Brighton’s Isaac At restaurant celebrates its first anniversary this week. Nick Mosley catches up with chef Isaac Bartlett-Copeland to find out about his journey.
How did Isaac At start?
I knew I wanted to start my own restaurant, I just wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. About a year before we started as a pop-up I decided it was now or never, so I left the Grand the following September and started getting things sorted, launching with Friday and Saturday events from March 2015. I walked past an old financial advisor’s office on Gloucester Street and popped my head in and got talking to the landlord and told him my ideas and the concept I had in mind for the pop-ups. He liked it, luckily, as did quite a few other people! It’s amazing to think that 18 months later we re-launched as a permanent restaurant and now we’re a year on from that. I’m excited about what else is to come.
This is your first full year trading as a restaurant rather than a limited service weekly pop-up. What – if any – difficulties has that posed personally and professionally?
We’re a really close group of friends now so that helps massively with how everything runs and how focused we are on developing the concept. Time was a big thing when we ramped things up to opening five days a week. We used to spend three days prepping for just two services, so we’ve worked pretty hard to make sure we’re all working as efficiently as we can. Since the re-launch and refurb last year, we changed the set-up of the kitchen so we saved a lot of time straight away. The biggest challenge we probably had when we went from two to six weekly services was having to constantly provide exactly the same level of service and quality across every service, whilst things often go wrong. It’s also been quite a challenge to do everything within the small budget that we have. Everything is funded by me and re-investing money back into the restaurant, so we’re limited when it comes to equipment and getting things as slick as we want them to maximise our time, but we’re getting there.
Why did you decide to focus pretty much exclusively on Sussex produce?
I really wanted to create a restaurant that represented the local region. By opening a restaurant that showcased local produce and offered an exclusively English wine list then I knew I would be creating something different. I get a lot of our apples and vegetables from my mum’s garden and that’s what sparked the idea originally in terms of knowing how good local produce can be. As we’ve always sourced locally on the food side, we wanted to carry this concept through to our drinks menu too. We’re passionate about local wines and we want to champion them and show guests what we have on our doorstep.
The city is gaining a very competitive dining scene at the top end of the market, how are you maintaining your position and ensuring the message of the restaurant is clearly heard?
The mileage we share for every ingredient on our menus is something unique to us, which sets the local message as soon as guests arrive. We have built up a lot of reliable local suppliers that we love working with and we make sure that we shout about that across our website and when we’re sharing our story on social media too. We’re the only restaurant in Brighton to champion an all English wine list and this is something we’re really proud of. We believe that Sussex sparkling is better than champagne.
A distinct selling point of the restaurant is the young kitchen and front of house team; are there any challenges working with a team that are still learning and growing in experience?
I don’t think there are challenges from working with a less experienced team. I see it as an advantage, as no one has any pre-conceptions about their role, how the business should be run or how the team should work. Having less experience means that you’re less held back by worrying about failing or how things should be done. I’m very lucky they have the same passion as me about the business, and I try my best to let them have as much input as they want into the restaurant so that they stay driven, being the best they can be. My team are the strongest part of the business and they work incredibly hard and inspire me every day with their enthusiasm.
What are your plans for the year ahead?
We set out to be one of the best in the South East and we’re nowhere near that just yet, so we won’t stop until we get there, as we want to continue to build our reputation and standard. We’re in a really exciting position right now and being in the new Good Food Guide has been an amazing achievement, so we really want to continue to push things forward. To do that, we’re starting to look at potential avenues so we can take the restaurant to the next level. We’ve got such an amazing team and we’re nearly there with the set up, so I’m excited about seeing where we go.