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Jeremy King, the gentleman restaurateur locked in a boardroom battle

It might seem unlikely that a genteel restaurateur such as Jeremy King should find himself in the midst of a venomous financial dispute.

Yet the impeccably polite and immaculately attired founder of hallowed London eateries The Wolseley and The Delaunay, who is widely credited with reinvigorating the fusty 1980s London dining scene with his partner Chris Corbin, is locked in a boardroom battle that exploded into the open this month. Thai hotel conglomerate Minor, majority shareholder of the restaurants’ owner Corbin & King, pushed the group into administration, saying it had failed to reimburse Minor for £ 34mn of loans.

The step was the latest salvo in a continuing battle for control of Corbin & King, with Minor pushing for a worldwide rollout of Wolseley dining rooms and calling for steep cost cuts during the pandemic, both against chief executive King’s wishes, the restaurateur has said.

King took to YouTube to reassure regulars that the restaurants would run as usual, thanks to protections under the UK’s insolvency laws, which Minor described as “legally questionable”. Minor also said it “had serious concerns, prior to the onset of the pandemic, over the way Corbin & King is run at the operational level by Mr King”.

On Tuesday, a High Court judge threw out an unusual move by Minor to block King and his fellow directors from accepting fresh financing that would allow them to pay off the debt and thereby loosen Minor’s hold.

A person familiar with Minor’s thinking said that the group did not believe King’s backer, the US investment firm Knighthead, was credible. They added: “It’s in [Minor’s] interests to keep the bidding war alive because it gives them a more attractive asset in the market if they do want to sell. ”

It’s not the first time King’s old-world ways have put him at loggerheads with financiers. In 1981, funding for King and Corbin’s first venture, Le Caprice, fell apart three months into the project because they “did not see eye to eye. [with the funders] on how the restaurant should be ”, one person involved said. King turned to his parents, who put their house up as a guarantee for alternative loans.

Thirty five years on, he fell out with the Grosvenor Estate, owner of Mayfair’s Beaumont hotel, which had agreed to back Corbin & King’s £ 75mn redevelopment of the property. In 2018 Grosvenor put the Beaumont’s lease back on the market.

Zuleika Fennell, Corbin & King’s managing director, says that King “has a bizarre ability to helicopter out and see the whole of the business but also zoom in and know the exact angle a teaspoon should be on a teacup”, which makes him both a pleasure and a curse to work with ”. Several others who know King describe him as “steely” and “single-minded”.

It is perhaps a surprise that King ended up in restaurants at all. His mother “dreaded cooking and entertaining”, he says, and after leaving boarding school at Christ’s Hospital in 1973 he went straight to the City as a merchant banker.

In an effort to boost his £ 1,050-a-year salary, he took a job at a Chelsea wine bar owned by Searcy’s. “It was quite a good way of getting out and not spending any money,” he says.

He ended up working there full-time.

King met Corbin in the late 1970s while he was at the New York-style restaurant Joe Allen and Corbin was at Langan’s Brasserie. Corbin, the classically trained restaurateur, complimented King’s self-taught and slightly maverick eye. Both aspired to make theatrical and egalitarian restaurants – as Peter Langan, who opened his eponymous eatery with actor Michael Caine, would say, places “where a duchess could sit down next to a taxi driver”.

“The thing about Chris and Jeremy’s restaurants is that they are clubs without the membership rigmarole. Once you go in, you tend to stay, ”says theater producer Nick Allott.

King says a great restaurant should be “a catalyst” for “meeting friends or family, doing business, interviews, reunions, seduction or even divorce”. Not somewhere that only exists for its owners’ ends.

In 1998 the pair sold their trio of restaurants – The Ivy, Le Caprice and J Sheekey – to former PizzaExpress chair Luke Johnson for £ 13mn and after plans to open an initial hotel were thwarted, they opened The Wolseley in 2003.

The former car showroom on Piccadilly was soon a magnet for artists, models, politicians and financiers. The food critic Giles Coren, who gave it a scathing review when it opened, says he only really sniped at it because he could not get in.

Minor became Corbin & King’s fourth backer when it bought a majority stake for £ 58mn in 2017. Months after the deal was inked, Minor began to push for a global expansion of the group’s brands, two people with knowledge of board meetings said, something King said he would not countenance.

The tension festered and then the pandemic hit, forcing even the most successful restaurants deep into debt as the government mandated that venues close their doors.

Minor faced steep losses, not least because it had just acquired the Spanish company NH Hotels for € 2.3bn, and pushed Corbin & King to cut costs.

King no longer scooters between all his restaurants but, at 68, he has insisted that, whatever happens to Corbin & King, he is too young to retire. If his attempt to retake the business with his new backers is unsuccessful, he says he “would love to do another hotel”.

alice.hancock@ft.com

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