ve just done a pie section with help from a Michelin-starred chef called Chris Harrod, who’s just been on Great British Menu. But the chicken pie has been put back on with his as well, and that still outsold everything else on the section and also on the main courses. It’s still just a hit with everyone. It’s winter warming, everyone recognises what they are going to get, everyone understands what it is, it’s comfort food at its best.
Dishes like the chicken pie, where it’s not always about what’s the prettiest dish, what’s got the most flavours, what’s got the greatest textures – sometimes it’s about what my customers are most happy eating and what they are coming back for. When you are serving food, that has to be the most important thing.
The thing about the British public is that the taste now and the taste of 20 to 30 years ago hasn’t really moved on much. They are still eating steaks, curries, fish and chips, burgers and pies – the staples are always going to do well. It’s the dishes around the peripheral which make the menu and that gives the balance, so that the whole menu attracts the various type of different people into your restaurant. That's important for big restaurants like ours that need big groups of people to fill them.
I am keeping a close eye on Middle Eastern food. Middle Eastern food has been in for the last 12 to 18 months, but I don’t think that’s going way. I think it’s only going to become more prevalent. There have been a lot of central London, Marylebone and City restaurants that have opened up with Middle Eastern food as an emphasis and I think that’s going to continue.
A lot of Chinese food at the moment is from the south of China. A lot of Chinese in this country is Cantonese and Cantonese-style, but China is a huge continent that has a lot more. The different provinces from China are going to start emerging I reckon over the next year to two years.
I would like to see the price of game come down to make it more accessible, things like venison, so we could offer it. There’s no shortage of deer, but they only cull so many so it keeps the price high. It means selling that in an everyday dining venue is a little tricky. I would like to be able to produce something with venison not just venison leg braised off and served as cheaper option, but the more expensive cuts, so that’s one of my wish lists out there to do.
I would like to see more people eating rabbit. It’s a great ingredient, but also a lot of people are going to look at it like, 'it’s a rabbit, you are supposed to cuddle it.' That’s a tricky one.
I think that as people look more at what they eat, where it comes from and the sustainability of it, then game will come into itself and will start to grow as an area. It’s always going to be for the meat eaters.
I like to cook a lot of red meats. I’m an old fashioned meat eater. I do love a venison Wellington – that is a real luxury special occasion food at home.