Rude Food: The art of the restaurateur

Hindustan Times | By
Jan 27, 2019 11:18 AM IST

What makes a restaurant great? How do you make every guest feel special? Jeremy King, London’s greatest restaurateur, talks about his craft.

As much I enjoy interviewing chefs, I prefer talking to great restaurateurs. Great chefs are born with talent. But restaurateurs are people like you and me who have put more thought into finding ways to make their guests happy. And sadly, we have more good chefs than we have good restaurateurs in India.

The Wolseley, which is more about concept than backstory, is London’s hottest restaurant
The Wolseley, which is more about concept than backstory, is London’s hottest restaurant

Over the last two decades, the biggest name in restaurants in London has been Corbin & King, the company run by Chris Corbin and Jeremy King. In their first avatar, the duo either opened or refurbished such restaurants as The Ivy, J. Sheekey and Le Caprice. They sold that empire and then built a second one which now includes The Wolseley, Brasserie Zédel, The Delaunay, Fischer’s, Bellanger and many others. A few years ago, they branched into hotels, opening The Beaumont, the sort of place favoured by people in the know.  

I don’t know Chris Corbin but I interviewed Jeremy King for Brunch nearly a decade ago. I was impressed then by how unusual and well thought-out his perspective on hospitality was. I went back to see him a few weeks ago to see if I could gather any fresh insights.

This time too, I was struck by how much King sees a restaurant as a living entity and not just a room where food and drink are served. Most of his restaurants start out as stories. 

Sea bass with kale and girolle mushrooms at The Delaunay
Sea bass with kale and girolle mushrooms at The Delaunay

In the case of The Delaunay, for instance, he imagined a Middle European family fleeing persecution and ending up in London. They did not have much money so they opened a small stall selling sausages and sandwiches. As the popularity of their food grew, they invested in larger premises and opened a full-fledged restaurant. That restaurant flourishes today but the proprietors still preserve the legacy of the original stall. 

Success is about finding newer ways to excite and please your guests. That’s what restaurants should be about

Of course, there was no such family, and Corbin and King are the real proprietors but Jeremy believes that a good restaurant often needs a backstory. That’s what gives the place its life and soul.

Corbin & King carried the same philosophy to their hotel. The Beaumont is a conversion of a parking lot but you never realise that because the back story is so appealing. The son of a millionaire American family escapes to London during the jazz age and opens a hotel that quickly becomes the toast of the town. Eventually, fashions change and the hotel goes through a bad patch before being taken over by a Hilton-like chain that destroys its character. Then, the new owners arrive and restore the property to its original glory. 

So, while The Beaumont celebrates the America of the early 20th Century, nothing seems fake (even though it is, after all, a 21st Century hotel) because the backstory skillfully weaves both heritage and restoration into the plot. 

I find Jeremy’s backstories fascinating because they give us some sense of the deep thought and detailed planning that must go into each restaurant or hotel even before construction has begun. There is a maxim in the hospitality business (attributed to Conrad Hilton, but dating back even earlier) that the three most important things are “location, location and location!”

Chris Corbin runs the company with co-owner Jeremy King
Chris Corbin runs the company with co-owner Jeremy King

The Corbin & King example proves that if your basic concept is strong enough, location need not be that important. The Beaumont is tucked away in a side street and though The Wolseley’s (which is more about concept than backstory) detractors said it would fail because of the location, it went on to become London’s hottest restaurant. 

Just as the great New York restaurateur Danny Meyer’s places are known for their warm hospitality, Corbin & King have a reputation for inclusiveness.

Jeremy King, co-owner of Corbin & King, has an unusual perspective on hospitality
Jeremy King, co-owner of Corbin & King, has an unusual perspective on hospitality

You will find billionaires and celebrities there, spending thousands of pounds. But you’ll also find people eating meals that cost less than £20. It would be an exaggeration to say that a table of tourists will get exactly the same treatment as David Beckham or Hugh Grant, but the difference in service is minimal. 

This is deliberate because, as Jeremy says, the most interesting guests in restaurants are often the ones who are not so affluent. At every Corbin & King restaurant you can order say, an omelette, a sandwich or soup and pay a fraction of what the millionaires ordering caviar and lobster are paying. The management will not mind: that is the point of the restaurant. You can spend money if you want to. But you shouldn’t have to. As Jeremy says, “We give people the opportunity to spend but never make it mandatory.”

Sometimes Jeremy takes this to levels that even his staff find astonishing. When Brasserie Zédel, a French restaurant near Piccadilly Circus opened, an old lady took a table. They served her bread while she looked at the menu. Eventually, she ordered a soup. That comes with bread so the server gave her another bread basket. She finished the soup and the bread. The waiter asked if she wanted anything else. No, she said, just the bill please.

At any good restaurant, you should have the opportunity to spend money out of choice, not out of compulsion
At any good restaurant, you should have the opportunity to spend money out of choice, not out of compulsion

At that time, around a decade ago, a bowl of soup cost £2.25. The staff were not pleased when the lady walked out of a busy restaurant at lunchtime, having eaten two baskets of the (very good) bread and occupied a much coveted table for an hour – all for £2.25.

But Jeremy told them it was fine. That’s what their restaurants were about. It is a philosophy that I wish more Indian restaurants would adopt.

In King’s mind, there should always be an element of celebration in a good restaurant. One Christmas, a woman who was eating alone thanked him after lunch. She had no family, she said, and hated spending Christmas alone. Coming to The Wolseley made her feel part of a celebration. (Unlike most restaurants, The Wolseley charges no premium on Christmas lunch and she had just eaten an Eggs Benedict, which was all she could really afford.)

While King is pleased by such compliments, he is also amused by incidents that would probably horrify Indian restaurateurs.

As he says restaurants are catalysts for whatever people want to make of them and often guests use them to deliver bad news whether business, divorce etc. as there is a feeling that people will behave better in public – though they don’t always do! The Wolseley has a few balcony tables (rather like boxes in a theatre) that look down on the restaurant. At one lunch time, a party of businessmen had an altercation. It was 2008 and because of the crash the businessmen were withdrawing financial support from their guest.

All the rooms and restaurants of the Corbin & King company are well-lit
All the rooms and restaurants of the Corbin & King company are well-lit

“What!?” he shouted, when they told him he was out. “You have ruined me!”

By now the whole restaurant had gone quiet and all eyes were on the balcony. Then, as everyone watched in horrified fascination, the man toppled the entire table, flipping it towards his companions so that plates, glasses of wine and the rest of the crockery and cutlery fell on the people who had just told him he was out. 

It is a classic Wolseley story; the sort of incident that contributes to the legend that the restaurant represents a more cinematic, larger-than-life version of reality.

Corbin & King brought the same sensibility to The Beaumont. (Despite its great success, for non-disclosable reasons the hotel was sold by its owners last month.) Because much of his experience of hotels has been as a guest, Jeremy dispensed with many of the idiotic rituals that are part of hotel welcomes. 

When you try to check in, the receptionist does not ask, “Do you have a reservation, Sir?” (“Do they think that guests wander around Mayfair carrying suitcases on the off chance that they might check into a hotel?’ Jeremy laughs. “Of course, the guest has a reservation.”)

The staff were encouraged not to engage you in needless conversation as you check in or are led to your room. (“There is no point in asking ‘Did you have a good flight, Sir’? The guest has gotten off a plane, braved an overcrowded airport and had a long ride to the hotel. The last thing they want to do is to have a forced conversation with a stranger”.)

The Beaumont on Mayfair is a conversion of a parking lot
The Beaumont on Mayfair is a conversion of a parking lot

Usually, the receptionist will say something like: “We could show you around the hotel but if you would just like to go directly to your room I will have your baggage sent up. Would you like us to send you a drink or some tea or coffee?”

From the time it opened, The Beaumont did not charge for in-house movies, Wi-Fi and the other things that guests should expect as a right. Not only are the rooms well-lit (as are all Corbin & King restaurants) but the master switch is placed by the bedside, close enough for you to reach it as you are falling asleep. Bathroom fixtures are simple. Once you have adjusted the temperature on your shower, it stays at that level throughout your stay. You don’t have to spend several minutes fiddling with the knobs each time you shower. 

On the two occasions that I have interviewed him, I have wondered why King doesn’t write a book explaining hospitality to aspiring restaurateurs and hoteliers. But I guess that would spoil the magic by giving all the secrets away. 

And there are secrets. It is like the question he asks employees after one of his restaurants has won an award. 

“How do we win this next year again?”

The usual answer is, “By maintaining the high standards that won us this award.”

Except that in the world of Corbin & King, it is the wrong answer. 

The correct answer: “By doing everything better and thinking of new ways to please our customers.”

In this business, as Jeremy King says, if you keep doing the same thing, then that’s the end of your restaurant.

Success is about finding newer ways to excite and please your guests. That is what restaurants should be about.

From HT Brunch, January 27, 2019

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