Jeremy King has done more to influence the way Londoners eat than perhaps anyone else in recent history. Along with his long time business partner, Chris Corbin, the entrepreneur has created some of the capital’s best loved and most iconic restaurants — the pair were the early masterminds behind the Ivy in its 90s heyday, and brought the timeless Wolseley to life in 2003.
This spring, Corbin & King opened Soutine, a French-Russian brasserie with an artistic lean, in St John’s Wood. It is the duo’s 14th opening. Here, however, Jeremy tell us how their first — Le Caprice off Piccadilly — was very nearly their last.
At the beginning of the 1980s I’d become friends with Chris Corbin, manager of Langan’s Brasserie. I was at Joe Allen at that time, and we resolved to open a restaurant with the working title of Joe Langan’s.
Chris was approached shortly afterwards by a fashion retailer and designer called Joseph Ettedgui. He said he was interested in opening a restaurant, a bit like a lot of the Parisian fashion houses were doing at the time.
Soon, we embarked upon the idea of Le Caprice together. But even before we opened, we were falling out with the Ettedgui family. We hadn’t fully mapped out our shared aspirations. It became apparent that we had different visions for the restaurant.
Our vision was to be very, very low key. No interviews or promotion. But the Ettedgui family wanted to go down the more traditional route of PR and publicity. We were fighting on the look of the restaurant, too. It had the wrong lighting, for example: the lighting was very harsh.
We opened in a very difficult trading time, at the end of 1981. The restaurant wasn’t very busy. That December there was a lot of snow, and we weren’t doing anything like the business we had anticipated.
"We hadn't fully mapped out our shared aspirations..."
The final straw for Joseph was when we put on an extraordinary New Year’s Eve collaboration with an artist called Mikel Rosen who was teaching at an art school — the uniform and interiors were designed in a very striking, surreal way. Joseph hated it.
We’d done the accounts after Christmas and had lost quite a lot of money in December. A few days later I flew to San Francisco to get married. Just before the wedding, the Ettedgui family lawyers and advisers told us we had two weeks to find a new backer. I knew that to survive we had to have a realistic chance of finding a backer in 24 hours. It was clear it wouldn’t be possible and therefore we had no choice but to close the restaurant.
Two days later I was having breakfast with the extended family, and I was told there was a call from Chris for me. The phone was one of the first cordless phones, so I had to take it at the table. Chris had told me that the shutters were down and the staff were being sent home. And I had to sit there and smile and say ‘that’s great news!’, because I couldn’t let the family know. I spent the wedding day pretending that I had a successful restaurant in London.
The day after the wedding, our relatives asked us why we weren’t going on our honeymoon. I had to explain that we’d cancelled it and were going back to London. By that point I became determined to give it another go. Chris was reluctant as he had been offered rather a nice job. I said we should go back and give it another shot. If we tried again and failed, we could at least tell ourselves we had done our best, and people would understand that. But then I said, if we go back and succeed — and I don’t know why I used this phrase, it’s very unlike me — ‘we’d be the toast of London.’
So we managed to obtain a license and option to buy and open the restaurant again. It was very quiet. People thought we were still closed. Then, one very quiet evening, Marie Helvin gave us a call, and she said she was coming down with David Bailey, Mick Jagger, and Bryan Ferry.
She said: ‘you will be busy, won’t you?’ And Chris said: ‘yes, of course.’ So we immediately got on the phone and called our friends and asked them to come to the restaurant to make it look as though we were busy. The few customers we did have then told all their friends and from that moment on, it got busier and busier.
Soon afterwards somebody told us they’d give us some free advertising. We went with the strapline: ‘Le Caprice — behind the Ritz but ahead of its time.’ Which in some ways might have summed up the experience rather well. What the experience taught us was humility, and it removed any traces of arrogance that might have been created by immediate success.
It also meant we became sole owners, and relished the opportunity for innovative thinking that independence affords. It has gone on to inform many of our ventures since — most of which we could probably never have done with traditional investor partners.
Ultimately, we were very grateful for Joseph for being the catalyst for that. And more importantly, and very gratifyingly, Joseph became a great friend, and we had a true and deep friendship in the years afterwards. But we will always be aware of how close we came to failure. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Has become our unofficial company motto.
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