Food | The Captain’s Table

Deborah Meaden’s dining boltholes

Known for her appearances on BBC2’s Dragons’ Den and the author of Common Sense Rules, the entrepreneur made her name in the leisure industry with Weststar Holidays.

October 09 2011
Hilary Whitney

“I like to make every hour count, so it makes sense to do business over a meal; it’s a very effective use of time. As a rule, I try to avoid breakfast meetings – I’m terrible in the mornings – and I think of dinner as more of a social occasion with friends, although I’m very happy to meet clients in the evening if necessary.

Whenever I take someone out for lunch, I always have a purpose in mind. I want it to be pleasurable, and it might well be celebratory, but I never meet anyone for lunch unless there is a good reason to do so. My time is too precious to go out for a meal just for the hell of it.

To be honest, left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t eat at all at lunchtime, as I don’t actually get hungry until 6pm, so I keep it very light. I find out how many courses my guests would like and if it’s two, I’ll have two starters. I never have dessert – that would totally wipe me out – and I usually finish off with a latte to wake me up.

I never drink during the day – I enjoy business and I want to be on my mettle. Actually, I hardly drink. Occasionally I’ll really fancy a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, but I rarely finish it. I’m quite ethical about my eating – I haven’t eaten foie gras for six years now, though it’s not a crusade I wish to take into the business environment. Also, for sustainability reasons, I’ve decided to give up fish for a year, so for the time being I wouldn’t invite someone to a fish restaurant.

But it’s not just about food: choosing the right environment is crucial. I’m very aware that people can find me, or rather my persona, intimidating, and I want them to feel as comfortable as possible. I also think about what I want to get out of the meeting – do I want to stick rigidly to an agenda or am I just after a chat, to find out more about that person? I recently had a meeting with one of the five main charities I am involved with, Care International, over coffee and sandwiches at the Charlotte Street Hotel (pictured). We chatted in a fairly meandering way but it was very useful, because the whole point was to learn more about the culture of the organisation.

If I’m meeting someone who is seeking my investment or advice for what I call a baby business, I like to go to tightly packed, buzzy places – somewhere fairly casual such as Nicole Farhi’s coffee shop, or Côte in Covent Garden, which has a very dependable menu. However, when I’m with someone from the financial world, I prefer a more structured environment, such as The Club at The Ivy. The food there is often simple but always beautifully executed. I love the steak-and-kidney pie, and they always have a really interesting soup of the day.

When I’m striking a deal that I don’t want anyone to know about and I want to feel safe, I’ll probably book a private room at the Charlotte Street Hotel. Sometimes I’ll spend the entire day there, meeting a range of people over coffee, lunch and dinner. They do a wonderful Pimm’s and strawberry jelly with a pistachio tuile – lovely and cool on a summer day.

I divide my time between London and Somerset and although I would never entertain business clients at my home, I sometimes ask people to come and see me in the South-West. I think it makes a change to be in a countrified setting, and we are blessed with world-class restaurants such as Gidleigh Park and the Michael Caines restaurant in Exeter.

In fact, the best deal I ever did over a meal was in a funny little restaurant in Taunton – I think it was called Chaucer’s, but it’s not there any more – when I sold my holiday parks. Someone from a private equity house, who happened to have been at school with my husband, took us out for dinner and I vividly remember the moment when I thought, “Yes, I think I could work with these people.”

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