Interview by Catherine Ramshaw
Moving away from a focus on laidback breakfasts, Bills recently opened a smart new branch in downtown Ginza, marking their seventh opening in Japan (fourth in Tokyo). Although you can still tuck into the signature creamy scrambled eggs and ricotta pancakes, there’s plenty more to look forward to here, including delights such as lobster linguine, yellow fish curry, wagyu burgers, and even a high tea menu. We met up with the man behind the brand, Bill Granger, in London to chat about his transition from artist to restaurateur, how his gap year in Japan influenced his style, and how he pushes people out of their food comfort zones.
One of your first loves was art. What role does visual art still play in how you prepare your menus and plan your restaurants?
I started life as an art student, first studying architecture, then I changed over to fine arts, and I think for me the creative vision is always the start of everything. I’m excited by the visual; so whether it’s the way that food looks or the interiors of the restaurant, it’s the whole presentation. Restaurants are such a visual experience, so it’s still really important to me.
Can you tell me more about the transition you made from an artist who was waiting tables to opening your first restaurant? Were there any really pivotal moments?
Working with art is a solitary pursuit. I started working in a restaurant part-time to get some money whilst I studied, and fell in love with the collaborative effort and the energy of it. My father and grandfather had owned butcher shops, and so that idea of shop keeping was really normal for me. When I was 22 my grandfather gave me some money, which he’d set aside for all of his grand kids to borrow a little bit from, so I thought what I’m going to do is open a restaurant, and it would almost be like my shop. That’s how it started.
You weren’t formally trained as a chef, so what are some of the things that have helped you succeed in an industry that can often chew people up and then spit them out?
You’ve got to love people. My father, having been a butcher was very good at talking to people. Both my father and grandfather loved customers and I think that’s the most important thing in the restaurant business too. It’s not about your ego or yourself; a lot of people misunderstand that when they start a restaurant. You’re creating an empty space that your customers are putting their lives into. You’ve got to be humble, you’ve got to like people, and like working with people, getting the best out of them and inspiring them to deliver the best possible results.
“I’d grown up in the 80s when the Japanese influence and aesthetic was really big in terms of popular culture, music and style”
You spent your gap year in Japan when you were 19; did that experience have an influence on your personal style, and your style as a restaurateur?
Absolutely. I’d grown up in the 80s when the Japanese influence and aesthetic was really big in terms of popular culture, music and style. Then when I went there in the early 90s I was totally blown away by the Japanese attitude to the visual – the craft in the way people dressed, interiors, objects; it’s an incredibly visual culture, which was really inspiring to me. I was also inspired by how people ate well all the time, not just in the really high end places, but in the simple udon or ramen shops. Even cheap places were still beautifully designed and thought out, and that really inspired me when I was first starting Bills.
How do you strike a balance between comfort food and pushing people past their comfort zones with new and interesting offerings?
The interiors of my restaurants are everyday places – almost home. When people come in, the environment is created so that they’re comfortable. They’re not meant to be fine dining establishments, they’re meant to be pretty relaxed. Our dishes are based on food you want to eat all the time but also get excited about. Food is like fashion and you’re constantly getting new flavors that are coming through. In the past few years there have been so many more textures and different grains, nuts and seeds being used, so it’s always important for me to try new flavors and see what’s going on. I love going to other restaurants and seeing what people are using, and what’s happening. It’s fun. It’s very much like fashion in that way.
Out of the many restaurants that you’ve opened since 1993, do you have any favorites?
There are different restaurants in different countries that feel a bit more emotional. The first Bills in Sydney is very important to me, because that’s where I learnt my trade. I think in Japan I love Shichirigahama, our first restaurant on the ocean – that’s beautiful. I love Omotesando because it’s right in the center and when I was on my gap year I used to live around there, so it reminds me of being a 20-year-old. Our new restaurant in Ginza is absolutely beautiful and I think London, Notting Hill which is close to my home is a favorite. It’s my local as well.
For more information about Bills restaurants in Japan, visit billsjapan.com/jp
Top photograph by Anson Smart