Five minutes with… Fabian Clark

British seafood aficionado Fabian Clark will officially open his first restaurant CLAW Carnaby on Kingly Street in London in January.  After graduating with an economics degree from Manchester University in 2012 Fabian landed a job at a branding agency, but his passion for food overtook and after following cooking courses at Leith’s and L’Atelier de Chef, he quit his job in 2015 to pursue his dream of opening a restaurant. Following a series of supper clubs and pop-ups showcasing crab and sustainable seafood, Fabian opened CLAW at Finsbury Avenue Square where he serves a street-food menu from a former shipping container.  He talks to Hospitality & Catering News about opening his first bricks and mortar restaurant and why we should eat more British seafood.

You’ve been running supper clubs and street food stalls successfully for four years, what made you take the plunge now and open a permanent restaurant?

I’d always had the ambition to create and start a restaurant brand. It wasn’t a decision made a year ago. I always thought that street food stalls and pop-ups were a really good road to market, so that’s how I started out. It is a great way of testing what you’re about and what you do and also growing the brand and making people more aware of it. Fundamentally, it’s about not only proving the concept to yourself, but to potential investors. That’s the hardest thing, to show them that you can make money from your brand. Coincidentally, that’s how we found our investor, while we were doing our pop-ups.

What was it about a career in hospitality that appealed and made you leave your job in design?

Everyone I’ve met recently has said it’s the worst decision I’ve made. They say ‘you’ll never make any money’, but, it’s been my dream for a long time to open restaurants. I don’t know why I’ve always had this innate ambition to open restaurants. I was lucky in that I used to go out to eat a lot with my parents and I really loved seeing how hospitality and restaurants were run, both front-of-house and back-of-house.

I was an account manager in branding for three years and it got to the point when I’d had enough and wasn’t enjoying it and thought, ‘let’s quit and see what happens’ and I haven’t looked back, to be honest. It’s definitely been the right decision in terms of work-life balance and enjoying what you do and all the cliches that people bring up when you do your own thing. When I left my job a friend said, you’ve always wanted to do restaurants, why don’t you do some pop-ups?’ It was a good time to do it – street food was taking off and we were lucky to get a spot at Kerb very quickly, which helped us grow. Launching at the right time has also been key. Street food has been around forever, but it really only became fashionable about five years ago. I think if we’d set up a crab roll van six years ago people would think we were crazy.

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The restaurant CLAW Carnaby marks a new direction for you, what can we expect to see there?

We did a pop up about 10 months ago at Carnaby pub The Sun & 13 Cantons and that was kind of our first stab at what we wanted to offer as a restaurant.  Our aim is to encourage people to eat seafood by ensuring that it’s approachable and affordable, so we hope to do that by offering a small plate menu. The thought is that if you are coming with someone who doesn’t like seafood, you can order five plates – three seafood, one meat and vegetable – to give you a chance to try it all.  What I loved about the pop-up is seeing people who didn’t fancy the seafood but then saying ‘actually, let’s try a bit of the crab’ and then we end up winning them over. Not that we’re setting out to convert people into seafood lovers, but it makes it far more approachable.

We will open from 11am to 11pm offering a small menu, predominantly seafood, but with some meat and vegetarian dishes. We want to pay homage to where we started and encourage lunch trade, so we’ll also have our street food menu featuring our classics like the crab roll and lobster roll with salads available until 5pm. Like our food offering, drinks, will be simple – four different types of wine by the bottle and then beer, wine and cocktails on tap.

Why have you specialised in serving seafood?

It was mainly because I feel that seafood is incredibly undervalued. We live on an island and the majority of people in London or those away from the coast, rarely eat fish, other than smoked salmon or fish and chips. It’s rare to find seafood being the main focus on a menu, especially British seafood. You’ll get a lot of places serving salmon and tuna, but it is mostly imported and not sustainable, so we very much want to push sustainable seafood and source as much as we can from Britain. Crab was our main focal point when we were only doing street food and that really came about from discovering that we have such an abundance of crab and that it’s incredibly sustainable. We really just want to break down barriers and make seafood more accessible. Unless you go to formal places like Scott’s or J Sheekey, shellfish isn’t really served. It’s seen as in more of a formal thing and quite expensive, but it doesn’t have to be.

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Having gone through the process of opening your first restaurant, what have you learnt?

I’ve learnt a crazy amount in terms of the process of the operation and organisation of setting a restaurant up. It’s a much larger task than I ever thought it would be. I wish I’d known things before, but I haven’t regretted anything. I’m still learning. Restaurants are huge beasts and there are a lot of moving parts, not only in the sales side of things, but in the operations. You’ve got capital expenditure which you’ve got to manage and you haven’t even touched on staff and food. I’m sure once we’ve opened I’ll be able to answer differently.

What are you looking forward to most about having a restaurant?

I can’t wait for it to open. It’s been a pipe dream for a long time, so I’m really excited for people to taste the menu we’ve developed over the last few months and it will be really nice to see customers enjoying all the hard work that has gone into the process.

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Where do you get your inspiration from?

When I was younger I remember reading Gordon Ramsay’s biography and that fascinated me and then what really drove me were people like Russell Norman at Polpo and the Hart Brothers doing Barrafina and now El Pastor. More recently it’s been people like Joe Grossman at Patty and Bun and the guys at Pizza Pilgrims. I suppose you’d call them my predecessors. They started the process before me and then have grown and that has given me, not only inspiration, but motivation to continue.

Where do you like to eat out on your days off?

I love going to pubs with really good quality food like the Anchor and Hope at Waterloo as well as more casual places. You’ll find me in Homeslice at least once a week. Saying that, I like fine dining places too.

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What are your future plans for CLAW?

I just really want to focus on getting CLAW Carnaby up and running and make it the best it can be and then sit down and assess what direction we want to go in. I don’t want to jinx it by saying anything else!

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