Hendon to Herts via Hollywood
Restaurant mogul Robert Earl at his newest opening.
Earl with former business partner Arnold Schwarzenegger
The girl at the reception desk at the new Buca di Beppo restaurant in Elstree's Village Hotel has never heard of Robert Earl. Fortunately, one of the PRs fluttering about overhears and rushes over.
Robert Earl himself might well have been unimpressed. He is, as you will most likely already be aware, a hospitality entrepreneur of gargantuan proportions. Not physically. The 60-year-old clad in jeans, shirt and smart black soft leather coat, clearly does not overindulge when visiting his thousands of restaurant outlets, across the US and around the world. He cannot afford to. "I don't exercise," he confides, adding "I have time only for work and family."
Tonight he is returning to his north-west London roots with Tricia, his wife of 28 years. The ex-Hendon boy is about to entertain the press and a group of his friends (more on them later) at the fifth of his Buca di Beppo chain to open in the UK.
Buca di Beppo is an Italian-styled family eatery - all dark wood, Italian memorabilia, garlic bread and huge bowls of pasta - of which there are already 88 in the United States. Large tables have lazy susan centres - à la a Chinese restaurant - and everyone gets a spin of the wheel to dig into dishes like baked ravioli, apple and gorgonzola salad, colossal brownie sundaes. Earl is in high spirits, delighted to be opening a restaurant in the Jewish heartland, as he believes "this is just the sort of food that Jewish people love".
When asked, Earl shares that, for him, "being Jewish is more about being part of a race rather than a religion". His early years were his most observant, as his grandfather was the head of the Jewish Male Voice Choir. Early food memories were formed at his grandparents' table, making him now nostalgic for all the Ashkenazi favourites - "I'd kill for a Friday night chopped liver, pickled new green, chicken soup with kneidlach and some lockshen," he says.
Buca di Beppo's menu includes hearty Italian classics
Now based in Florida, can he not eat all of those foods at any time? Apparently not. "US versions are not the same," he says. "Although America has almost all of the Jewish food that we grew up on in England, their beef is way different and inferior. I pine for a great salt beef on white bread with mustard."
Growing up with a father who was a singer, who took his family on tour with him, meant that he rarely enjoyed those delicacies. What he did enjoy was showbusiness, and he has managed to combine it with his other love -food - in his professional life, opening or acquiring many themed restaurants or chains during his career, from his first Beefeater-themed restaurant to Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafes.
Buca is his latest project. He reveals: "I bought the US chain for a deep discount and turned it around. I changed the menu, the look and whipped everyone to a pulp with enthusiasm." He firmly believes, "there is no substitute for experience. I've done every job in the industry - it's the only way". He grins: "I'm a dictator".
The Buca concept has been franchised in the UK by Gary Davis, who plans to open one in each of his Village Hotel chain. Tonight, platters of tomato, basil and mozzarella, pasta dishes and grilled meat are being delivered to Earl's invited guests, who include Nick Candy and girlfriend Holly Valance, Harry Redknapp, Jenny Seagrove and husband Bill Kenwright - with whom Earl co-owns Everton Football Club. He has a passion for sport, and football in particular - "I fly over for the good games," he says.
After only a few weeks Earl reports Buca "is doing well" he says. "The family concept and family style of service appeal to people."
The new Buca di Beppo is at the Village Hotel London, Centennial Avenue, Elstree. www.bucadibeppo.co.uk