Jeremy King sounds surprisingly relaxed for a man whose company has just gone into administration. “There’s so much more I want to say but currently can’t,” he says, unpromisingly, over the phone; a conversation that begins with him graciously, and totally unnecessarily, apologising for having postponed our interview from a few days prior due to the small matter of his restaurant empire being placed in the hands of receivers.
It is, as King tells me, a “purely technical”, administration; one brought about by the majority shareholder, the Thai-based hotel group Minor International, calling in a loan which they had assured auditors for two consecutive years they would “never” ask for.
The power play by Minor is an attempt, as King sees it, to wrest control from him and his business partner, Chris Corbin; two men who have done more than any other restaurateurs in the last four decades to drag London’s dining scene into the modern age by the butter curler and bread knife. Initially, that was through Le Caprice (in St James’s, which closed in 2020 after almost 40 years), The Ivy (Seven Dials) and J Sheekey (Leicester Square), all of which were sold by the duo in 1998. Currently, the partners’ hospitality business, Corbin & King, operates Bellanger (Islington), Fischer’s (Marylebone), The Delaunay (Aldwych), Soutine (St. John’s Wood), The Wolseley (Piccadilly) and Brasserie Zédel (Piccadilly).
If you’re wondering who to thank for the fact that the egalitarian nature of the grand European style brassiere and bar counter is conscious and upright in London, then extend a firm handshake towards King. If you’re curious as to who is responsible for the fact that, at The Wolseley at least, it’s easily possible to pop in without a booking early in the morning, sit underneath an Art Deco chandelier in a black padded corner booth, have a fresh croissant au Beurre, feel like you’re winning at life and then receive change from a tenner in 2022, then you may want to give King a full-blown bear hug.
King’s voice is a redoubtable thing. At times gentle, laconic and redolent of wood-panelled gentlemen’s clubs and single malt whisky; in other instances, prone to discreet, mischievous chuckles and the occasional stentorian roar. In short, his timbre has all the tones and cadences that you would hope to master yourself should you need to charm, cajole, flatter, discipline and pre-empt the tardiness, tears, tender kisses and tanked-up tantrums of hundreds of diners and drinkers every evening across the capital.
Despite his warnings of being hamstrung as to how much he could reveal about the current farrago between himself and Minor International, King actually had rather a lot to say, about everything from Brexit and obnoxious guests to the joys of really, really cheap soup…
Does the nub of this row with Minor International, which resulted in administration, boil down to a point of difference regarding whether or not The Wolseley should be franchised out around the world? It seems, reading between the lines, that this is what Minor International wants to do, and you don’t.
That’s a part of it and it’s certainly contributed to why the relationship has fallen apart. What Minor want to do is franchise out The Wolseley in a scattergun way, whereas I feel it needs to be more controlled. I want to go abroad but it’s how we do it that matters. The Minor approach seems to be that anybody who offers to buy a franchise, which means us giving up quite a lot of control, should be accepted and we should take the money and run. I’m not against expansion in the long run, but in terms of opening a second The Wolseley abroad we need to be very careful. I’ve looked at Shanghai and Hong Kong and very nearly took sites but I want to be careful, rather than condemning the brand into somebody’s new, inconsequential-looking building.
Yet The Ivy has been rolled out into numerous branches around the UK since you sold it and I think this has happened without any noticeable diminishment of the reputation of the original Ivy on West Street.
Well, I’m not so sure about that. The original Ivy is a very different restaurant to what it was in the 1990s. I’m not against change as change is normal but there are ways of doing it. I’m not going to criticise the rollout of The Ivy as there are so many ways of doing things. But what I would say is that isn’t the way that I would have done it. The moment you relinquish control of something you can’t begrudge what anyone else wants to do with it. I’m disappointed with what’s happened with The Ivy but it really isn’t for me to criticise. I would say that if, as a restauranteur, you’re driven purely by money, then you’re giving yourself a finite life.
More than ever at the moment – in the panic for restaurants to recoup money after Covid – it does feel like customers are being treated as wallets with legs. It’s understandable but also unpleasant.
Yes, I understand that. If you see customers as just a source of income, as so many restaurateurs do, then you’re missing out on the most important thing. I’ve just done an induction with my staff and I told them that you must look upon every guest as an opportunity; an opportunity to give them a really, really good time. If you give them a really good time, well, that’s when you make money.
Customers do seem to be exceptionally proprietorial about your restaurants in a way that they aren’t with, let’s say, Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants. I know it’s a softball question but why do you think this is?
The quasi-brasseries and grand cafes are the greatest restaurants. If you go into The Wolseley tonight and do a survey, you’ll find people are there for so many different reasons. People will say I’m here with friends or I’m here with family or I’m here on business or I’m here to do an interview or I’m here to seduce, or I’m here to divorce. Lots of people do choose to tell their partner they want a divorce in a public place in my experience.
Maybe they think in a public place the screaming and shouting will be limited?
They can think that. It doesn’t always work out that way. The great restaurants allow all of those things to happen. I want places where people in evening dress are sat next to people in T-shirts and jeans. One table is ordering lobster and caviar and the next one is ordering burger and fries. Even better if it’s the couple in evening dress who are eating the burger and fries! Then you’ve got an interesting, non-prescribed place. A lot of the most interesting people who come in are the least affluent. Our menus work on the basis that we give people the opportunity to spend if they want to but we don’t make it mandatory.
It always gave me a psychological lift when I was at my most impoverished in London that I could go to The Wolseley and afford to have a latte and not be sneered at by staff because I wasn’t ordering a bottle of Chablis.
When we first opened Zedel, the then-general manager was seething with me one day about one particular table. There was a mature, single lady who had sat down and asked for a glass of tap water then got a basket of bread. She then ordered the soup. She ate the soup, and another basket of bread, and asked for the bill. It came to £2.25. I’ve always believed in having a really good value soup on a menu, by the way. The staff were furious. We had definitely lost money on her but I told the staff that this was great. I loved the fact that this woman felt so comfortable to come to the restaurant and just order soup and enjoy herself. I had to remind the staff that they weren’t complaining about the other table who were ordering champagne and spending too much, so therefore they shouldn’t complain about the guest that spends ‘too’ little. It all balances out in a good restaurant over the course of a day and an evening.
Post-pandemic, do you think the behaviour of customers has changed for the worse?
I think when people behave badly it’s because they have problems at home. It’s minor with us compared to so many other restaurants but what upsets me and the staff the most is when people take out their frustrations on us. I’ve been known to say to customers, ‘are you making your issues my problem?’ But, by the same token, the majority of customers have been nicer and more appreciative. One of the good things is that customers appreciate staff more after Covid, and vice versa. But, sadly, what I do think is that, from the pandemic, the bad have got worse and the good have got better. People are more aggressive, there’s more nervous energy around and when that combines with alcohol it leads to bad results.
We seem to be in a phase, around the richer postcodes of London at least, where themed party-type restaurants have come to dominance, from Amazonica to MNKY HSE to Sexy Fish. What’s your take on those sort of places?
I’m a bit taken aback by what’s happened at Berkeley Square. That combination of residential, commercial and artistic now seems to be dominated by these types of restaurants. For my lifestyle, there are alternatives to those places. I think questions need to be asked about what’s happening there at the moment to be honest.
How does the current situation re-administration compare to other stresses and challenges you’ve faced in the past 40 years?
Well, it’s not me who’s in financial trouble. It’s Minor International! I’m very positive about the restaurant world. Many people are recalibrating what they think is important and good value. I know there have been casualities but I’m also aware that we’re in an adjustment before we move forward. In terms of things being challenging, this must be right up there. I think the stress levels are OK though. I work on the basis that I’m not going to get too upset about something which could well remedy perfectly happily. And even if it doesn’t, there’s still the possibility to move on. I do still need to do this. I can’t retire and I don’t want to.
In which of your restaurants are you finding sanctuary, if any, during this challenging time?
My restaurants are like children. I can’t make one my favourite. In the last week, I’ve hardly left the office and The Wolseley. I’m a fan of breakfasts in the restaurants. I rarely do dinners in my places. I always believe that the restaurateur walks the floor while the restaurant owner works it from the boardroom or the dining table. The only way I can do it is by pacing the floor!