Marianne Lumb is building up a big reputation at her tiny Notting Hill restaurant, writes William Sitwell
I meet Marianne Lumb at her quite exquisitely minuscule restaurant in Notting Hill the morning after the place was taken over for a private party. For most restaurateurs, that might suggest a large affair. For Lumb it meant five people.
Her restaurant on Chepstow Road has only 14 covers, but those seats are becoming some of the most desirable in town. People are coming from as far as Tokyo and Australia to dine there. ‘I just love it that some guests are making a trip to my restaurant the basis of a holiday,’ she says with her cheeky Cheshire cat grin.
Most restaurateurs will tell you it’s a struggle to make money unless you’ve got at least 40 covers, particularly in a high-cost city like London. Perhaps Lumb knows something we don’t. ‘When I walked in here for the first time I just laughed – as everyone does,’ says the 42-year-old. ‘But I’d looked at what felt like every available site in London. I knew this was the place.
‘I’m asked every day, “How do you make it financially?” Well, I have a brilliant business partner, so he does the finance and he leaves the rest to me. I said, “Once I get in the door leave it to me.”’ And there’s a simple way of making it work: ‘We are an expensive restaurant,’ she says. ‘I joke to my friends that if they are coming make sure someone close is paying.’
As Lumb and her team serve a set tasting menu, the key is also to let people get stuck in to the wine. ‘We don’t turn tables – people get really drunk and have a good time,’ she says with wonderful openness. Business is also helped by the fact that, as she puts it: ‘London restaurants are booming. Last year I had two menus: one for £80 and one for £150. Everyone chose the £150. It’s quite staggering. People want to spend money.’
The place opened in 2013, but it was not plain sailing. ‘For the first 18 months I certainly carried the team. I was – and still am – employing 11 people overall.’ The past year has not been easy. ‘Over the course of the first six months of 2017 every chef handed in their notice one by one. I know it’s good for people to move on, but I really took it personally and it caused me massive stress. I was working 120 hours a week and also decided to train for a triathlon.’
Her body finally started to cave in when she ignored a cut, which became infected. In August she was rushed to hospital. ‘The doctors looked at me and said, “What the hell were you doing?” I was put on a drip for a week.’ Languishing in hospital, she threw the baton at her sous chef and spent a month in the country with her mother, ‘sleeping the entire time’.
She is now getting better at taking time off, although some customers get furious if they find she’s not cooking on the night they book. ‘People are crazy!’ she says, ‘They get so upset and offended if I’m not here. I guess it’s a first-world problem.’
However, there’s something about the room that then soothes people: its intimacy, novelty, quiet, and stylish, understated décor. Meanwhile, the joinery in the serving area has been designed to the nearest millimetre, so that every bit of space is perfectly functional. ‘It’s an incredibly well-oiled machine,’ says Lumb. ‘We need good eggs in here and not too many chiefs!’
Her fine dining set menu is smart but not over-fussy. Among six dinner courses, for example (and with an elaborate veg option), there’s wild mushroom with celeriac and black quinoa, wild grey mullet with kohlrabi, cheese, a pre-dessert and a chocolate soufflé tempered with a poached quince sorbet. The wine will flow and guests are sometimes prompted to pause and go for a walk. I did that on my last visit and foolishly slipped around the corner to the Cow pub for a pint of Guinness…
The restaurant is open every night except Monday (plus lunches at the end of the week). Sunday, fuelled by what Lumb calls ‘boozy tourists’, can be one of the best nights.
Now that her ship seems steady, Lumb is casting an eye around for extra pursuits, in London or even overseas. Her natural and easy enthusiasm will surely see further success elsewhere. It’s a talent she always nurtured – stopping, for example, at her father’s butcher’s shop on the way home from school to take butter, cheese and sausages and play with them at home, crafting tasty creations.
Lasting just a year at UCL reading architecture, she found work in local restaurants and studied at catering college once a week. A break in private cheffing in London was followed by a place in 2009’s MasterChef: The Professionals. ‘I’m like One Direction,’ she says. ‘I came second’. She soon found a backer to help her start her own place.
If Michelin were an organisation that awarded impeccable style, taste, measured dishes, consistency and miniature perfection, Lumb would have at least one star. Book a slot at this small and perfectly formed paradise before it takes the hint.