Five minutes with… Daniel Willis and Johnny Smith

The founders and owners of Luca in Clerkenwell on how British and Italian influences combine in their restaurant, the importance of making people feel at home and why they would invite the Witches of Eastwick, Miles Davis and Nina Simone to dinner

Food and Drink 4 May 2022

Luca restaurant founders Daniel Willis and Johnny Smith

Luca restaurant founders Daniel Willis and Johnny Smith

What can diners expect from Luca?

JS An amazing time, of course! One of the things I love about the restaurant is that there’s always a brilliant atmosphere; every service feels like a Friday night.  We’re blessed with a stunning space. The building is Grade II listed in the heart of Clerkenwell, there’s a low-lit bar with cosy booths and a long marble bar top and an outdoor terrace lined with plants. The main dining room has five-metre-high floor-to-ceiling windows – there isn’t a bad seat in the whole restaurant.  

DW One of the things I love about Luca is the moment you walk through the door you feel transported into another place and time. It feels like a grand trattoria in Milan or an old-school Manhattan restaurant – it’s a compliment people pay us a lot.  

Luca combines British and Italian influences
Luca combines British and Italian influences

Can you describe the food at Luca? Does the restaurant have any signature dishes?

JS The simplest way to describe the food here is British produce through an Italian lens. Robert Chambers, our head chef, is of British and Italian heritage, and his food is about blending and playing with the two cuisines. One of our most popular dishes is rigatoni with pork sausage ragu, anchovy and fresh mint – it’s a traditional ragu with a bit of a British twist and it’s delicious. 

DW The food at Luca is beautiful and heartwarming. When the standard of the cooking is very high it’s easy to lose focus on taste and nourishment, but I feel we nail it. If I had to pick a dish to call a signature it would be our Orkney scallops with Jerusalem artichoke and n’duja – they look and taste amazing and guests absolutely love them, as do I! 

What are your hopes for the future of Luca?

JS There’s something about restaurants that have stood the test of time, that gather this mystique and grandeur and become institutions, and it’s not just because the food and service is great, it’s because they have given people so many amazing evenings and special memories, like St John and River Café; getting to a 25th or a 30th birthday is such a massive achievement. We’d love for Luca to do something similar.  

That’s the long-term goal. Our focus right now is to be one of the best employers in London hospitality.  Covid was really tough for our industry and since the first lockdown back in 2020 we’ve been working harder than ever to make sure our team is happy and healthy. We’re creating more space for everyone to be heard, paying more, investing in training and mentorship programmes and being more generous with the team. Things like credit to enjoy the restaurant and monthly Uber allowances for taxis home when it’s late. We’re doing everything we can to take better care of everyone. 

DW I really want to take the restaurant to the next level and for me that’s about people. There is a real art to hospitality that is inspiring, for the people creating it as well as the guests experiencing it and that’s about building a team who not only love what they do but are passionate about the small details.  We love the romance of old-school hospitality and I want Luca to be known for that, whether it’s frozen glasses with perfect ice in a negroni, a guest being handed a pack of matches just as they ask for a light or ending their night being given a hand with their coat. We also want to have some fun! I feel like we all need it. We’re going to be doing some fun events, so watch this space… 

One thing people seem to highlight when talking about Luca is the restaurant’s warmth – how have you created and maintained such a convivial and welcoming atmosphere?

JS That’s lovely to hear. Our service ethos is built on the idea that we’re inviting friends into our home – something Daniel and I have embodied since we first welcomed guests into our flat for the first Clove Club supper club back in 2010. Ten years on and now it’s about inspiring our team to keep making our guests feel welcome by breaking down barriers between us and them. It may sound obvious but there’s something fundamental and powerful about welcoming someone with a smile, warm eye contact and a little ‘Good evening, how are you?’ or ‘How’s your day been?’ It’s caring and personal and it helps us to really connect. 

DW As Johnny says, the moment a guest arrives their experience begins, which is why we place huge importance on saying hello to every person we serve. I love taking guests to a table and every member of staff they walk past gives them a big ‘Good evening!’ Being genuine is so important when you are serving a table, asking guests how they are and if they’ve had a nice day and meaning it. I genuinely want to know who my guests are and how they are. That comes with being passionate about restaurants and hopefully my team feels and does the same! We have huge respect for Corbin and King and love their quote – ‘Restaurant owners run their businesses from the board room, restaurateurs run them from the floor’. That really resonates with us. We love being on the floor and always create a fun environment for the team; if the team are having fun, then so are the guests.  

The beautiful interior of Luca
The beautiful interior of Luca

The past two years have been particularly hard for restaurateurs, what have you learned?

JS That in the face of adversity, we can grow new opportunities and better relationships. Throughout the lockdowns we did “Luca At Home”, sending our feasting menus all over the country and it was a smash hit. It was so great to get the team working together again, seeing each other not just through a screen and to have the restaurant open – Fridays and Saturdays were exciting again and busy! Not only was Luca At Home important for the business, it was also vital for everyone’s mental and physical health, including my own. Looking back, that time made me feel the responsibility of being an employer more than ever.  

DW Not to take anything for granted. We were very lucky not to lose everything. The whole industry has faced massive adversity and it’s forced us all to be creative. Many people have pivoted and done amazing things, which has given us all hope. I think the staffing crisis has also forced everyone to ask themselves some tough questions about the way we look after our teams. For us personally, this has been a real opportunity to create positive change at the restaurant.  

What ingredient can you not live without?

JS Personally, chickpeas. I have a thing for houmous. Some say I’m a houmouseur. 

DW Dijon mustard. Essential for so many things: dressings, grilled meats, smoked fish, and also a great alternative for a bacon sarnie when you have run out of ketchup.

What are your biggest passions outside of food and drink?

JS Music, guitars and stars. I know a bit about the former two and not a lot about the last, but I’ve got a massive telescope that can see the rings of Saturn and I’m fascinated by space and the cosmos. Music is a big part of both mine and Daniel’s lives. Not only have we worked at the same restaurants over the past 15 years, we’ve also played in the same bands and released records together.  As you’d expect, Luca’s soundtrack is brilliant. We wouldn’t have it any other way. 

DW Music, art and photography. I like collecting records and discovering new music and I love playing records on a really great soundsystem. Check my Instagram @danieljohnwillis for my music projects. Photography is also a huge part of my life. I love going to an exhibition, buying books and studying the masters, as well as shooting a lot, whether that’s a night shoot capturing architecture, taking the odd portrait commission or snapping pics of family and friends, I love every part of it. In 2019 I had a really tough year and I started painting as an extension of photography, even painting my photographs, and it gave me great joy. I’d like to find some time to get back to it. 

What is your favourite restaurant in the world and why?

JS The best time I’ve ever had in a restaurant was a lunch at Kaia Kaipe, San Sebastian in 2017. It’s perched on a hillside overlooking the bay and it was a beautiful sunny day, a spectacular setting. The food was really exceptional with dish after dish of grilled local seafood and Basque specialities, but it was the wine that really made it. Every now and again you stumble across a restaurant with a world-class wine list and jaw droppingly low prices, and you get that kid-in-a-sweetie-shop feeling. KK was one of those restaurants. Jacquesson, Viña Tondonia, Roulot, Els Jelipins – we drank it all, bathed in the Spanish sun. 

DW It’s hard to pick! Right now, I would say it’s Lyle’s. James [Lowe] is a very close friend of my wife and me, so we took our son for lunch on his first birthday. It was a really magical afternoon, the food was so exquisite, the best terrine I have ever tasted. Nial (GM), Gabby (AGM) and the team are not just pros, they are wonderful people. Roscoe took his first proper steps to Gabby which was a gorgeous moment, and James sat with us for dessert which was really lovely.  A perfect day really.  

Who, living or dead, would you most like to invite for a night at Luca and what would you serve them? 

JS The Witches of Eastwick and Jack Nicholson, looking old-money-rich, flamboyant and important, with lots of silk, gold jewellery and pink trench coats. There would be plenty of naughtiness over a decadent dinner of lobster spaghetti, caviar and white truffles with the finest Barolos and grappa.      

DW I’d probably invite all my favourite musical icons that have passed away. I love jazz, so Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Nina Simone. I’m also a big hip-hop fan so Notorious BIG, Big L and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, then Roy Orbison and John Lennon too, and finally Kurt Cobain as Nevermind is one of the most important albums of all time.  They’d have to sit in the pasta room. They are all heavy smokers, so we’d have lots of ashtrays and I’d serve them all the classics, decadent plates of salumi, oysters and shallot vinaigrette, then I think we’d go a little racy with the pastas – maybe our carbonara agnolotti, conchiglia with stracciatella, wild garlic and pistachio pesto. Mains would be fillet of Hereford beef and we’d finish with tiramisu, espressos and grappa.  No phones either.  What goes on in the pasta room stays in the pasta room.