In Bad Taste: The Bitter Battle for Control of Great London Restaurants | Restaurants
SShortly after 4 p.m. last Friday, dozens of employees of Brasserie Zédel, a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus in London, gathered in Crazy Coqs, the glorious art deco cabaret hall opposite the restaurant. There they were addressed by Dillip Rajakarier, CEO of Minor International. Overnight, the sprawling Thai hotel and restaurant group had won a bidding war to take control of Zédel’s parent company, which also owns iconic London restaurants including the Wolseley, the Delaunay and the Colbert. He was now the boss.
“He was wrong from the start,” says a person present. “He kept calling us a mark. We never thought of ourselves as a brand. The meeting became more and more agitated. “He told us that the founders come and go,” said another. “That’s when he completely lost us.” Similar town hall meetings scheduled for the other restaurants were quickly canceled. It seemed Rajakarier had underestimated the staff’s loyalty to these founders, Chris Corbin and Jeremy King.
While Corbin had taken a step back in recent years, King, considered by many in the hospitality industry to be the capital’s leading restaurateur, remained very active. He is famous for his attention to detail and for his daily rounds of his restaurant’s dining rooms, stopping at the tables of regulars and newcomers alike to check that they are being looked after. The difference between a restaurateur and a restaurateur, he once said, is that one runs it from the meeting room and the other from upstairs. King was still on the ground. Now he was out, forbidden even to enter any of the nine restaurants he had created.
It was the dismal end to an uphill battle that began in 2017, when Corbin and King sold a majority stake in the company to Minor International to fund its expansion. Business disagreements led Minor to force the company into administration, even though all of the restaurants were profitable. In the early hours of Friday morning, the directors held an auction in which King, backed by American investors, attempted to buy out his company. But Minor won, buying the remaining 24% of Corbin & King for what is believed to be north of £60million. “I no longer have any equity in the business,” King told colleagues in a later email.
That morning, each of the restaurants posted a monochrome image of the two founders to their individual Instagram accounts with the caption, “It’s Corbin & King.” Figures in the restaurant industry expressed their dismay on social media. Stephen Fry tweeted: “Oh shit. Will it always be a world where the good guys lose and the greedy, soulless, bad guys win?”
Amid a cost-of-living crisis, as energy prices soar, a battle in the boardroom for a bunch of seemingly fancy restaurants, with menus full of steak tartare and floating islands, may seem less than important. But what happened to the much-loved group led by the Wolseleys, on London’s Piccadilly, testifies to a faceless corporatization of hospitality that has little to do with hospitality and everything to do with the profit above all.
Corbin and King met in the late 1970s while running past the home of London breweries Langan’s and Joe Allen respectively. Together, they bought the Caprice and made it an infallible hit with a starred clientele. He became the cornerstone of an empire famous for his service, which included The Ivy. Since they sold this unit in the late 1990s it has passed through different owners and is now in the hands of businessman Richard Caring. In a foreshadowing of the events of the past week, he has turned The Ivy’s name into a sinister brand, getting rid of the talented staff who made the original restaurant what it was and cutting costs.
But at least there was still the Wolseley, which Corbin & King opened in 2003. It was a European-style Mittel restaurant with a high-class comfort food menu, famous not only for its wiener schnitzel or Viennese cakes , but also for the way it makes customers feel. Artist Lucian Freud went so often that when he died they laid his usual corner table with a black tablecloth and left it light all night.
Then came the Delaunay, a favorite of actors like Eileen Atkins and Derek Jacobi, followed by the Zédel, a vast golden tribute to the great Parisian brasseries, with its mass-priced menu. When it opened, the soup of the day was just £2.25. There, I have to declare an interest: my jazz ensemble has been in monthly residence at Zédel for years. So I became an independent employee. I learned that although the company has about 1,000 employees, it truly considers itself a kind of family run by King. He promoted enlightened recruitment policies, including flexible working hours for parents of young children and a focus on older staff.
On Friday evening, the Wolseley tables were full, the large vaulted dining room buzzed with chatter. The ever-reliable food was flying out of the kitchens. My wiener Holstein, a caper and anchovy schnitzel, was on point. The upstairs staff were doing their jobs as impeccably as ever. But quietly they admitted it had been a traumatic day. “I gave a quarter of my life to this business,” said one. “But I don’t think it will be the same place anymore.”
As for Jeremy King, when the crisis hit in January, he told a reporter he loved the job too much: “And I’m too young to retire.”
The future of the restaurants he opened may be unclear, but King is sure to be back.