The kitchen staff at The Wolseley thought it was an April Fool.
In the early hours of the morning on 1 April last year, Jeremy King, the boss of the acclaimed restaurant group Corbin & King, wrote to staff and customers to say that, after an increasingly fraught auction, he and his longtime business partner, Chris Corbin, had been outbid by Minor International, their Thai-based majority shareholder.
‘We took part in the auction to try and buy the business and assets of Corbin & King that we didn’t already own, including of course all the restaurants,’ King wrote. ‘Regrettably, that attempt failed and Minor Hotel Group was the successful bidder, buying the entire business.’
In an instant, he and Corbin had lost control of restaurants they had built up, over decades, to be among the most beloved in London – grand rooms where students could dine with celebrities, tourists with titans of industry.
Fifteen months on from his dramatic defenestration, King is finally able to reflect on the most turbulent time in his career.
‘It was a tricky morning,’ King, 69, recalls, taking a sip of tea and sitting back in a booth at Maison François, a brasserie around the corner from The Wolseley. Finding himself in the unusual position of not having a restaurant, he has taken up a regular place here, where he is treated almost as if he does own the place.
In a dark tailored suit, tall and trim, with a snowy-white beard, he remains the central-casting gentleman-proprietor he has always been.
After he sent the e-mail, he got a couple of hours’ sleep. Waking to find he was locked out of his work e-mail and mobile phone, he did what he usually did in the morning: he went to The Wolseley. I was there then too, and found King much as ever, going from table to table, checking everything was just so, except he looked like he had seen a ghost.
‘In the office the people who had come in early were upset. In the kitchen it was lighthearted,’ he says. ‘Then the duty chef said, “We saw your e-mail and we were worried at first and then we looked at the date – April 1st.”’
He explained it was real to his incredulous team. For anyone in London hospitality, it was as if the ravens had lost a bidding war over the Tower of London.
‘[My exit] wasn’t entirely unexpected, and I have the sort of brain that adapts very quickly to situations,’ King says. ‘I’ve got through an awful lot of adversity in life by looking for the good side of a defeat or terrible event. Although it was fairly surreal, I peculiarly got rather excited in a strange way, by how my family and kids rallied around to protect me.’
It wasn’t only his family. Tributes to the restaurants poured in, peppered with outrage at the manner of his departure. (Corbin, who has suffered from poor health, had stepped back from frontline activities in later years.)
Loyalists claimed they would never step foot in any of the Corbin & King restaurants again. On Twitter, Stephen Fry asked if it was ‘always going to be a world where the good guys lose and the greedy, soulless and mean win out?’
Most British papers ran pieces on his exit, and so did The New York Times. Finding himself without a passport in the days afterwards, King says he used a copy of the paper, with his picture printed, as ID at an American security desk.
‘There was something strangely exhilarating about [the exit],’ King says. ‘I spent a lot of time waiting for it to sink in. I was guarded against whether I would be depressed, or emotional, or debilitated by this, or if I was going to emerge stronger. I had to see it as an opportunity.’
It sounds like he is describing a death, I suggest. ‘In ways it was,’ he says. ‘It’s the language of grief. I saw a friend around that time, and he asked how it feels. I said I felt privileged. He said, “It’s not a privilege, you’ve earned this.”’
It was as if the ravens had lost a bidding war over the Tower of London.
‘And I said I felt privileged because I was reading my own obituaries. Then he asked if I’d cried. I said I cried once, because of one story. Edward Sexton [the tailor, who died last month] was quite devout. He told me he had been to the Brompton Oratory and the presiding priest had added a prayer that The Wolseley and Colbert don’t fall into the wrong hands. Tears came to my eyes, but I laughed because it was so ridiculous. And I moved on.’
After more than a year of gardening leave and non-compete agreements, King has announced he is ‘getting back in the saddle’ with his next project, The Park, opposite Kensington Palace Gardens.
Due to open in spring 2024, it will be a grand café-brasserie influenced by American cooking and sensibilities. ‘I was fascinated by the way American cooking evolved through the ’80s and ’90s,’ he notes, ‘with chefs like Jeremiah Tower, Thomas Keller and Alice Waters. At The Park it will be very easy to eat simply and healthily.’ Out with the sausage and sauerkraut, in with the salads.
King has the knack for understanding how the diner’s mood is changing, and where they want to eat. He adds, ‘The building always tells me what sort of restaurant it should be. When I saw the space, I immediately knew The Park should be a 21st-century grand café, rather than 20th century, which I’ve done traditionally.’
“Tears came to my eyes, but I laughed because it was so ridiculous. And I moved on.”
Many claim to have come to their career by chance. In King’s case it is more literally true than most. He was born in 1954; his mother was a school secretary, his father ran a building-surfaces company. He grew up in Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, and went to Christ’s Hospital, a blue coat school in Sussex, after which he was offered a place at Cambridge.
But this was the 1970s, when Luke Rhinehart’s The Dice Man, about a man who makes life decisions based on the roll of a die, loomed large in the mind of a certain kind of teenage boy.
King entrusted his next years to the dice, although today he says, ‘It was a massive mistake not going to university. It gives such a foundation for life. I meet graduates and realize I’m better read than them. But I wish I’d had that opportunity for three years to think and dream, research and write and argue.’
Instead he rolled the dice and they said if he could become manager at Charco’s, the West London wine bar where he had a part-time job, by the month of his 21st birthday, he would stay in hospitality for his whole career.
It happened, but the dice called him again, sending him off for an unhappy stint as a banker before he returned to hospitality. In the late 1970s he was working at Joe Allen, the famous American restaurant in theaterland, when he met Corbin, who was at Langan’s Brasserie in Mayfair.
Together they took on restaurants and made them stars, characterized by a relaxed kind of glamour where the atmosphere was at least as important as the food: Le Caprice, J Sheekey and The Ivy, where you might have seen Princess Diana or Kate Moss chowing down on shepherd’s pie.
They opened The Wolseley in November 2003. Occupying a handsome art deco building that had been a car showroom, it was an instant hit, praised for its all-day menu, loosely inspired by the grand cafés of central Europe.
It was Lucian Freud’s favorite restaurant, and King was one of his last portrait subjects. The fabled restaurant critic AA Gill wrote a book about it. The first time I went, for breakfast as a teenager, I found myself sitting between Katie Price, the glamour model, and Lord Browne, the former chairman of BP. Even on a GCSE budget, The Wolseley was somewhere you could feel like part of London society.
‘What I love about restaurants is the sense of them being egalitarian,’ King says. ‘Understanding that the most interesting people in a restaurant are the least affluent, not the most affluent. You give the opportunity to people to spend a lot of money if they want, but you don’t make it mandatory. We would always keep an eye on what a coffee cost at Caffè Nero. Yes it would be more expensive at The Wolseley, but not much more.’
This commitment to value was even more pronounced at Brasserie Zédel, Corbin & King’s grand cavern beneath Piccadilly Circus, all gilt-topped pillars, mirrors and pink marble. When it opened in 2012, the three-course set menu was $17.50 and there was a soup for $3.50. (Today, under its new owners, the set menu is a less wallet-friendly $35.65.)
King’s hospitality has always been characterized by attention to detail. He tried to visit most of his restaurants every day, checking things were just so and greeting the many customers he knew personally. ‘If you want to succeed, reduce the margins,’ he says, admiring the number of corner tables Maison François has created at the expense of more covers.
‘I’m fascinated by why we all crave being looked after and loved, rather than efficiency,’ he says. ‘I think it’s the defining difference in hospitality. I always want a human interaction. When I’m served by someone, I want them to think they’re happy to be looking after me.’
The row with Minor was not the first time he has fallen out with investors. While he might have disagreed with what happened, he had taken the initial money from Minor in the first place. King concedes that this perfectionism may have been less helpful upstairs than on the restaurant floor. ‘I’m passionate,’ he says. ‘I’ve always maintained my maxim that the best way to run restaurants is from the floor, not the boardroom.’
Since he was ousted, there has been another dramatic professional development in his family. His son, Jonah Hauer-King, 28, has become a film star. He starred as Prince Eric in Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, which was released earlier this summer. He’s also the lead in the second series of the BBC’s wartime drama, World on Fire, and Sky’s forthcoming adaptation of the Holocaust drama The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
‘He’s incredibly gifted, but he’s very lucky,’ King says of his son. ‘The nice thing about him, and what makes me most proud, is that he’s modest. If I go near a set, they say he’s a joy to work with.
‘But it was bonkers, the sudden acceleration,’ he adds. ‘You walk into a Disney store and there are models and puppets of your son. But I love the fact that none of it has gone to his head.’
King also has two older daughters, Hannah, who recently got married, and Margot, who has just started working at SillyFace, Idris Elba’s marketing agency, in New York. Their mother is King’s first wife, Debra Hauer.
All three children worked in the restaurants for a stint. King lives with his second wife Lauren Gurvich King, an interior designer.
He says he has not returned to any of the old premises, except for one ‘uncomfortable’ drink at Zédel’s American Bar. ‘I haven’t gone back to the restaurants. I didn’t want to go and for a long time I was forbidden to go to them. I tend to avoid walking past them, because I don’t want the staff or customers to feel uncomfortable.
“I immediately knew The Park should be a 21st-century grand café, rather than 20th century, which I’ve done traditionally.”
‘I’m good at moving on. The only thing I’m sad about is being ripped away from staff and customers.’
As The Wolseley Group, the Corbin & King restaurants have continued trading, and have just opened Manzi’s, a revival of an old favorite fish restaurant in Soho, that had long been on King’s agenda. They have tweaked some of the menus, moving away from the idiosyncratic northern European influences Corbin & King favored in favor of a more crowd-friendly Mediterranean mix.
‘Restaurants are more than their buildings,’ King says. ‘If you’re not careful you end up with husks. There’s always been a scene in Blow-Up in my head, where Jimmy Page smashes his guitar and throws it to the crowd. There’s a big fight over who gets it. David Hemmings’ character wins it, gets on to the street, looks at it and thinks “What have I got? A useless, broken neck of a guitar. What am I going to do with it?”’
Meanwhile, he is looking ahead. He says while ‘there will be casualties’ he remains optimistic about the British economy, and the beauty of hospitality as a career. ‘Rather than national service, what would really do everybody good is if they were forced to work six months as front of house. It teaches you so much about life, communication, teamwork, dispute, reconciliation, organization, and to look people in the eye and communicate.’
As well as The Park, King has consulted with Jamie Oliver and Claridge’s. He won’t be drawn on other projects, but there are rumors in the trade he might be in discussions with another London restaurant, one with a potentially explosive proximity to one of his former sites.
Wherever it is, King has only confirmed that it’s at an advanced stage. Apropos not exactly of this, he comments, ‘I don’t always thrive on taking the safe route. I’m not averse to taking risks.’
He has been approached for work by businesses with nothing to do with hospitality, including publishers and airlines, for advice on customer service. At an age where many would be content to be served, King plans to keep serving.
‘I still want to go back into the hotel world,’ he says, alluding to his time running the Beaumont Hotel, which came to an end in 2018. ‘There’s unfinished business there. I think hotels are the ultimate expression of hospitality. And each time I move on, I learn more about myself, I learn more about the business, and I get a yearning to do things better than before. I don’t think I’m going to retire. I’ll just carry on.’
Ed Cumming is a U.K.-based freelance feature writer