Jeremy King and his business partner Chris Corbin have created some of London’s most iconic and best-loved restaurants, including Le Caprice, The Ivy, The Wolseley and The Delaunay. For over 35 years Chris Corbin and Jeremy King have contributed a significant chapter to London’s restaurant history, to which they have recently added their independent Mayfair hotel The Beaumont with its Colony Grill.
After you left school you were accepted at Cambridge University but instead decided to enter the hospitality and restaurant business. Why?
I went into banking briefly and hated it. I was working in Charco’s wine bar, a new phenomenon at that time, off the King’s Road. Even though I was a shy person I liked interaction with people. My main influence was unfortunately a novel called “The Dice Man” by Luke Rhinehart, in 1973 a cult book. I threw the dice recreationally and to make decisions. When my registration papers for Cambridge came through I threw the dice for whether I went. One of the throws said, “If you become a manager within a month of your 21st birthday then you will stay in this business for the rest of your life.” Unusually I got the managership of Charco’s within a month of being 21.
When did you decide to open your first restaurant?
I was persuaded to work at Joe Allen restaurant by an American misfit, a Rhodes scholar who was working on the door. At the time the other really fashionable London restaurant was Langan’s Brasserie. Peter Langan asked me to open a restaurant with him but that didn’t go anywhere. I met Chris Corbin when I was 26 and he was 28. We resolved to open a restaurant together and found the site that became Le Caprice. We opened with a partner in 1981 and closed with that partner in 1982, because we couldn’t agree how the restaurant should be run. Chris and I went back in. My parents mortgaged their house and we bought the lease. We were young with 100% control. No one could tell us what to do.
“I want people to say: “Let’s go to The Wolseley,” because the restaurant doesn’t prescribe the experience, the restaurant allows the experience.”
The interior of The Wolseley, a Corbin & King restaurant located at 160 Piccadilly, London, next to the Ritz Hotel.
Le Caprice became the London restaurant of the 80s and people like Lord Snowdon and Diana, Princess of Wales came there. There were evenings when the actor Sir Laurence Olivier would get up from a table to be replaced by the actress Elizabeth Taylor. What made it so fashionable?
The ambience was very different. The food was unusual, a New York/Paris hybrid. It was the first restaurant that made dishes served either as a starter or main course. Nobody did that then. We have an ethos which is that the most interesting people in a restaurant are normally the least affluent. A great restaurant allows interesting people to come in. It should give the opportunity to spend, but not make it mandatory.
In what way were London restaurants very different then?
When we opened we had more support from Manhattan than we did from London. New Yorkers understood us. We were very popular with the arts community, like The Odeon was in New York. We had a good theatre following as well. Theatrical and film people come late and stay late and are fun, which helped us become very popular. We opened The Ivy in Covent Garden, which they say is the London restaurant of the 90s. Then we opened the fish restaurant J. Sheekey in 1998, and we sold the whole group in 2000.
Why did you sell?
We were concerned there would be a meltdown in the world economy in ’98, and Chris had leukaemia. He recovered against the odds and so we looked for a new location. When Chris and I looked at the site where we opened The Wolseley in Piccadilly, which had been a bank and then the old China House, despite the palm trees and the brown ceilings we said: “This is the perfect Grand Café.” The Wolseley is a Vienna coffee house and true Parisian brasserie. We are open all day; we open at 7 and go through to midnight, 7 days a week, with an exciting cross section of people.
One of your most famous customers was Lucian Freud?
Lucian Freud became a very good friend of the restaurant and I got to know him very well. He came pretty much every night. People imagine he was very difficult and he was described as selfish in his private life, but he always made it very clear what he wanted. He was not a demanding person although he didn’t want people to take photographs near him. He was a very kind person and exemplified what I respect in people. They don’t care if you are famous or a waiter, you still deserve respect. That’s how he was.
And what about Lord Weidenfeld the famous publisher?
Weidenfeld would offer up advice on different types of sausages or how to serve certain foods. When we opened Fischer’s, a Viennese café in Marylebone, I asked him to be our food consultant. He was thrilled and we had wonderful conversations. George Weidenfeld had the best memory of anybody I have ever known.
What is the secret of your success?
The secret of a great restaurant is this: If you ask a group of friends why did they last go to a restaurant they would each have a different answer. We use restaurants to make friends, to go out with a partner, for seduction, for business, for divorce; and the great restaurants allow all those things to happen. I want people to say: “Let’s go to The Wolseley,” because the restaurant doesn’t prescribe the experience, the restaurant allows the experience.
“When we opened we had more support from Manhattan than we did from London. New Yorkers understood us.”
Are there special dishes in each of your places?
There are, but we don’t want to be known specifically for the food. We don’t have named or famous chefs. Our chefs are capable, hard-working and deliver consistency. When I go to a restaurant I want to walk through and be recognized, feel at home. I want to spot interesting people and I want there to be a buzz – not too loud, not too quiet. It’s not a temple.
Do you spend a lot of time in your restaurants?
Yes, I eat breakfast in one of the restaurants 7 days a week if I’m here. Chris and I are restaurateurs, not restaurant owners. We work, are on the floor. Often I go round the restaurants to see the staff.
Are your staff largely foreigners?
Yes, unquestionably. 75% of my staff are from outside Britain. 68% are European, 7% from the rest of the world. 57 nationalities work for us. Without foreign staff the restaurant business in the UK is in deep trouble.
Are you afraid of the consequences of Brexit?
A lot of the Polish, one of our mainstays, have gone. If you don’t feel welcome then you go. At the moment the statistics don’t look bad because a lot of young people come for one or two years, but that’s not the way to build a culture. Britain, like America, was built on immigration. For example, the Huguenots, refugees who came over from France in the 17th Century, helped civilize London.
Do you see a grey panorama for the coming years for England?
Not necessarily. The British have a problem at the moment: we don’t know what we’re fighting for. The British are very good in adversity, but nobody knows what’s happening about Brexit. There is a lot of talk about it not happening at all, hard Brexit, soft Brexit etc. We are shadow boxing. We don’t know what we are up against. Uncertainty and the unknown destroys confidence, and we only need a rise in interest rates for the restaurant business to be severely in trouble. It’s a difficult time.
Chris Corbin & Jeremy King
The Delaunay is an all-day café-restaurant located on the corner of Aldwych & Drury Lane.
Inspired by the great boulevard cafés of Paris, Colbert sits where Chelsea, Knightsbridge & Belgravia meet.
The Beaumont is an independent, distinctive hotel in London’s West End.
The lobby of The Beaumont hotel
Brasserie Zédel was once part of the Beaux Arts style Regent Palace Hotel, the largest hotel in Europe in 1915 with 1,028 bedrooms.
“I spend my life working out who somebody is in a second. I assess people, I don’t judge them.”
You recently fulfilled your dream to have a hotel?
Yes, we did with The Beaumont hotel and I’d like to do more. We enjoy the creative process, and restaurants and hotels need a story. For example, the story The Beaumont tells is that it was opened in 1926 by an American called Jimmy Beaumont who was disheartened and disenfranchised by prohibition in New York and came to London to open a hotel near the US Embassy. He ran it from 1926 to when he retired in the 50s. The idea is that we found it rundown and rebuilt it. It has a feel like the Hay-Adams in Washington, and with only 73 rooms it is strong on service and very personal. We have 40% American clients and a lot of Europeans. People from LA call it “the unofficial entertainment industry’s club in London,” because it’s quite intimate and people feel at home.
Would you like to open a hotel in another country?
I’ve tried in New York. The problem is it’s difficult to find the hotel and it takes experience to work with the unions there. My perfect scenario is to go to New York as “an Englishman in New York”, as I have “an American in London” with The Beaumont.
Nowadays are people very fussy?
People are very fussy and one has to move with the times. You must be careful not to jump on a bandwagon and slip off and fall flat on your face, to be true to yourself and not go with all the different fads.
Is wine a large part of your business?
We sell less wine in lunchtime than say in 1981 at Le Caprice which was 85% male and most tables were with wine. We then worked really hard to get women to come to the restaurant. Now people eat out more. In the early 80s a survey revealed that an average British adult ate out in a tablecloth restaurant less than once a year. Now I imagine 5-10 times a year is the average.
What is your attitude to someone who comes into one of your restaurants?
I inevitably read them. I spend my life working out who somebody is in a second. I assess people, I don’t judge them. As I’ve got older I have trusted my instinct much more.
Would you do the same again?
Yes, I would. More so now than in 2000.
London, January 2018
Images courtesy of Corbin & King.
Portraits of Jeremy King and Chris Corbin by Cat Garcia courtesy of Mr Porter.
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