There’s a good reason investors will be circling, and why famous fans include Kate Moss, the Beckhams, Madonna and Sarah Ferguson. It’s the same reason I’m having breakfast here: Chris Corbin, who is currently suffering a bout of ill health, and Jeremy King. Because in all my years of dining out, writing about and talking about restaurants, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the maître d ‘knows best. And towering above the many skilled managers, fronts of house and maîtres d’hôtel of London is Mr King.
Ok, so he jettisoned the actual job of greeting and managing the restaurant floor a few years back. But that’s where he started in business and it continues to define his demeanor and the way he dresses. He’ll still work the door and the room if he happens to be there. And it’s a set of skills that is valued perhaps now more than ever as we emerge from the pandemic.
Our human need is to gather and socialize, to be with friends and family, to be in convivial places. Our focus is less on the food, more on the experience. The dishes are integral but the feeling is all. So the maître d ‘- the person with eyes on the customers, a handle on the kitchen, a keen focus on the numbers, attention on the table, who will notice if a picture is askew, a coat is on the floor, the lights too bright, the music too loud – is the lynchpin of the entire operation.
Today the Corbin & King empire encompasses nine London establishments, including Aldwych’s The Delaunay, Brasserie Zédel off Piccadilly, Colbert on Sloane Square and Fischer’s in Marylebone. It’s a business built over 20 years and a professional partnership that stretches back to 1981, when Chris and Jeremy acquired Le Caprice. It became one of the most civilized restaurants in London, tucked discreetly behind the Ritz – and it also became the domain of Jesus Adorno who, along with the likes of Silvano Giraldin at Le Gavroche, was one of the best maîtres d ‘in the capital .
The pair had met in restaurants in the late 1970s: Corbin was manager of Langan’s Brasserie and King maître d ‘at Joe Allen’s in Covent Garden. “We resolved to open a restaurant with the working title of Joe Langan’s,” he once joked. And thus, Le Caprice saw the start of a business by two people whose view of a restaurant was from the front door rather than through the pass in the kitchen.
In 1990 they opened The Ivy, the celebrity haunt in the West End that mixed glamor with the perfect cottage pie, followed by the reopening of theatreland’s J Sheekey in 1998.
King’s approach is exemplified by his dress and manner. Tall, with an old-fashioned charm, he is always perfectly suited and often wears gloves. I once asked him why. “I do not ever want to give a customer a cold handshake,” he replied.