In the decade since Dave Matheson opened Red Grill House and cocktail bar, the business has expanded to include tapas bar Tinto, Rosso pizzeria and Rouge, which serves wine, cheese and charcuterie. Dave has had a colourful and varied career all over the world, but the past two years have been the most challenging of his professional life, with both the pandemic and a fire that engulfed the premises to contend with. We grilled Dave to find out about him and his Red empire.
Did you always want to work in hospitality?
When I was 14 I watched ‘Cocktail’, and although I don’t have quite the dashing good looks of Tom Cruise, I did follow his path all the way through to working in exactly the same bar in Jamaica that appears in the film. Before that I did a gap year working in bars throughout Australia, then I went to Nottingham University to study philosophy. Whilst I was there I trained in cocktail bars and then I went on a six-month exchange programme called Work Jamaica – and stayed for five years.
What brought you back to Guernsey?
I was actually planning on opening a bar in the USA but I was there trying to sort out my visa application when 9/11 happened, so they shut down all immigration. I came back to Guernsey to reevaluate what I was going to do, and I opened Laska cocktail bar in 2001. We had a huge collection of rum which I brought back from the Caribbean, and when three years later I opened Hojo, a chef I’d worked with in Jamaica joined me and jerk chicken was one of our biggest sellers.
What inspired you to open Red Grill House?
In 2009 I moved to Bordeaux to learn how to make wine and that’s when everything shifted more towards wine. I was working for free, studying under a sommelier there and building up contacts, and I started to come up with the concept of Red.
I also did some training in a New York steakhouse. It was the hottest summer on record in the city, and I was stuck in a kitchen in front of these grills that were about 1000 degrees. It was a great experience to learn about the provenance of beef, the butchery and the cooking at high temperatures.
How important is the provenance of your beef?
We’re laser focused on the provenance of our beef. Guernsey beef is being done brilliantly in Alderney and Sark, and next week I’m going to a farm where they specialise in Hereford cattle and Middle White pork. We don’t buy beef from anywhere that I haven’t been to see. Sometimes we’ll get a specialist bit of beef like Japanese wagyu but even then, I’ve been to Kobe to make sure it’s the real deal. In this day and age people are a little bit wary of eating too much red meat, but my personal belief is that we should eat less beef, but better. It’s the same with wine – if you want to consume less alcohol drink less, but drink better.
It’s clear that quality is important to you
Probably about 30% of my week is spent resourcing and maintaining the quality of the products, whether it be the wine or the beef, or the fish for dishes at Tinto. We source local, seasonal ingredients where we can: for instance, at the moment it’s asparagus season, and we have an agreement with a farm here that grows stunning asparagus. You can’t just use local produce because it’s local, it has to be quality as well. Luckily, we have a huge amount of quality here, from the relishes that we use in Rouge to amazing chocolates and lovely fudge from the Hudge lady.
Are you still passionate about wine?
Extremely! Sourcing the wine is almost a full-time job: we have over 10,000 bottles, and more than 300 wines on the list. A wine list like that can be a bit daunting, but it’s all about taking the mystique and snobbishness out of it, and making people feel comfortable to take a chance. Thirty pounds or so is a lot of money to spend on a bottle of wine, and that’s one of the reasons why people stick to what they know. But we’ll say if you don’t like it, we’ll drink it, and we do about 25 different wines by the glass. I think that people want to talk about wine, but they don’t want to be bored by you. People often ask for recommendations and we have a lot of repeat customers, so we pay attention to what kind of wine they like and what kind of budget they normally go for. But it’s just communication – you don’t try to rip anyone off.
Can you tell us about the adversity you’ve faced over the past couple of years?
Rouge opened in December 2019 and three weeks later we had the fire and it turned our whole world upside down. When I found out we’d be closed for at least a year I was pretty devastated, but you can either give up or crack on. When we were hit by the pandemic, Rouge was a lifesaver. We were very fortunate, but we were also good at adapting. I was basically a delivery driver, and the staff adapted from what they normally do to slicing and packing cheese and boxing our wine. We learnt a lot – I’d refurbished restaurants before but we had to start from scratch. I think if we’d opened as a replica of what we were before the fire, our customers would have been a bit disappointed, and I would have been a bit disappointed. The industry has had to learn lessons too: people are interested in working in hospitality again, but employers have got to make sure that they’re paying people properly and treating them properly.
Does it ever feel too much, having four establishments?
I don’t know how big chefs have restaurants all over the globe and keep the standard – and sometimes they can’t. I only opened more places because they’re literally within walking distance so I can monitor them all the time. In hospitality, staffing is the trickiest problem but I’m extremely lucky in that I have a core team who have been with me for a long time: Marietta started 10 years ago as a part-time waitress, and now she’s General Manager of the group and runs Red. Then there’s Christophe, the Executive Chef, Benoit who runs Rouge, Emma who runs Tinto, and Alex who runs Rosso.
What’s next for you?
I love running restaurants, I’m really lucky to do what I love. But I’m just as passionate about the creative side of it too, and I take a lot of inspiration from going to other places and learning new things. I’d like to take a bit more time off to travel again – and to be able to source new wines, new cuts of beef and new dishes.
Picture: Red group’s general manager Marietta Dochód, left, and Dave Matheson