|This Chinese restaurant backs it both ways with a Catholic and Buddhist shrine.|
It turns out, in fact, that religion, superstition and a belief in the paranormal are surprisingly common among restaurateurs. Camellia Panjabi set up the Bombay Brasserie in 1982; it served its millionth customer 10 years later and is still doing well, and she has around half a dozen other restaurants including the Masala Zone chain. "Namita [her sister and business partner] and I like to choose auspicious dates for opening the restaurants," she tells me. "And we have the sites checked by our Vastu adviser."
Russell Norman, who has opened a slew of restaurants in Soho during the last two or three years, says: "I've always had a thing about the number 86. When I was at Joe Allen in Covent Garden, we had a slate on which were written the dishes the kitchen had run out of. Colloquially, this dish was then referred to as being 'eighty-sixed'. Of course, the term had other uses too: when someone was fired, they were 'eighty-sixed'; when mistakes were made, the manager would say to the offender: 'Don't make me eighty-six you!' I've had an uneasy relationship with the number ever since."
Other restaurateurs organise menus and staff rotas around the full moon, or have rules about never giving anyone a knife as a gift. One lingering superstition is the "cursed site", where restaurant after restaurant founders. Of course, it only takes ones great restaurant (Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, say) to remove the curse – that is, to fit the right concept to the right location.
It's one thing to conduct your business for what you perceive as the heavens' favour or to imbue numbers with special significance, but some people in hospitality go rather further. Bertrand Pierson is a very experienced restaurant general manager who has worked for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, among others. He told me: "I used to manage a well-regarded restaurant in London, Michelin level, in a very old building. A lot of oddities started happening. There was a strange friction between staff and customers; things were fixed one day and broken the next; customers kept being locked in the loo. So we called someone in and had lunch with him. He didn't say much but he was absorbing the energy from the room, and at the end he sat with his eyes closed for 10 minutes and said: 'I can tell this is happening. I help spirits move on. I can improve things.'"
"It turned out that there had been murders in the building and it was identified that satanic cults had been there as well. He came back for another session a few months later and things definitely improved. I'm not inclined to believe in ghosts or the paranormal but when you see really weird things happening and nothing seems to be working, despite you having 20-odd years' experience, we had to do something radical."
Todd Savvas is a handsome and fluent Australian who makes a living from – among other supernatural dealings – supposedly communicating with spirits. He tells me has worked with "40 or 50" restaurants over the years, including "funky fast food places and full-blown restaurants from household names", and claims to have a special awareness of the entities that can occupy them.
He uses food in some of "clearings": lemons, vinegar, sage. "Blueberries are used for psychic protection," he says. "They're great to protect your psychic senses from attack or from depressive energies that might be floating around. Most people think the old wives' tales about throwing salt over your shoulders is crap, but actually salt creates a sacred space. If there's something floating around you when you throw it over your shoulders, it will immediately be disconnected and float away. When I sit down at a restaurant or a bar and there's salt there I'll always spill some and throw it over both my shoulders."
From his experience, Savvas reckons that "70-80% of people involved in hospitality have some level of belief in superstitious behaviour". Restaurants, he claims, are particularly susceptible to "negative energy". "There are so many more people walking through the doors. They bring all their drama with them, so it's important for restaurants to clear the space regularly, just as they'd have a cleaner everyday."
Savvas is a likeable fellow, though I think he's deluded. But I have an idea why restaurateurs are so prone to believing in the supernatural, alternate "belief systems" and other unverifiable things. If your business is risky and unpredictable, then it's understandable that you might respond to this by trying to influence things unseen, or believing that things unseen can influence you. And since restaurants are such personal businesses, with the character of their owners written into their fabric, when one fails it's almost an affront to these owners' identity. Small wonder, then, that so many cross their fingers and turn to nonsense and incense.
My view: I think superstition by an large plays a major part in decision influencing across the world in general. The theatre industry is awash with many superstitions to ensure that a production thrives and does not fail.
And to think we have evolved as a civilisation but have never been able to move on from ideas that are more akin to medieval life and not the modern world.