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Published:  23 July, 2008

Jules Wright, Director, The Wapping Project, London. Interview: Josie Butchart

Wapping Food The Wapping Project Wapping Hydraulic Power Station Wapping Wall, London E1W 3ST

Tel: 020 7680 2080

Australian theatre director Jules Wright launched The Wapping Project in October 2000, combining contemporary art, performance and fine dining within the inspiring architecture of Wapping's former hydraulic power station. Wright is a doctor of psychology and a former deputy artistic director of The Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, and ran Liverpool Playhouse between 1984 and 1987. She was offered the job of running Sydney Opera House in 1991, but decided to remain in England, and instead developed The Wapping Project, which includes Wapping Food restaurant with its 67-bin all-Australian wine list. Suppliers: Corney & Barrow, Enotria, Forth Wines, H & H Bancroft Wines, Les Caves de Pyrene, Premium Wine Collections

When did you start planning The Wapping Project?

I first used the building in October 1993 for performances. At that point it was derelict and completely covered in moss - just like walking into fairyland. We finally secured the freehold in March 1998, closed it down for two years and spent 4 million on it. Just to rebuild the top of the tower cost 250,000 because we had to get bricks made in the original kiln up in Yorkshire.

Why did you decide to open Wapping Food within The Wapping Project?

I needed a cash flow and a restaurant seemed the obvious way to go. But because I'd run big arts buildings with franchises in them before, I was very reluctant to go down that path and watch the money walk out the door. With a franchise you've got no control and I wanted Wapping Food to be quite idiosyncratic. It also means I can use the whole site sometimes. For example, Deutsche Bank had a dinner here recently and wanted a performance in the restaurant. I was able to move tables and chairs to do that. If you have a franchisee they are counting covers non-stop; they have a different reason for being there. I think that art, food and drinking are all the same kinds of experience. It is all about your senses.

Does the restaurant make a significant financial contribution to the project?

It's a successful restaurant, but to make a lot of money in this business you have to be like Terence Conran and have lots of restaurants. I am ambitious for it, though. I set out wanting it to challenge the River Caf, so that people would come from Hammersmith to here in the way that I was prepared to go from here to Hammersmith. That ambition remains, but it's also got to be true to the people who run it. Hence the all-Australian wine list, for example, which everyone said wouldn't work.

What was the initial idea behind the all-Australian list?

I am Australian and I knew that I was able to drink great Australian wines at home that I was rarely able to find here. If there happened to be a couple of bottles on a list it generally wasn't great wine, but just what was readily available..

Are you going to stick with the all-Australian list?

Yes, and it's going to get bigger and bigger and better and better. At the moment we source the wines almost exclusively through suppliers, but we also have an off-licence that we've never exploited. I want to import direct because then we can look at smaller wineries and it will become a wine list that you really can't get in any other restaurant.

Have you had any bad reactions to the all-Australian list?

Italians think it's hilarious that there is no Italian wine on the list. I've had one person walk out. He was disgusted that there was no French wine. But he was someone who was going to be very uncomfortable here anyway.

Are you happy to have as many wine suppliers as necessary to get the right wines?

Yes, I am. For example, Moreno Wines has just taken on one Australian grower with a mildly oaked Chardonnay and two great Shirazes that I would like to have on the list. They have no other Australian wines so it would mean we would only be taking those three wines from them, but I very much want to have those wines on the list.

You've got your wines organised by grape variety. Is that popular with the customers?

Until July the list was organised by price. When we changed it was a bit of a rude awakening because we discovered that 95% of customers didn't know what grape varieties they drank or liked. They would ask if we had something similar to a Rhne or a Burgundy. They would also say: I don't know what I drink, but I don't drink Chardonnay and I will never under any circumstance drink an oaked Chardonnay.' For some reason everyone was familiar with Sauvignon Blanc, so in the first few weeks we sold huge quantities of Sauvignon Blanc. The other thing they would do is order the cheapest Sauvignon Blanc, which is not something our customers usually did.

Did you consider changing it back?

I was a bit thrown because our August-to-October wine sales were down on the previous three months, although our covers were the same. But it has been interesting talking to people about grape varieties.

What are your own wine passions?

It really upsets me when people say: I never drink Chardonnay' because I love great, heavily oaked Australian Chardonnay. Sometimes they can be too much, but a really well-made one can be fantastic. Slowly but surely I will encourage people to go back to Chardonnay. Funnily enough, over the past two or three weeks, I have noticed that people are suddenly buying Chardonnay. People behave so bizarrely!