Chef Yes Chef (54 years and still Counting)

Chapter Eleven

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures

Times were so desperate we started to consider that we were going to have to sell Cogan to keep our heads above water so reluctantly we put it on the market. There was of course, as expected, very little interest so the search went on for a backer. 

Frances Smith our great friend from Park Hill Produce introduced me to Hamish, a chap that would have been a similar age, maybes a few years older than myself. He apparently was in the business of finding properties for people and the money to go with them. With fingers crossed we set Hamish off for us looking for someone that might have more than a passing interest in co-funding a restaurant or restaurant with rooms. The restaurant with rooms idea I’d had for some time and it really appealed to me. I guess it had a lot to do with having worked so long in hotels, but not only that it was also an emerging trend that had started with small country house hotels, and I guess they came about because of other people with a similar mindset, and lack of money, as myself, seeing it as a cheap way of getting into the country house hotel market!

Eventually someone actually expressed an interest in Cogan House, but not as a restaurant. They were looking for a building to house a doll’s museum of all things. Not that I minded, all I need was to sell the place, get it off our hands, just as long as we got it sold, I actually thought it would have made a great dolls museum. 

It was at this point that we realised, the personal planning permission we had been granted for Cogan, was exactly that, personal to us, meaning we were not going to be allowed to sell it, for any use at all that we were not going to be involved in.

No matter what arguments we were having with the council they were not going to back down and allow us to sell Cogan on, we were at our wits end!

As I have mentioned a few times now, not only have we been blessed with some great staff but we were also blessed with some great customers, many of which went on to be great friends and have helped us out over the years. One such couple that we had become great friends with over the years were Chris and Doreen. They came to us really regularly, almost weekly, from Sevenoaks, not an inconsiderable journey. Chris was a QC and Doreen a solicitor, both working in Lincolns Inn in London but for different firms. It was to them we turned for help. We had to fight the council as we just could not continue with Cogan and for us not to be able to sell it would have definitely sent us into bankruptcy.

It turned out that Chris would happily represent us and get the councils decision changed. You may recall that the personal planning permission we were granted allowing us to turn the premises into a restaurant was actually illegal. The council had no right at all in making the permission personal, a fact we would never have found out had we not had a QC on our side! It also turned out that Doreen, or at least the firm she worked for and had been given the job by, was working on behalf of the council! So, over the breakfast table Chris would tell her that the council could not do what they were doing and Doreen would counter that on behalf of the council (half-heartedly I’m sure). They even told us that Chris had come down with a really bad back and was in bed dictating a letter to the legal representatives of Canterbury City Council (his wife) who typed it up for him to give to herself. Eventually, no matter what connections you have, the law takes a long long time to get anything done, we won our case and were allowed to sell! Unfortunately, Chris passed away not many years after and Doreen moved to Cyprus. They were lovely people and we were extremely honoured to know them.

At about the same time we reluctantly came to the conclusion that Restaurant Seventy-Four would also have to be sold, as we could not move Cogan we had no choice, it was that or go bust, or at least that was the way it was looking. We agonised about it for weeks and then lots of things started to happen all at once. Hamish put me in touch with a guy called Martin in London, he was working as a finance director for an Italian chap, Pino, whose family-owned restaurants in Italy and he was looking to buy or set up a restaurant in central London, he already had one up Highgate way I think it was.

Martin was great, a really genuinely lovely man who went on to become a great friend for many years, sadly I’ve lost touch with him and his wife, Monseratt, a great source of regret to me but I have no idea how to find him again, Martin or Monseratt, you know who you are and if you ever read this please get in touch.

Martin introduced me to Pino; he was looking to open a number of restaurants in and or around the London region. I was looking for a restaurant with rooms and had already looked as some potential properties, mainly in Kent, that may have suited. Sadly, the realisation eventually dawned that there was no way that we (me and Jane), or we (including Pino), could afford to transform a nice country house in Kent into a restaurant with rooms, there was also no way Pino was going to fund anything that far out of London either, so plans had to be scaled back. 

Pino primarily wanted a restaurant in central London, he was already involved in opening an Italian restaurant in a new office building in Aldgate, and he had an office in Parsons Green. 

Hamish came up with a couple of potential sites but I was not overly impressed with any of them and they were all relatively expensive.

All the while we were still contemplating selling 74, it had to be done. Decision made off I trotted to Christies in Canterbury; I seem to remember it was a Monday morning. I popped into their office and did the deed.

It never ceases to amaze me how things happen; it is a strange world we live in and it is said that “God moves in mysterious ways”! He certainly did on this occasion.

I hadn’t been back at the restaurant more than an hour when someone knocked on the door, some random guy came to ask me if I had ever thought about selling my restaurant! Honestly, that’s exactly what happened! You couldn’t make it up, I know I couldn’t!

I told him how much we wanted for it, he agreed there and then, we’d sold the restaurant! I then popped back to Christies that afternoon and took the restaurant off the market, much to their dismay.

It turned out he was a chef, his father, a builder, was going to buy him a restaurant, lucky man. Not only his father buying him a restaurant but a Michelin Starred restaurant at that, a very lucky man indeed!

We only leased the building, had he just bought the lease off us then, then subsequently if he went bust or did not pay his rent for any reason, it could, and probably would, have come back to bite us as we would then have been liable. As it was, he also bought the freehold to the building so we were totally free. Oh! To have money!

If only it were that easy, telling the staff, that was anything but easy, keeping them till we turned it over, even harder! 

In the interim we rented a house in London, Parson’s Green, not far from my new partners office, over the next weeks we moved our stuff up there and got ready to move away from Canterbury and our beloved Restaurant Seventy Four. We were going to miss it, not only Canterbury but Kent as a whole. We had made a great life there, lived down there for about 6 years, made some great friends, we both loved Kent, still do, but hey! as needs must.

I had an old Range Rover at the time, I absolutely loved that car, I went everywhere in it, as much across fields down muddy tracks and through woods as I did on tarmac but once we started driving around London I knew it just had to go. It was never good on fuel economy even on a good day but around the streets of London the MPG dropped from around 27 right down to 9. Good customers of ours owned the Volvo garage in Ashford so as a thank you to their patronage over the years I bought a new Volvo from them, my very first new car and the first of many Volvo’s. 

Time to move away was getting closer, one day, when speaking to the guy that was buying the place from us, I said do you want to come down have a meal with us before you take over, see what we are doing, get a feel for the place, it might help?  His response was so cocky I just knew he was going to fail. “no need mate, no one will ever know you’ve even gone”. I said at the time all we needed was one idiot, that’s all it takes to sell it, one idiot. We had found one!

While all this was happening, I had also signed a new contract for my 2nd book, “Poultry & Game”. It was going to be only on game, in my mind anyway, but the publishers insisted that we needed to make it appeal to a wider audience as a book on game alone would not sell. I still beg to differ, I’m certain it would have done just as well without the addition of poultry as it would with but it wasn’t worth getting hot under the collar about. 

Also, around the same time Kit Chapman of the Castle Hotel in Taunton was also writing a book, “Great British Chefs” a look at 18 chefs across the UK, and how they changed the face of British cooking across the previous 10 years. I assume he had taken his inspiration from the book of a similar name: “Great Chefs of France” written by Quentin Crewe with photography by the great Anthony Blake in 1978. The first chapter was about Francis Coulson up in Sharrow Bay, and included the likes of Sonia Stevenson and Joyce Molyneux both in Devon, David Wilson up at Peat Inn, Richard Shepherd and Brian Turner, Shaun Hill, Alistair Little and Simon Hopkinson, Gary Rhodes and John Burton-Race. And of course – ME!

Great British Chefs by Kit Chapman and the photo for my entry by Martin Brigdale

We had just sold Restaurant 74 and were now also able to sell our brasserie thereby easing our financial strains. I had a new book to write and was also being featured in Kit Chapmans book. Our new place of abode was to be Parsons Green but I had no job, I did however now have a financial backer, and I had just bought a new car, what a year this was, what else was going to happen?

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