A red chard, beetroot, plant ricotta and parsley dish. Only the top half of the gold-trimmed white plate is shown and sits as a semicircle in the middle of the photo. The sauces of the dish are spotted and striped on the plate in bright pinks and vivid lime green.

Cooking their way into #vegan hearts – and homes

The hospitality industry has been hit hard by the pandemic: battered by multiple lockdowns and surviving periods of inactivity through government aid. The ones that have managed to survive have had to shift to entirely new ways of serving customers for the best part of a year. But when your restaurant was already in the midst of transforming its offering, how do you cope with the dramatic curveball that Covid presents? Alexis Gauthier and his right-hand man James Lewis have had one hell of a year.

A Michelin-starred chef and proprietor of ‘Gauthier Soho’ in London’s West End, Alexis had been in the process of fully transitioning his business from its classical French beginnings to a new 100% vegan menu (‘Les Plantes’) when lockdown shook the world and shut his doors. Gauthier Marketing Director James Lewis picks up the story. “We are very lucky because we are a truly independent restaurant. So, we are able to make decisions very quickly.” In the beginning, that meant simply putting the restaurant on hold and waiting to see what happened next. It was, as you might expect, a fraught time. When restrictions were temporarily eased during the summer months, however, Gauthier remained closed. “We held back from opening up, as our customers were still very reluctant to make the journey into London and plan a big event when the pandemic was still so new,” explains James. “Finally, we decided to open in September, and it was difficult. People were coming begrudgingly. You could tell their hearts weren’t in it.” The intimacy that is so integral to Gauthier’s fine dining experience was compromised by screens and masks. “We had to try something else.”

A dark brown chocolate dessert that shines under the light is topped with gold flakes, berries and nuts. It sits on a white plate with a geometric gold honeycomb design.
Alexis Gauthier’s take on a ‘Mon Cherie’ dark chocolate pudding. © Alexis Gauthier
The golden-brown tagine sits in a white bowl on a white background. It is garnished with almonds and a green leaf.
Tajine of braised jackfruit, with juicy plums, apricots and toasted almonds. © Alexis Gauthier

“Something else” turned out to be Gauthier Home, a box of plant-based dishes to prepare in the comfort of your home kitchen, designed packed and delivered to your home for free, directly from the restaurant’s home at 21 Romilly Street, Soho. “We did some market research and worked out a format we wanted to do. We realised that the best way was a big spread that could be cooked in one sitting for at least four people or spread out over a few days, even frozen.” Alexis and James set about promoting this new service to existing customers.
For the first box, there were two choices – one with meat and one plant-based. “He [Alexis] thought we’d better do one because half our customers don’t want vegan food.” The boss was proved wrong. There was simply no interest in the meat offering. But the plant-based version “completely took us by surprise” and sold 100 boxes in the first week. Then everything moved incredibly quickly. He and his three top chefs, Tom Brown, Gerard Virolle and Alexia Dellaca-Minot work closely to develop a menu for each box that is beautiful, delicious and, importantly, transportable. Alexis also turned his creative hand and eye to photography, buying a light box and bringing the dishes to life for Instagram in a corner of the Gauthier kitchen. “They’ll have a day, usually two or three weeks before the boxes are sold, where Alexis and the chefs will cook, plate and photograph the dishes, all in about three hours,” explains James. “Often, you’re dealing with drizzles of oil, so it has to be photographed immediately.”

It’s not announced yet, but when we re-open we’re going to be 100% vegan

From here, the images are used in customer emails and the stylishly designed menus that accompany each box. And Alexis takes his photographs to Instagram to spread the word. Six months on, each new release is accompanied by near-audible levels of excitement in the vegan community and although not everyone was initially happy to receive their emails, it’s shifted the brand into new territory. “We lost about 500 email addresses from people who don’t want to hear about vegan, but we must have picked up two or three thousand from a new market,” says James. “Instagram gets people interested, gets them to sign up, and then when we send out a good email, you’ll get an hour of solid sales.” The twenty-strong team at Gauthier are now working Monday to Friday, nine to five, but still cooking more covers than when the restaurant was fully open “because our customers are now everywhere! We’re picking up the phone to people in Bradford and Edinburgh and Newcastle… everywhere! It’s like we’ve got a restaurant for whole new set of people.” Operations remain at ‘home’, the maze-like Georgian townhouse where every room is now taken up with storage, cooking, packing and marketing. “If we moved it to an industrial estate at the edge of town somewhere, it would be far easier to do,” says James. “But the magic wouldn’t be there.”

A stack of menus with ‘love’ designed in colourful letters on the front. On the bottom right is a hand holding a pen, signing a menu.
Each Gauthier Home box arrives with a beautifully designed menu. For Valentine’s Day, Alexis signed each one of the 500 menus heading out to homes all over the country.
Two men in casual clothes stand in front of stacks of brown delivery boxes.
Marketing Director James Lewis (left) and Chef Proprietor Alexis Gauthier (right) have turned the beautiful Georgian townhouse that is Gauthier Soho restaurant into a temporary operations base for home deliveries.

‘Magic’ can be an elusive ingredient, but in Alexis’ case, it lies in the passion for his work. He has been a committed advocate for veganism since 2015 when he took part in PETA’s ‘International Vegan Month’ and the overwhelmingly positive response to Gauthier Home has galvanised his resolve to take his restaurant 100% plant-based as soon as its doors re-open. He also captures this passion with absolute authenticity on social media. Choosing not to outsource it to an agency, he is the hand behind all the posts and photography, playing with images and experimenting with what works. “It comes from the heart,” laughs James. “Look at the spelling mistakes, the half French!” When the same hand that produces this extraordinary food is the same one that answers customer DMs, you get an understanding of the kind of careful, personal service that you’ll expect at the restaurant. “There’s also a feeling that you’re running a business that’s a force for good,’ says James. “We’re here, we’re running a restaurant, everyone’s enjoying themselves, plus when you go to bed at night, you’re actually being part of a positive change in the world.”

Take a look at upcoming menus from Gauthier Home.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

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