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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
David Ellis

Corbin & King: Celebrities rally as investors eat dining kings for breakfast

It is Christmas Day, the one just past, and Brutto restaurateur Russell Norman is not with his family. Instead, he is leaning against the Wolseley making a call, while inside Pierre Koffmann, the three Michelin-starred titan who trained Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay, sits in a gold paper hat with the last of the lunch’s wine. “I’m standing around the corner, and become vaguely aware of this beautiful vintage car pulling to the curb. From that emerges a beautifully attired, 6ft 5in giant of a gentleman. And from the corner of my eye I watch him walk to me,” recalls Norman. “He sees I’m on the phone, gently kneels down in his Savile Row suit and silently ties my undone shoelace. Then he stands with a wry smile and twinkling eyes, and heads into the restaurant. And that one act — that one amazing, selfless, hospitable act — sums up Jeremy King entirely. It sums up Corbin & King entirely, too.”

Norman is just one of a sea of fans that Jeremy King and business partner Chris Corbin have collected over a career spanning more than four decades, with a portfolio of celebrated London restaurants that includes the Wolseley, the Delaunay, Colbert and Brasserie Zedel. Through the years, their openings have been magnets for A-listers — Kate Moss, the Beckhams, Liz Hurley, Jake Gyllenhaal — as much as discerning chefs.

Now their empire is no more. Last Friday, King lost a grubby, ugly and very public battle with the group’s majority shareholder, Minor International that had been ticking away for years, becoming heated when the pandemic struck. Minor’s ownership swelled from 74 per cent to the rather major 100 per cent, and Corbin & King became a name without the men those names belong to.

Publicly, Minor are gracious, saying they maintain “the utmost respect for what [Corbin and King] have achieved in the London restaurant business.” Privately, it appears things are uglier: the Guardian are reporting that the pair are banned from stepping foot inside any of the nine sites they opened, which also include Soutine, Fischer’s and Bellanger. An inside source has confirmed King’s work phone has been confiscated, as well as his email, and he is said to be upset that he is unable to reply to those wanting to be in touch.

Old pros: Chris Corbin, left, and Jeremy King pictured in 1998 (Danny Elwes)

It is not clear if either man remains an employee; when approached, a representative for the group told the Standard that Minor “aren’t able to comment on HR matters”. What happens next remains to be seen. King told the Standard last week: “Lesson learnt by me — never relinquish any control whatsoever.” In other words, be careful who you hop into bed with, especially if you let them control 74 per cent of said bed. For now, the fallout has left many admirers feeling out of whack, and fellow restaurateurs rattled.

Corbin met King in the late Seventies, and their friendship turned to a professional partnership shortly after Irish restaurateur Peter Langan — known for disappearing a dozen bottles of Champagne a day — mysteriously failed to persuade King he was in a fit state to open a place together. In 1981, the pair brought back to life Le Caprice, just behind the Ritz, and soon found themselves with a hit, drawing David Bailey, Princess Diana, Joan Collins, Mick Jagger. They kicked off the Nineties by reviving The Ivy, and towards the end of the decade sorted out J Sheekey. All three remain healthy London institutions where once they had been old aristos on their uppers.

They delivered a class of operation that wasn’t really there before. They set the standard

Trevor Gulliver

The pair’s knack for hospitality was the thing. “This was the time of the Hard Rock Cafe, of Planet Hollywood, if you can believe it. They re-established and delivered a class of operation that wasn’t really there before. They set standards,” remembers St John co-founder Trevor Gulliver. “They created a nice atmosphere, and their handling of the [reservations] book was legendary.” How so? By employing a firm sense of egalitarianism, or what Fay Maschler, this paper’s restaurant critic for 48 years, calls “the notion that a duchess can sit next to a dustman and both enjoy the event equally.”

Gulliver, laughing, says: “Once Cameron Mackintosh rang up for a table but they didn’t have one. And Mackintosh goes: ‘But I see my choreographer got in!’ But they’d always remember, always make it right.” Angela Hartnett wrote on Instagram of ringing twice for a table at J Sheekey and being turned away both times owing to a full house. She returned months later for lunch, arriving to find a bottle of Champagne on the table by way of apology. “It was never the bottle that struck me, but the attention to detail that [the maitre’d] remembered. It was a kind gesture… I always tell new team members, that’s Corbin & King.”

Maschler puts it so: “In the unspoken tussle between restaurateur and customer I always felt that Chris and Jeremy were basically on the side of the customer.”

None more grand: the Wolseley’s famous dining room (Press handout)

“They really were the soul of hospitality,” agrees Nigella Lawson, fondly. “I remember once, way back in my twenties, at the end of dinner getting into a panic about my tea in the morning as I’d left the milk I’d bought in the office; I asked, to the intense embarrassment of the boyfriend I had at the time, if I could cadge some milk to take home, and it was no trouble.”

Such stories are easily uncovered. Yotam Ottolenghi recalls “going to Delaunay for breakfast with my kids when they were very young, leaving an awful mess behind and always being made to feel like it was the most natural thing in the world. That’s what’s so brilliant with them — no matter what, you feel welcome.”

If there is a sense that it is the pair’s poise that has kept them busy, few restaurants — and not a single empire — can subsist on good faith alone. Menus were fashioned to account for a breadth of budget, taste and purpose. “For me and my family, the best special occasions and celebrations have always been at the Wolseley,” says the River Cafe’s discerning Ruth Rogers, “but we’ve had breakfasts, work lunches and quiet dinners there too.”

Do you really want to know the postcode of the rare breed pig that has furnished your pork chop? No, not really. Chris and Jeremy understood that

Fay Maschler

“They understood that some days you may want a tranche of turbot with Hollandaise sauce but on others a hot dog is what will hit the spot, and their menus acknowledged and celebrated that fact,” says Maschler.

Their prices reflected their welcome to all: Zedel for many years offered two courses for £10 — even now, post pandemic, post Brexit, it is only £12.25, but one could happily spend hundreds, the choice left with the customer. And doing things with a happy lack of pretension — “Do you really want to know the postcode of the rare breed pig that has furnished your pork chop or the email address of that spear of early asparagus? No, not really. Chris and Jeremy understood that,” quips Maschler — the pair offered a comforting place to try things. Lawson says: “Of course, I loved the food. My first steak tartare! Eggs benedict! That fudgy brown bread! The mousse aux deux chocolats! It was quite thrilling.” She adds, crucially: “When I think of any of their restaurants, I think of this first: from the lighting to the beautifully choreographed bustle, the stage was always perfectly set in a way that felt relaxing rather than daunting.”

Lawson makes it sound easy, as Corbin and King made it look. But this formula — if it is indeed one — is not so easy. There is a reason Lucian Freud chose the Wolseley for his evening meal most evenings. Across London’s food scene, then, there is a sense of unsettled uncertainty, a worry that things will change. “I fear we will see the attempted roll out of their beloved brands,” says Michel Roux Jr. “It will no doubt fail.”

We will see. The restaurants will have countless fans who have little idea of and little interest in what’s happening in the room at the top. Shutting seems unlikely. While Chris Corbin is mostly retired, King has often refused the idea, in person doing so with a slight shudder. “Corbin & King created restaurants that understood and responded to that essential human need for connection and belonging,” says Lawson. Quite so — and London is likely to always welcome that. It has for 40 years. May it do so again — just the way Jeremy and Chris showed us.

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