William Sitwell meets Ewan Venters, who, as the big cheese at Selfridges’ hallowed food hall, may well be the most influential foodie you’ve never heard of
IN THE FOOD world there are movers and shakers who are well known to the public, their faces appearing on numerous TV shows and in magazines and newspapers. But as in other fields of life there are figures behind the scenes who have far greater influence, but whose moves and shakes remain away from the gaze of the populace. And so you probably haven’t heard of Ewan Venters. You probably don’t know about this gently spoken Scot from the fishing village of Pittenweem in Fife who, approaching his 40th year, is one of the most influential people on the British food scene.
The reason Venters is so influential is because he has a foodie train set that is the envy of the world. His train set is called the Selfridges food hall and it gives him the power to list and de-list products, to give up-and–coming chefs or established big names restaurant concessions, to experiment with new wine concepts and to host launch parties or stage foodie stunts.
Ironically it is the fact that Selfridges is smaller than most supermarkets or department stores that gives Venters power. Because he doesn’t have to list a product in 150 stores he has the logistical capability to give shelf space for small-time talent or a restaurant that couldn’t afford a second branch on the high street. And this gives him the power to determine food trends.
The talent that he has nurtured and whose products he sells includes Lorraine Pascale (cakes), Laura Santtini (umami paste), Amelia Rope (chocolate) and Tom Parker Bowles (pork scratchings). Then there are restaurateurs such as Mark Hix, who has a restaurant, champagne and caviar bar in Selfridges, and Camellia Panjabi (one of the trio behind the restaurant group that owns Veeraswamy), who operates Indian brasserie Masala Zone.
If a brand doesn’t perform, Venters chucks it out, replacing it with the latest foodie offering. So it’s not surprising that, ever ahead of the curve, he suggests that we meet for an early breakfast at a chichi, secretive and exclusive Mayfair club that I’ve never heard of. It’s the Alfred Dunhill Club on Davies Street, where the bar, decorated with pictures of army officers, feels like a 1920s colonial outpost.
‘I don’t know why I’m a member,’ he jokes, ‘but it’s a very carefully vetted list. Those joining are pre-selected — I got a tap on my shoulder — and they’re a very discreet bunch.’
As we dine on creamy scrambled eggs, attended by smart waitresses in black and a man in a morning coat, Venters talks of his early forays into retail.
Educated at St Serfs, an independent school in Edinburgh, he started his own little business aged eleven selling and delivering bread rolls and cakes. Just before his seventeenth birthday and with a clutch of people working for him, he sold the business for £1,000.
‘I was inspired by an absolute love for Margaret Thatcher and her attitude of get-up-and-go,’ he explains. ‘By my mid-teens I had set myself up to earn really good-quality pocket money.’ By his late teens, while many of his contemporaries spent in the pub whatever they earned, Ewan and a pal would book a table at the smartest restaurant in Edinburgh, then go to the opera.
He eschewed a university education for a role as a management trainee at Sainsbury’s (he had applied to every major supermarket and been offered a position by all of them).
Thus began his climb up the retail hierarchy, working closely with senior directors, getting experience of every aspect of the business until a headhunter got him a job working for the food suppliers Brake Brothers.
AFTER SIX YEARS, he says, ‘I had made an awful lot of connections in the chef world. I took clients to restaurants that were also customers, such as the Fat Duck or Le Gavroche. I was popping up everywhere.’
Another headhunter then introduced him to the Weston family and he joined their shop, Selfridges (which now has branches in London, Birmingham and Manchester), to head up the food and restaurant business.
‘It’s one of the world’s greatest brands — creative, fun, extraordinary,’ he says, ‘so it’s a privilege to develop the food business. And I get the opportunity to be quite experimental.’
Perhaps the zenith of his experiments thus far was the pop-up he created on the roof of Selfridges during the London Restaurant Festival in 2009. For an eight-week run, Venters coaxed French cheffing legend Pierre Koffmann to cook, reuniting past staff, including Eric Chavot and Bruno Loubet, in the kitchen. ‘We had every leading chef stopping by,’ he recalls, ‘and it put our food and restaurant credentials on the global stage.’
His proudest experience was having lunch there with the late Egon Ronay and a man Ronay’s guide had inspired as a young boy, Marco Pierre White. ‘It was a spectacular moment,’ he says.
In between such grandiose flashes, Venters engages in stunts to maintain the profile of his food hall. He launched the world’s most expensive sandwich in 2006 (containing wagyu beef, truffles and foie gras), which sold for £85, and after Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008 he released ‘Credit Crunch’, a honeycomb bar coated in Valrhona chocolate.
‘We have the capability to respond and create products and make things happen,’ he says proudly. One of his latest innovations is the Wonder Bar, where you can buy 25ml sips of wine served from Enomatic dispensing machines. On a tour of the food hall later, Venters provides me with a sip of 1995 Pétrus, which sells at £52. ‘We sell about a bottle of it a week this way,’ he says gleefully. But he also had to force a change in the law to enable it.
‘When we introduced it we were closed down as the law forbade you from selling alcohol in such small measures,’ he explains. But a change in legislation was successfully negotiated last year, and those who can’t afford the price tag of £2,450 for a whole bottle can splash out on a glug.
A LESS WELCOME of publicity came recently, however, when the London Evening Standard revealed that Selfridges butcher Jack O’Shea was selling foie gras, recently banned by the store, under the counter to customers asking for ‘French fillet’.
‘It was a frustrating episode,’ says Venters. ‘And the intonation in the press was that we had broken the law. Selling it is not of course against the law, but we had decided to cease it in 2009.’ O’Shea was sacked — ‘we were embarrassed by it’ — and was swiftly replaced by Macken Brothers, a 60-year-old family butcher’s business from Chiswick.
‘I felt personally disappointed and let down,’ he continues, ‘but sometimes that is the nature of managing a cluster of entrepreneurs. That’s the yin and the yang, that’s what creates the energy, and it would be very dull place if it were just filled with corporate food companies who obeyed the rules and never pushed the boundaries.’
As we wander the food hall floor tasting truffles at Maison du Chocolat, Mr Trotter’s (aka Tom Parker Bowles’s) delicious pork scratchings, Pierre Hermé’s macaroons, Spanish Maldonado ham and much more besides, Venters touches on his future plans, which include developing the food and restaurants in the other Weston-owned brands.
‘Some people say I have the best job in London,’ he says while tasting a date stuffed with an almond and coated in chocolate at the Arabica concession. ‘I would say it’s becoming the best job in the world.’
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