Geroge Ryle (c) Andrew Burton Photography

What makes a successful museum cafe?

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 05.03.2020
Q&A with George Ryle, head chef at the award-winning Garden Museum cafe
Catering in museums is evolving, with many institutions moving to restaurant-style offerings as they seek to make food an intrinsic part of the visitor experience. An upcoming symposium at the Garden Museum will explore some of the latest trends on food in museums. The museum’s cafe is itself a frontrunner in the arena after being named the best museum restaurant in the world by Leading Cultural Destinations in 2018.

Museums Journal caught up with the Garden Museum’s head chef, George Ryle, to find out what makes a museum cafe whet the appetite for visitors.

What are the new trends to look out for in catering in museums?

I think that the main trend to keep an eye out for at the moment in museums is the move towards more of a restaurant-style offering, with places like ourselves, Rochelle canteen at the Institute of Contemporary Art and Townsend at the Whitechapel gallery. It’s an interesting moment for museum food and it will be interesting to see how they will all fare and which other museums might take the leap.
 
What are your key ingredients for a great museum cafe?

There are many things that go into making a café or restaurant successful. I think having a clear idea of what you want to offer and how you want to provide it is so important. We have obviously made subtle adjustments to how we do things and the cafe has evolved in the two and a half years we have been open but we have stayed true to the original idea and aims. Also, the food needs to be great! If it is then people will keep coming back.  

What are some of the challenges to running a restaurant or café in a museum?

Two main things spring to mind. One is expectations; the expectations of people who have come to the museum and perhaps don’t know much about the cafe. People have an expectation of a self-service cafe with soup, sandwiches and flapjack and that is not what we offer. That can be challenging. The second thing that springs to mind are the financial challenges of only opening for lunch. People eat and drink a lot less at lunch than at dinner. But we find a way to manage these challenges.
 
Are any elements of your menu inspired by the museum’s collections and displays?

We try to have as much synergy with the museum and what is happening there as possible. Some exhibitions offer more obvious opportunities for menu inspiration than others. Certainly for the Tuesday night talks and lectures that the museum holds we have had plenty of menu inspiration from the speaker or the topic. Expect to see plenty of oysters and other seafood delights from the Kent coastline once the Derek Jarman exhibition starts.
 
The Garden Museum prioritises environmental sustainability. How is this reflected in the cafe?

The cafe has put a lot of time and energy into sourcing its ingredients. We only work with suppliers who put environmental sustainability and the future of our food systems at the forefront of what they do. Companies like Natoora, Swaledale Foods and The Ham and Cheese company do all the hard work for us so that we are always completely confident about where our food comes from and how it was produced.

The Food in Museums symposium takes place on 16 March at the Garden Museum in London

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