At a time when many are wondering where their next crumb is coming from, you could be forgiven for wondering about the business sense — or indeed the sanity — of someone behind another new restaurant.
But the track record of Ran Avidan, co-founder of luxury bakery Gail’s, shows him to be not only in full possession of his marbles, but very much in touch with London’s foodies.
When the former lawyer came to the UK from his native Israel in 2000 to work for management consultants Mckinsay & Company, he and wife Keren were surprised that a city like London could be so lacking in the loaf department.
“In Israel there were lots of artisan bakeries. The bread scene there was already quite developed. But when we came here we just could not find good bread,” he recalls.
So four years later, he and fellow bread-ophile — McKinsay colleague Tom Molnar — decided to do something about it.
In search of the fresh simple food he loved, Avidan had sniffed out Baker and Spice — the high-end baker. “It was one of the few places you could get good bread,” he says.
Baker and Spice owner, Gail Stephens (a fellow Israeli) also owned a wholesale bakery, The Bread Factory .
Avidan and Molnar persuaded Stephens to let them join The Bread Factory in 2004.
“Neither Tom nor I were bakers, but we loved to eat bread. Gail was producing excellent artisan loaves for restaurants and caterers. We decided to leave our jobs and join her.”
Using the experience gained at Mckinsay, Avidan and Molnar identified more opportunities for the business. The pair hit upon the idea of an artisan bread retailing business and Gail’s was born.
In seven years they have opened a baker’s dozen of branches in London’s most affluent suburbs. Each has an individual feel. Avidan claims to hate chains, saying that “Gail’s is a non-chain chain. We make each store as personalised as possible”.
Like Israel’s burgeoning food culture, with no allegiance to a particular baking tradition, the range at Gail’s contains the best bread recipes from a range of countries. Croissants sit with challah and rugelach, various flavours of sourdough, including apple and potato, alongside ciabatta.
So what does Avidan attribute to the success of a bakery that asks customers to part with an average £3 per loaf?
He believes their secret is twofold. “Firstly, we deliver what we promise to — we make everything ourselves by hand from scratch, without chemicals or additives, using the best ingredients we can find. We also take the time it takes to produce everything we make so it is made the way it should be. And secondly, we enjoy what we do. We love our food and our customers and enjoy serving them and making them happy in the same way we are.”
Avidan grew up loving good food. “The food I ate in Israel was diverse,” he says. “Eastern European at home but with lots of Mediterranean influences everywhere. Like most Israelis of my generation, my family was a mix of nationalities. My mother was born in Romania and my father, in Israel, but his parents were German and Polish. My grandmother cooked amazing Jewish-German food.”
Late last year, Avidan and Molnar opened their first restaurant — Gail’s Kitchen. It is located inside a branch of Myhotel, just off Tottenham Court Road, in central London, alongside a regular branch of Gail’s, and includes a display of works of art from a local gallery.
Avidan, who has now moved his young family back to Israel but continues to be involved in the business, describes this latest project — which has had rave reviews from critics — as “a beautiful chef-led great food restaurant”.
Bread remains at the heart of the menu — a baker’s oven sits centrally and many dishes, such as the toastie with taleggio and truffle cream, and punchy smoked mackerel rilletes with watercress and toasted rye, have a bready element.
Even puddings have a baked theme — chocolate chip cookies (see the recipe right) are served fresh from the oven with a mini bottle of milk and a straw, while an ice cream patty is served sandwiched in Gail’s brioche.
“It is modern food which keeps the ingredients as the star,” Avidan says. “We find the best ingredients we can, and do as little as possible to them.”