The inevitable question ‘how was everything?’ implies said chef is looking for valuable insight into how the guest found the experience, but as anyone who has tried to give anything but gushing feedback knows, this is not the case. Tell a chef who has been slaving away in the kitchen since 7am, and who has carefully cooked you 17 dishes, that the meat was overcooked or the portions too small and you won’t be met with thanks or appreciation. Chefs often say they want feedback, when they really mean praise.
But not Adam Simmonds. The former Danesfield House executive chef recently opened year-long pop-up restaurant The Test Kitchen, in Soho, a place where he intends to trial dishes and styles of service before opening a more permanent place in the city next year. As the name implies, Simmonds genuinely wants customer criticism - warts and all - as he says in a message pinned to every menu. He actively tries to get it, too, by handing out a feedback card at the end of the meal. And he’s putting his reputation on the line in the process.
Why open The Test Kitchen?
The main reason was to get my name back into London. I’ve been out of the London scene for 10 years. I left Danesfield House [in Marlow] three years ago to do my own restaurant but with one thing or another the funding didn’t come off. I looked to do other stuff in Marlow but it was not the right for me.
But why not open a finished article?
We will evolve stuff as a pop up - in a permanent environment we wouldn’t have that time to do that. The Test Kitchen is also a way of showcasing what we can do and to bring potential investors and landlord in for when I open a permanent site. It allows me to test things such as different combinations of flavours, the wine list and service styles right down to booking systems and the wine glasses we use by getting feedback from the guests.
You know how to cook though. Do you really want people’s views?
Yes, I genuinely want feedback. As a chef we put out food we believe to be right, but if the general consensus is that it isn’t, why would we continue with it? If people say a dish needs more or less salt, then that’s a personal thing, so you have to be careful with what you do with that information, but if everyone is saying the same thing then you need to look at it.
What has it been like receiving proper feedback from people?
On the whole it has been brilliant. I knew we would get positive and negative comments but in this industry you have highs and lows. We’ve changed the red mullet dish four times within two days due to the feedback we’ve had. I can’t say I’ll listen to feedback and then ignore it. What I think a dish is and what the guests perceive it to be could be two completely different things. But you have to have thick skin otherwise you’d never sleep at night.
Can you guarantee it’s honest?
We have a feedback card that we give to diners with the bill. Everybody fills it in - we have had some silly remarks but others have taken it very seriously. They often leave the napkin over the card and we don’t read them until they’ve left. I tend to read them at the end of service every two days. It’s quite intimidating when you ask for feedback - people are very reluctant to give it. Whereas if you ask people to write stuff down they are more likely to be honest with you. People can be quite forthcoming with criticism, but this is a more controlled way of getting it.
What questions does the card ask?
It asks for the dish and flavour combinations they enjoyed the most and what were their preferred tastes, textures and aromas as well as what dishes they were really challenged by. Questions also include the balance of the menu and the speed of service. We are now printing cards that ask different questions, including about the wine. It’s about gathering as much information as we can. There’s no point in asking the same questions for eight months, that’s not going to get us anywhere.
You had a memorably tough review from Jay Rayner, who described his meal there as “joyless” and full of “salt hits”. How did that feel?
It was the worst review I’ve had, it was a real kick in the nuts. When it’s your baby and you’re in it almost 24 hours a day seven days a week and you get a review like that it can be a tough pill to swallow. And it hits the business. But as an owner I have to keep the boys’ spirits up even if inside I’m hurting. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’d like to think I know how to cook, I’ve been in the industry 28 years.
But surely that kind of honest criticism is priceless. Have you taken his feedback on board?
There are things in Jay’s article that I don’t agree with but you have to take his comments on board. And I think it’s important I tackle it head on. We have changed things that he mentioned, such as lowering the price point and changing the portion sizes. When the permanent site opens I will stagger the prices - so for the first three days it will be invitation only where we won’t no charge, and then 75% off and then 25%, so when we open fully to the public further down the line we’ve got things right. We’ve also reworked the idea card [The Test Kitchen’s mission statement that accompanies the menu] to help the idea of concept come across better to people. When I’m ready to, I’ll frame [the review] and get Jay to sign it for me.
What didn’t you agree with?
He mentioned that diners were like lab rats, but I’ve never said that was the case. The dishes were tried before they were put on the menu, although maybe for not as long as they should have been. But they are of a level where we can enhance them.
What do you hope to get out of this experiment?
At the end I’ll have 30-35 dishes pinned down and also information on our service style. I’m looking to open a permanent restaurant in Marylebone next year. I want it to be one big chef’s table so the kitchen comes out into the dining room and all the tables and chairs will be around it. There will be no barrier between the kitchen and the dining room. At the start I wanted it to be about a tasting menu, but I’ve moved away from that idea now. It might have a list of ingredients and people could choose, three, five, seven, nine or twelve courses or allow us to do menus for them.