Marino Roberto ditched his fashion empire, moved to France and opened Ristorante Semplice in Mayfair. Simple, right?
“How did I get my Michelin Star?” asks Marino Roberto, owner of one-starred Ristorante Semplice in Mayfair, and its sister, the Michelin-recommended Trattoria Semplice.
“Well, you go to Borough Market, you buy all your fresh veg, you pick up an array of delicious fruit and then on your way out you swing by a special store and pick up a the star-fruit from Indonesia… it’s easy,” he laughs.
He might joke, but Roberto takes his food seriously, which might go some way to explaining how he managed to launch Ristorant Semplice in 2007 with no experience of the industry, run it, secure a Michelin Star within just two years, and then open a sister venue. And achieve all this in London while living in France.
“Owning a restaurant is very hard,” he concedes. “I had never had the direct experience of opening a restaurant and, if you branch out of your field, you never really know what challenges will be thrown up.”
After 15 years working in retail – opening and closing a number of clothing stores and going through the stress of the recession of the early Nineties – five years ago Roberto decided he wanted to change his lifestyle.
He upped sticks to the South of France and, with the money from the sale of his Hertfordshire home, bought a restaurant just off New Bond Street and called it Semplice, meaning simple.
The road to a simple life, however, is paved with complexity – especially when you’re a determined business owner with ambition.
“To enjoy this kind of success you need an accomplished chef and a very good manager. The success of a restaurant depends on it,” he explains. In chef Marco Torri and manager and co-owner Giovanni Baldino, both of Locanda Locatelli fame, he has found just that.
“I had never had the direct experience of opening a restaurant and, if you branch out of your field, you never really know what challenges will be thrown up”
We’re sitting outside Trattoria Semplice having some lunch – I foolishly order a buffalo mozzarella and tomato salad. “The only dish on the menu that my chef didn’t cook,” says Roberto, half-joking but clearly miffed. “You’ll have to taste some of my pasta.”
And taste it I do, albeit sometime later. “It’s cold now – you’ll tell everyone I served you cold pasta!” he gibes.
Roberto is your archetypal Italian. He’s confident, but not too cocky. Although his heavily accented English is less than perfect, he calmly switches between talking shop with me and chatting in his mother tongue to others in the restaurant. He is sharply dressed but keeps it casual in jeans, complimenting his coiffured tight curls and golden skin.
“It’s not easy to have a restaurant at this level because you have to have a team that can deliver every day. Most restaurants have a high turnover of staff – it’s the nature of hospitality – but I’m trying to build a solid base of dedicated staff I can trust.”
What with living in the South of France, being able to trust his staff is essential. I ask if it’s hard having a business in a different country.
Holding on to a strong team is a crucial element. Determined to uphold the standards that won him his accolades, Roberto has given his executive chef, Marco shares in the company to ensure he stays.
Why didn’t he open a restaurant closer to home? “The South of France is my playground – I don’t work there,” he says casually. “London is a great city, it’s a city for working. When you are ready to do business you come here.”
Since securing his premises, Roberto has had issues with planning, permits for outside seating and, most recently an issue with his extraction fan (too noisy, it seems), which looks like it could cost six figures to sort out.
“The South of France is my playground – I don’t work there. London is a city for working. When you are ready to do business you come here”
“This was an old restaurant and I assumed by upgrading it I would be doing a good job, but making improvements is not rewarded – in fact I have been penalised heavily,” he storms. “Now I must sell a lot of pasta,” he adds, softening with a smile.
Helping him shift all that pasta is the coveted Michelin Star. Despite his jokes, securing it was no mean feat. “You have to be very meticulous. Each dish that leaves the kitchen must be perfect as the judges can come at any time, and any number of times, before they make a decision.
“Of course you never know who they are until they leave and then they let you know. In my view [Michelin is] the only guide worth believing. They are serious and not corrupt in any way.”
Roberto gets quite heated when he starts to talk about reviewers. His vitriol would make anyone think he’s had one too many bad reviews, but a quick Google and you’ll find glowing reviews from AA Gill and Giles Coren, to name but a few.
It seems Roberto just believes in his food, and is convinced there is a better way of judging it. “Most critics don’t know what they are talking about, that is for sure. You cannot judge a restaurant on one visit.”
The idea that media outlets will listen and send hordes of restaurant reviewers for multiple meals in the interest of fairness is lamentable in its impracticality, but I admire Roberto for his passion.
He is steering the development of the restaurants despite having such a distinct divide between home and work life.
As I make my way through my salad, a man walking past stops to speak with Roberto. It turns out our guest is Versace’s ex-architect, drafted in to design a subterranean bar under Ristorante Semplice, “very stylish, very exclusive,” Roberto tells me.
“I’m going to be back and forth a lot while we make these big changes. Of course, if I lived here I could run the business better than my two managers because it is my restaurant I have the passion to make it work. You have to make a choice and I wanted to change my life.”
He may have changed his lifestyle but I wonder if it is for a more hectic one. Roberto named his culinary empire Semplice. Owning a Michelin-starred restaurant, however, is anything but.