CODE meets Jay Patel, Legare

Published 11 November 2020

Neighbourhood Italian restaurant Legare recently celebrated is first birthday – and what a year it has been. Here we speak to the founder Jay Patel about the highs and lows of opening, promoting diversity in the industry and what’s next for the restaurant in 2020 and beyond.

Tell us a bit about Legare for those that haven’t been?

Legare is a local neighbourhood Italian restaurant based in Shad Thames, just next to Tower Bridge. We serve a simple, seasonal menu, with a wine list that focuses on low intervention, organic and biodynamic wines from small producers in and around Italy!

You’ve just celebrated your first birthday – congratulations! It’s been quite the year.

Not going to lie, it’s been challenging. Opening a few months before Covid-19 proved to be one of the biggest, and most exciting business challenges I’ve ever faced. It’s been a test of grit from the whole team, and I have to say, I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve all achieved simply by staying alive. It’s still strange that even though we’re a year old, we’ve only been actively trading for seven and a half months of the year!

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of starting Legare?

The biggest highs of Legare were during the conceptual period where Matt (head chef) and I started hashing out the initial menu, going to the markets and recipe testing hundreds of dishes in the eight months prior to opening. Designing the kitchen island, restaurant layout and graphics, choosing the decor, crockery, cutlery and glassware, was all so much fun and really got us excited about things to come. We were essentially bringing to life this idea we’ve had in our heads for a very long time and to see all that coming together was amazing.

The biggest low was the day after we ran our first friends and family service. I’ve spoken to a bunch of friends who are also owner/operators and they’ve all said the same thing – the day after friends and family is one of the hardest days to deal with. Everyone’s on a massive high telling you how amazing you’ve done as they all want to support you, and all you can think about is just how much you have to fix because the first service is always so ‘cowboy’ – no matter how much planning goes into the months before…

You’re 100% independently owned – have you felt you have lacked support during the pandemic and lockdown period? 

Personally I don’t feel that way. I can’t speak for everyone else in the industry because I understand everyone’s situation is very different and there’s a lot of animosity towards government policy, but from my perspective the government grant and furlough helped us stay afloat (for the record I’m NOT a fan of this government, in general). But without it, we would have sunk.

How do you set yourself apart from other Italian restaurants in London?

We are hyper local and very simple in what we do. Most of our customers are locals living in and around Shad Thames that frequent our restaurant weekly, as well as the neighbouring boroughs. Many of our suppliers are based in Bermondsey and we have great relationships with them too! As a restaurant, we’re not staunchly Italian and don’t profess to be. If we feel an ingredient works well on our menu, in the context of an Italian meal, it’s going on.

You serve a regularly changing menu – Where does the inspiration for new dishes come from?

Seasonal produce, with a focus on classic flavour combinations that work. Matt and I have the same taste and aesthetic in food, and he’s an incredible chef who’s taken the food up a notch with every menu change we’ve had to date. We work with the premise of only a couple of really good ingredients on a plate, seasoned and dressed correctly. We want dishes to be bright, full of freshness and vibrancy. Generally, we try to keep the menu balanced, with as much emphasis on vegetarian dishes, as meat and fish, which has gone down well with our customers. Our approach is simple, delicious food made with quality ingredients and no pretension.

You’ve highlighted the lack of diversity in the hospitality industry. What has your experience of this been?

Sadly, the current talent pool for POC in our industry is tiny. That’s not a racism issue, that’s a talent pool issue. There were very few POC workers in non-ethnic restaurant concepts when I first started, and even fewer POC had a serious interest in wine, or pursued their level 3 or diploma. In my culture, working in restaurants is not viewed as a smart career move – it’s wayward and not respected. Working in restaurants if you have a university degree is an even bigger mistake, so you’ve got to be 100% sure it’s what you want to do, and really push for that dream to be a reality.
When I was at Barrafina, customers regularly asked me why I was working in a Spanish restaurant which was irritating at times, but you realise quickly people are ignorant and it’s not worth dedicating too much thought too. It happens now and again as the owner of an Italian restaurant, but it is what it is. It’s changing slowly. 

And what needs to happen in your opinion for the industry to become more inclusive?

Nurturing a talent pool of POC should start from a grass-roots level, and be a given objective for any restaurant business. It should be viewed as a legitimate career, no matter where you’re from or your background or culture. There’s also a lot of toxic behaviour in this industry, which needs to change, as it deters people from committing to the craft for the long run. Lots of people get burnt out and leave for various health issues (both physical and mental) which has been well cited in recent years, so hopefully we are moving in the right direction.

What’s next for Legare in 2020 and beyond?

We’d ideally like to expand our footprint across South London. For the moment though, like many in the industry it’s just about seeing through the year and the pandemic situation, and giving everyone a well earned Xmas break and staying afloat into 2021.

Finally, if you could eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?

That’s easy. My mum’s kidney bean curry with fried potato bread (rajma and aloo puri).

To find out more about Legare, visit the website here

To read more industry insights and interviews, click here

Weekly bulletin. Eyes and ear of the industry