How Sketch Became London’s Coolest Restaurant
I never had a vision for Sketch… I found this place for a friend of mine who wanted to open a club. But three months later he decided that he wasn’t going to stay in London and wasn’t going to sign. The place was empty and had been rundown for many years; there were holes everywhere and rain was coming through. I mean, the state of the building was a disaster. But I saw that so many people wanted the site – big-name chefs, art galleries – so I signed it instead. That’s mainly how I do things – I jump and see where I land.
When it was dilapidated it was even more beautiful than it is now… The building had a ghost-like feel, it was really bizarre. It was built by a young architect named James Wyatt in the 18th century and was designed for a hedonist who loved parties and women. It really is a building that has something in the walls.
Why London? Because I was in love with an English girl… We met in Paris in 1993 and I came with her to London the following year. We split up because I was… terrible. Young, crazy and mad. I was always doing things – moving, traveling, working very hard. It was what it was, so when we split up I was like, “I don’t care, I’ll do something in London.” I saw that there was no couscous in the capital, so I opened Momo [the acclaimed North African restaurant on Heddon Street]. It opened in 1997 to great success. Madonna came, Stella McCartney came. I didn’t understand why there were photographers outside and then boom, it was in the newspapers. But Sketch was at the forefront of my mind in 1998.
I was shocked by being destroyed by the press… And by everyone who was coming in calling us pretentious, saying “What is this place? It’s terrible. Look what they’ve done to this building.” And I could never understand it, because for years I did everything I could to do create the most beautiful place to host people. But actually, when people come into a place like this they need to be the star, not the other way around. And I didn’t understand that at the beginning. I didn’t understand because I’d killed myself, I’d given it my all, I’d rebuilt this big, rotten building in the centre of London. And then I opened to all this criticism.
Looking back, I actually understand the reaction… The food at the beginning was definitely too modern. I used to be totally obsessed with minimalism – the music was minimal, the décor was very bland, the entrance was very white. I gave carte blanche to the artist who created the 360-degree video in the Gallery restaurant. I understand that it was too much. We lost a lot of money those first few years. The place was sinking. But one day we broke even and the next year we made a bit of profit and slowly I started to breathe. Now it’s been 15 years. Finally, we have, I’d say, 40-50% regulars. The party people now come with their wife and kids.
I always compare the structure of a restaurant to a daisy… The heart of the restaurant is the food. And then you have all the petals: the element of fun, the welcome, the service, the light, the music, the décor, the comfort. If I take three of these petals away, the daisy is destroyed.
There’s a reason why we call it Sketch: it’s a painting that never dries… It’s a big place and in order to keep it floating, you need to have movement. It’s like me: I change my mind often, I doubt myself, I get scared. I’ve had [restaurant] 404 in Paris for 29 years, and it’s never changed. But Sketch was made for that and I continue to do it. My favourite version of Sketch was the one when we opened – mainly because I killed myself for four-and-a-half years to do it!
For me a restaurant is like a person… You need to have the hairdresser, the makeup, the new clothes, the new shoes. And sometimes you need to change, because if you want this person to still be glamorous and full of life you need to reconsider the presentation. Right now I’m redoing the Lecture Room & Library. We’re going to make it so ugly that it’s beautiful. When you surpass ugliness, you end up with something where people can’t find anything to criticise, because you don’t know if it’s nice or not. I want to go over the top, and I don’t know why. It’s just how I feel.
If you came to my house, you’d be surprised… It’s one bed, two chairs, almost nothing on the walls, books on the floor, a stereo on the floor. I am the opposite of what I do here. It’s for the public.
The egg-shaped toilets came to me in a nightmare... One day I woke up and I started freaking out because I didn’t want to have another huge bar upstairs. I used to go to a club in New York that had a great party inside the toilets, I loved it. In a way, I kept that in my mind and so decided to do a small bar below the toilets. Back when we first opened, all the seating in the bar was inflatable – it didn’t last long! Everything was playful. So for the toilets I said, “We’re going to do a dozen eggs.” We just needed to fill the space!
When I found out that David Shrigley wanted to work with us I was jumping in the air… I love his work. I don’t know why but I love dark and sarcastic humour because it’s real – I’m very sarcastic myself. His works are so truthful, but in a very simplistic way. For the 15th anniversary, we redid the colour in the Gallery – a stronger pink – and David created new pieces which will be on display for another 18 months. Maybe I was wrong? Maybe I should have changed the look completely.
When we opened there was no Instagram, so at least I can say that we didn’t design the place for the Instagram crowd… At the beginning, some people were visiting us like we were a museum: Arriving, taking photos, leaving. We had a lot of people coming in, but more for the scenery. And I was telling them to stay, have a drink. I was annoyed. Today it’s the same with Instagram, people come and have drinks and take some pictures. We’re tagged in about 300-400 posts a day. But it doesn’t damage the place, and I’m not going to tell people not to take photos – you can fight against it or you can accept it. What can I say? I want to be deep, and Instagram is not for that. It’s very light, and that’s why I’m a bit against it. I like something with a bit more substance.
I don’t sell up, I don’t do little babies, I don’t do chains... I keep my businesses. I mean, I could sell Momo. And maybe I should because the street’s turned shit, but it’s my place! I need to keep it and continue. Do I like my job? I don’t even know if I like it. I don’t even question it. All I know is that this is my job, I make my living with it, I’m busy every day and it helps my mood to be balanced. I’d like to keep Sketch for the next 20-25 years, because once I’m gone, I’m gone. Who cares? I don’t expect my children to take over. It’s not a legacy, it’s mine and it’s my life. We’re born, we die, we pass by.
I very rarely go out to restaurants… I don’t have time. But if I do have four or five days off, I go away. My blood is Mediterranean and I need my shot – the food, the smell, the spirit, the welcome, the warmth, the weather, the water. For the first time in my life I’ve bought a little house by the sea. It’s very basic, it’s a hut – not even a house. It’s my own thing and I’m doing a lot of work on it, because I can’t do nothing. I need this escape, it’s vital.
I tell my staff all the time that they are actors... The curtain opens when people step through the doors. We want people to feel like they’ve been in a fantasy for two to three hours and they come back to the real world when they step outside. I tell my team to try to understand that you are the actor of your life on top of that. Stop thinking that I’m the boss and you’re the employee, because you’re working for you – you’re working to pay your rent and to think and to live and to learn.
9 Conduit St, Mayfair W1S 2XG; Sketch’s 15th anniversary Prestige menu is available in the Lecture Room & Library until 22nd June.
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