Jeremy King was at work as usual recently at the Wolseley, his flagship restaurant in the grand old car showroom on London’s Piccadilly. There he likes to greet diners and make sure that every tablecloth is hanging properly, and that the cycle of cocktail-drinking, dinner-ordering, cork-popping and oyster-slurping is running smoothly.

If he failed to catch up with some of his regulars or didn’t scrutinize the table settings quite as keenly as usual when he was on a round of his other restaurants, he might be forgiven. The co-founder of some of the capital’s favorite places to eat is battling to retain control of his empire. King is threatened with losing his castles.

Restaurateurs and hoteliers Chris Corbin and Jeremy King. photographed at the Beaumont, their Mayfair hotel, in 2008.

Corbin & King, which King built with his business partner Chris Corbin, is locked in a dispute with the company’s largest shareholder Minor International, a Thai hotel group. This week the restaurant company, which owns a cluster of mostly London-based venues — possibly the most powerful celebrity magnets to also serve wiener schnitzel — was placed into administration, prompting panic that spread far beyond the capital.

“I’m getting messages from all across the world saying, ‘I’m sorry you’ve closed.’ Well, I haven’t closed,” King says, his frustration palpable. “People are saying, ‘Will I still be able to come in tonight?’ Yes, absolutely!”

So despite the headlines about the group being unable to pay its bills, the restaurants are not about to close? “Absolutely not!” And will he still be at the helm? “Yes,” he says, but adds: “It’s a battle for control.”

King and Corbin (the latter takes a less high-profile role in the business these days) have been among London’s most admired restaurateurs for almost 40 years. They owned the Caprice, the Ivy and J Sheekey, the holy trinity of upmarket restaurants, where you might find yourself eating eggs Benedict next to Princess Margaret or Mick Jagger.

“I’m getting messages from all across the world saying, ‘I’m sorry you’ve closed.’
Well, I haven’t closed.”

They sold up in 1998, and later the tycoon Richard Caring bought the restaurants. In 2003 they got back into the game, buying the old car showroom of marble pillars and Venetian styling, next to the Ritz. The Wolseley became the jewel in the Corbin & King crown, drawing actors, fashionistas, media schmoozers and anyone else who could squeeze in. The restaurant opened for breakfast and stayed open late in the style of a European all-day café-restaurant.

Other restaurants in the portfolio include the Delaunay, a Mitteleuropa-themed restaurant on Aldwych; Colbert on Sloane Square; and Brasserie Zédel, in the vast subterranean space where the Atlantic Bar and Grill was a hedonist mecca in the 1990s.

Keira Knightley and James Righton are among the Wolseley’s starry patrons.

Walking into the hum and bustle of a Corbin & King restaurant feels like an event. There is the same sense of anticipation as stepping into the foyer of a theater for a sold-out show. There may be people who come for the food — indeed, Joan Collins regards the Wolseley’s soufflé Suisse as the best meal she has had in London — but mostly people go for the fun. “I want them to feel the buzz,” King once explained of his customers. “You see somebody you know — ‘Hi’ — you see somebody you’d like to know, you see a famous person, you see people who shouldn’t be together.”

King has always tried to play down the celebrity quotient of his clientele. The idea was always to have three generations in the room, and you will normally see families eating alongside captains of industry and show-offs. But there always seems to be at least one recognizable face in the room besides King.

When Sir David Frost was alive there wasn’t an occasion I went to the Wolseley (maybe half a dozen times in total) when the great interrogator wasn’t holding court. He spent most of his meal yo-yoing up and down to greet well-wishers. Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater (another vote of confidence in the food) are regulars, and the Wolseley is popular with actors. Bill Nighy and Bradley Cooper dined together. Keira Knightley flashed her engagement ring on a night out with her then fiancé, now husband, James Righton, the musician who used to play keyboards for Klaxons. Jude Law and Sienna Miller were spotted there in 2010, and Emma Watson has been photographed at the restaurant by the paparazzi who congregate outside. Those doorstep chroniclers also recorded that when Jake Gyllenhaal was in town he ate there with Bear Grylls and Dermot O’Leary.

The Wolseley’s magic is in the mix, with three generations mingling happily in the same room.

The Wolseley gets the vote of confidence of Edward Enninful, the editor of Vogue, who likes to entertain over lunch, including with Dame Vivienne Westwood and Manolo Blahnik. More often than not, overseeing the performance is King, greeting the famous and the non-famous alike. Part of his art is to make everyone feel that they are recognizable.

He says that by placing the company into administration Minor International has made it “look as though we’re in financial trouble, and it’s just not the case”.

In 2020 he predicted that a third of restaurants in London could potentially close because of the effect of the pandemic on the hospitality industry. But he says his nine restaurants (in seven venues) are not in jeopardy. “I think 2020 was a particularly difficult year, but we’ve come through that and are climbing out well.”

King has always tried to play down the celebrity quotient of his clientele.

Minor disagrees. It says that Corbin & King “was unable to meet its financial obligations”. The only obligation it was unable to meet, King says, was to repay a loan from Minor, which he says was not surprising given the present circumstances. “You’re never normally worried about a loan from your investor because everybody’s in the same boat theoretically. But we found out that we weren’t in the same boat, and indeed, by the beginning of this pandemic, we realized that we weren’t even in the same ocean.”

King says there has been a fundamental disagreement about the future of the company, with Minor keen to take the brands to many new destinations. “They felt that we should roll out Colberts and that we should take Wolseleys into parts of the world which we felt were completely inappropriate. I’m afraid if you just scattergun Wolseleys across the Far East and Middle East, it’s not going to work.”

Minor says that it “is committed to preserving and building upon the business’s iconic brands”. King says that when Minor offered to put money into the company recently, it came with the condition that he give up his control. A spokesman for Minor says: “It was proposed that Mr King would remain the face of the business and manage the restaurant and customer-facing aspects of Corbin & King while Minor would look after finance and corporate functions — capitalizing on each shareholder’s relative strengths. Unfortunately, Mr King declined these and other similar proposals.”

King is hands-on with his restaurants. “I live and breathe it seven days a week,” he says. A colleague recently saw him fussing about in the Delaunay one Sunday lunchtime. Oh, he says, a Saturday or Sunday is ideal, because he has time to visit all seven venues.

When I last interviewed him, in 2019, his only real worry was Brexit, and he was busily hiring older staff. This was partly because of the competition for younger European staff, but also because he likes the way older people interact with his customers.

I once approached the bar of the Delaunay, where the barman displayed the sort of intuition you get only from 40 years in the business. He said he could usually predict what customers were going to order. “Really?” I said. “So what would I order?” I wanted a small, crisp beer. He scratched his beard and said: “Now? Before lunch? You’ll probably have a half of beer.”

Jamie Hince and Kate Moss leave a late lunch in 2011.

Really loyal customers get extra-special treatment. King used to dine sometimes with Lucian Freud, and then he sat for him for a portrait. His table at the Wolseley was covered with a black tablecloth the day he died.

Business has not always run smoothly for Corbin & King. A London hotel did not work out. But this is the greatest challenge King has faced. “I’ve been through a lot of problems, but this is probably the worst,” he says. “Because what they’re trying to do is take me away from the business I love, working closely with a staff who are incredibly loyal, and a customer base which astounds me in their support. I’m very grateful for that, and reluctant, understandably, to lose it.”

Is all this damaging for the Corbin & King brand? “The word ‘administration’ suggests that the company is really in trouble. The company is not in trouble. It’s purely a technicality on a loan,” he insists. “It’s very difficult for people to understand that, and the whole process was so unnecessary and really damaging for the brand, for the staff, for everybody.”

Minor has made clear in its statements that the restaurants will not close.

In May 2020, at the height of lockdown, when things were starting to go wrong, King had sleepless nights. “Now I’m more sanguine. I work on the philosophy that you don’t get upset about something that in time you will get over. I’m a very lucky person in that normally when things become difficult my heart rate goes down rather than up.”

Despite recent events, and the fact that he is now 67, King says he has absolutely no plans to retire. “I don’t think so. It keeps me young.”

Damian Whitworth is a features editor for The Times of London