A trio of Kiwis have conquered London with their Caravan restaurants, and their convoy looks likely to go even farther afield, writes William Sitwell
When Miles Kirby, Laura Harper-Hinton and Chris Ammermann opened a restaurant called Caravan in Exmouth Market in 2010, they were collectively delighted by the name.
‘It was my idea,’ states Miles. ‘Actually it was mine,’ says Laura. ‘Well it wasn’t mine,’ adds Chris. The latter, the commercial manager of a business that will see its sixth branch open in Chelsea in September, can therefore cast off any criticism.
Because while the New Zealand trio saw the idea of ancient lines of camels, the spreading of ideas, a global cuisine being encompassed in the word Caravan, some of us Brits had other ideas. For us, Caravan was more derogatory: visions of stationary traffic heading down the A303, Fifties holiday camps, a frugal and less glamorous side of British culture.
‘Yes, there were raised eyebrows,’ concedes Laura, creative director of Caravan. ‘I realised that caravans are different here, but no one had explained it to us.’
Miles, the chef director, is sanguine that it was always a great name and happy to post-rationalise the issue. ‘I always knew that in spite of any downsides it was always a good idea,’ he says, adding firmly: ‘When I came up with the name.’
The three laugh. Like old friends, which indeed they are. The three are easy-going and clearly trust and respect each other. They didn’t just get together in the Noughties – the idea had been brewing since they worked together in Wellington at a place called Mondo Cucina. It was the late Nineties and after hours Miles, from the kitchen, Chris, from the bar and Laura, the maître d’, used to drink and talk about the future.
‘We sat around drinking tequila,’ says Laura. Were you sipping or slamming, I ask. ‘They were big sips,’ says Miles, adding: ‘We were all ready to party like it was 1999. But it was only 1997.’
‘We thought we’d open a restaurant in the city before the century was out,’ says Laura. But they realised the opportunities might lie elsewhere. And they needed a break from the wind, which is relentless, apparently, in Wellington. ‘The wind drives you mad,’ says Laura. ‘But it keeps the city really clean.’
‘That’s right,’ says Miles. ‘It blows all that dirty New Zealand shit over to Oz.’ In the ensuing years, Laura and Chris then got together – they now have two young boys – and they and Miles went to London. While Laura had a legal degree by this time, they gravitated to various restaurants in London before finding jobs at Providores, the refined New Zealand fusion offering founded by Peter Gordon in Marylebone in 2001.
The same conversations ensued over the next eight years and they all finally agreed on one thing. Back in New Zealand there was a well-developed speciality craft coffee scene. London had little or nothing. Having left Providores to work for the catering arm of Richard Caring’s business and having made friendships with stalwarts of the business like Mark Hix, Des McDonald and Russell Norman, in 2009 they finally produced a business plan.
Eventually one bank agreed to loan finance and, says Laura, ‘we put the rest in’. But they were down to almost zero in their personal bank accounts. They found a site in Exmouth Market and, after a six-week fit-out, Caravan opened. They were roasting coffee on-site and the menu featured dishes that remain classics of Caravan nine years later: cornbread, blue cheese wontons, avocado on toast, coconut bread and oxtail with polenta.
The menu was and remains joyfully global – essentially Miles’s favourite dishes, using the best ingredients he can find. Today Caravan employs 330 people across its various sites in London, including a new vast coffee roasting facility in Islington which will eventually also be a retail space. There’s a separate head office.
‘It’s definitely more grown-up and there’s more focus on margins and units,’ says Chris, ‘but we make specific time to go out and have creative chats.’ As the new Duke of York Square opening occurs this September, bringing Caravan to Chelsea, the business looks set to grow across the UK and possibly internationally.
The three are constantly approached, and while they have had many discussions about New York, Los Angeles seems more likely.
‘Our food has no boundaries,’ says Laura, ‘so we can evolve. There are so many restaurants whose definition geographically confines them, so they can’t flex.’
Miles loves this fact and adds merrily: ‘When I go to the Ivy and see a Thai curry or a bang bang chicken I think it’s really weird.’