Death and Life
The wonderful Martin Miller died yesterday. A true renaissance man, I was proud to count him as one of my closest friends even though we were not the sorts of mates to conduct a long distance relationship. However he was my first call on arriving back in England and the pleasure of chewing the fat over a glass of the Gin he lovingly crafted (Millers Gin of course) had lost none of its allure. His mind, like his filing cabinet, was always brimming over with new projects, business plans or literary plots. He was the ultimate conversationalists and lavished his time generously on his friends.
Sadly, I didn’t even know he was ill; he wasn’t a guy who broadcast his problems. I hope his amazingly active brain and ready wit sustained him through to the end. What upset me more than anything is the fact that I never got to show him The 5th Floor, for which he was largely the inspiration and certainly one of the main reasons that I had confidence that a not very successful but reasonably socially adept ex-investment banker, could create a slightly strange niche within the hospitality industry.
I will always remember the first time I was invited to one of the frequent cocktail parties at Miller’s Rooming House, his Notting Hill Bed and Breakfast. Situated over an Arab restaurant, you entered through an unmarked door and climbed a narrow staircase, attempting to avoid incinerating yourself on one of the hundreds of candles that Martin always insisted gave the best light. You wondered if you had come to the right place, until you arrived in his capacious sitting room, with its eclectic mix of antiques and brocade, sculptures and knick knacks, which always gave the effect of looking sumptuous and homely at the same time. Of course Martin knew what he was doing. With his first wife he founded Millers Antique Guides, one of the world’s most successful antiques publications. I once asked him if he worried about these treasures being damaged. Not at all he replied, as antiques they are all fatally flawed, cheap. But he certainly knew how to dress a room.
And so I met the man, hosting an equally eclectic mix of people, by now squeezed somewhat tightly into his living room. He was the consummate host, but not someone who flitted from group to group. No, if he was having an interesting conversation he had the ability to draw you into his crowd, so you never felt ignored but neither was the conversation interrupted. We soon became firmest of friends and it wasn’t long before I started suggesting to my more open-minded clients that they might like to stay at a little Bed and Breakfast in Notting Hill rather than the Lanesborough or the Savoy. They loved it, especially when they ended up having breakfast with Mario Testino or Marian Faithful (regular habitués), or had spent the night drinking with Eric Clapton’s ex or some famous rock band.
So I have tried to take a leaf out of Martin’s book and create a place with the same “onda” (as we say in BA), where intelligent people will feel well looked after and hopefully feel fast-tracked into the social and cultural life of Buenos Aires, possibly the world’s greatest city. We have been open six weeks, appear to be getting busier and busier (though it is high season) and have so far exceeded our expectations. Maybe this a suitable time for a bit of reflection on our new life?
Well both Veronica and I come from backgrounds completely unconnected with the hospitality industry, so we don’t really know what we are doing. We have to make it up as we go along. And the first thing we have noticed is how incredibly supportive people have been. Not just our friends but also potential competitors, suppliers, journalists. Buenos Aires is truly a place for offering something a bit different and fresh.
And so far our clients have been charming to a fault. We were about to sign up to an electronic booking engine but at the last moment it didn’t feel right. We want to know that our clients will like our other clients. You can’t do that by allowing easy access for every random stranger. How do you know they have even read your website? That they understand what you offer and what you don’t? Yes we might be busier, but with who? So we binned that idea and now if clients want to know our rates they have to scour through our website which hopefully makes the above pretty clear. We have also been running Puerta Cerrada (closed door) restaurants about once a week. Vietnamese, Vegan, Texan BBQ, and my own Ugly Food, dinner party style. All stuff that is not easily accessible in BA. As we are in learning mode we have been doing them at cost. Obviously that leads to a big waiting list!
More importantly it has also led to a random pair of tourists who came to dinner ending up with a whole bunch of new friends in a city that they had just arrived in. They sent me a tongue in cheek email complaining that with all these people to see, they had no time left to see the sights. Hopefully they will be back and the next time staying at The 5th Floor???
Can you really pick your guests and have a successful business as well? That I still can’t answer. It certainly seems that the extra effort required to find us and book with us, is attracting people whose expectations have already been conditioned by our public information. They seem to be people who would be pretty comfortable having dinner together. Generally people substantially more intelligent and better educated than me. Which is a bloody relief…I hate being bored!
My biggest cock-up so far? I need to put more salt in my roast tomato juice (probably celery salt too – hey I listen). My Bloody Mary may be the best in BA but it can still be improved on. Mexicans know about this stuff! So not fatal unless I have some fussy Mexican capo in the house.
I’d like to finish with a huge thank you to all the guys who have supported us, including all our initial clients. This is my life now. I’m no longer some self-important financier. I’m the guy that cooks you breakfast. But you have all been so nice and such good company. If my friend Martin could come now, he’d have a great time with my guests and I think he would be proud of the fact that we have ignored most of the ABC’s of marketing, to try and ensure a more pleasant experience for our clients. Actually, I doubt he ever considered marketing in his life. He was a brand in himself.
So goodbye to a great friend but forward with the life he helped inspire.
Rest in Peace my friend.