Wolseley founder Jeremy King: “The British are really poor when they don’t know where they are”

by Chris Jackson

by Jeremy King

In many ways, the UK is now suffering from what I call a morbid culture, and there’s no doubt the pandemic has potentially drained the fun and positivity out of interaction. Despite all that, I also continue to feel we will return to an approximation of what happened before in the 50s – that whole sort of Mad Men having two or three martini lunches. We’ll congregate again.

I’d argue that there’s a big difference between moaning and complaining. Complaining is a good thing within reason, whereas moaning is a negative and the British propensity to moan is very strong. 

The human capacity to adapt is massive. I was talking recently to a large group of people about Brexit, a policy which I’ve been vehemently opposed to. I remember it well: it was all doom and gloom from the audience but I found myself saying that we’ll find a way through it. The British are really poor when they don’t know where they are, and that’s really been the issue with Brexit. If we don’t know what we’re up against, we as a country tend to descend into a morose state of moaning. I’d argue that there’s a big difference between moaning and complaining. Complaining is a good thing within reason, whereas moaning is a negative and the British propensity to moan is very strong. 

Where we’re really good is when we know what we have to deal with – that whole Blitz spirit people talk about when we adapt quickly and innovate and reorganise, as with the vaccination programme. Everyone was saying at this talk that Brexit is going to be a disaster and I said to this large group, “No, we’ll get used to it.” 

So if you’re at a hotel in London today, and there’s this massive blast half a mile away, or closer, and the windows rattle and possibly break – clearly there would be pandemonium. People would be screaming, shouting, panicking, rushing for the door. But go back 70 or 80 years in London during the war and we would all have looked out of the window, and turned to one another and said, “That was close. Let’s carry on.” You’d’ve adapted and made the most of it. 

Pre-Covid, there was a danger we had become complacent in the restaurant business

My mother said that to a degree the war was the happiest and most fulfilled time of her life. Adversity stimulates, and I suppose, pre-Covid, there was a danger we had become complacent in the restaurant business. But everything that’s happened has made an impact on how we go ahead, and how it is for the staff -but I have a feeling people will adapt.

Sometimes I think of my regular customers, the amazing people I’ve met. Lucian Freud was an example – he would always dine with us at the Wolseley. Lunches tended to be near his studio at Clark’s. For dinners, he’d frequent other restaurants, or he’d stopped going because people were overfamiliar. For me, he was one of the types I like the most: he didn’t care who you were, he was interested in you as a person, and how people look. Yes, he spent a lot of time with aristocracy but he was also a very natural warm and caring person. 

He would work of an evening and then come afterwards – often with the person who was sitting for him. As with the most prestigious tables in restaurants, it was easily protectable because you could always tell if anyone was heading towards a high profile person, and keep an eye on him and make sure he was looked after.

We are fortunate that there is a long list of people who come very regularly to the Wolseley. We’ve had many a person who over the years we’ve seen eat a business lunch five days a week – the reason being people want the security and comfort of knowing what you want, that you’re not going to be troubled, and that things just happen. I always remember talking to Lord Norman Foster about a hotel, and asking him why he particularly liked it. He said: “After the first time I liked it, and I expressed to the staff what I liked about it. And from then on it just happened. There was no fuss, no self congratulatory acknowledgement.” I suppose a lot of us are creatures of habit. Personally, I like ritual, and I like habits. It builds a better contrast when I’m doing something completely different. 

I feel sorry for Jamie Oliver, because he was doing it from the floor – and then the boardroom took over.

I often wonder if we did a Venn diagram of our restaurants, how much overlap there would be between customers. The Colbert for example, in Sloane Square, is a very interesting place. It’s quite a particular crowd, and at the hub of that community. When we won the bid for that lease – the most hotly contested there’s ever been in London – we weren’t offering us much money as Richard Caring. We won it on our pitch.

But I realised making it a sort of Wolseley-lite would be a mistake – it would be almost imperialist. It would be much better if we created a restaurant just for Chelsea. Sometimes I create an invented history for our restaurants. For Colbert, I imagined a Frenchman chased out of Paris because of an indiscretion with the owner’s daughter and setting up. He started with the bar as the first room, where he just served drinks and food. Then when the corner room became available, he took that one over, and then the next one, and did up all the rooms in a different décor. That’s why it feels so authentic. 

Where restaurateuring goes wrong is when it’s done from a boardroom. I feel sorry for Jamie Oliver, because he was doing it from the floor – and then the boardroom took over. I feel very sorry for Pizza Express and Prezzo too: a lot of the problems they have, have been generated by the investors rather than the people running it: the need for expansion has forced them off a precipice. Pizza Express has been a dearly beloved brand and I think if it hadn’t been caught up in merger and acquisition, it would still be doing well. But then of course, we all have to adapt.

Photo credit: By Jhsteel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35121735

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