Chef Yes Chef (54 years and still Counting)

Chapter Twelve

Back to London

The last day of trading we had a full restaurant, lots of our regular customers and some suppliers, it was a fabulous night and made us both regret we were selling up; we were letting all these lovely people down. One of our wine merchants, Wigham’s, a local firm, let us list wines, rare and expensive ones & bin ends, on a sale or return basis. Robert Wigham used us a fair bit and was good to us. We had a magnum of Cheval Blanc 1948 on our list, one of those on sale or return, it had a bit of seepage and the level was down to just on the shoulders of the bottle. Robert had brought a table of 8 to us that night and said “come on let’s crack open that bottle” Chris our waiter gingerly brought it over to the table and laid it down ever so gently, he slowly removed the cork, not an easy extraction at all as it was so dry and crumbling, but eventually, bit by crumbling bit, out it came. No point in decanting it although it was carrying a lot of sediment it had been laid down on its side and not moved for a long long time. It was carefully poured into about 12 glasses making sure we got nowhere near the gunge. We all let it sit for a good while in the glasses as it’d just had the major shock of hitting the warm air after 40 years in that bottle. When I first tasted it was very ordinary and a real let down so I went back to my kitchen. I came back out about 20 minutes later and tried it again. This time it was a taste explosion on my tongue, it was fabulous. 10 minutes later it was like vinegar! Still, when it was at it’s peak after 20 minutes it was absolutely fabulous.

We had of course lived in London before this but never enjoyed being there. They do say if you’re fed up of London then you’re fed up with life, as true as this maybe it was probably said by someone that could actually afford to live there and enjoy it because they had the money with which to do it. Living in London with very little spare money is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Returning to London was not something either of us had ever planned or wanted, and certainly not under these circumstances, especially without a job. Luckily, I had the 2nd book to concentrate on and in a lot of ways it seemed as though it would be far easier to write this time around as I already had experience, not having a kitchen, a restaurant, or customers and food in the fridges however made it a lot more difficult. Writing the recipes for the 1st book was easy as I would be measuring things as I was prepping for the day, this time around I had to actually plan ahead, not something I was that used to! I’m still not, I have never liked writing menus for weeks or months ahead, I just can’t think like that.

Before I could write a recipe, I had first to come up with the idea, normally I did this by standing in one of the markets or suppliers premises or my fridge, seeing what was there and deciding from what I saw what I was going to put on the menu and therefore recipe. I’ve always maintained that I never needed to test out a dish before going ahead and putting it on the menu, if it worked in my head, it normally worked on the plate. If there was ever any doubt in my mind it was normally dispelled as I prepped the dish or while I was cooking it, if it continued to feel right throughout these processes it went on the menu, I never had to test it first. Most times I wrote the menu before I even started prepping as I knew it would work. Now it was different. I also did not have any customers to feed with these ideas, I also had to pay for them myself as I had no customers buying them from me, so it was becoming expensive! I remember one week all the recipes I did featured Foie Gras, by the end of the week my wife was really getting fed up with having to have foie gras for dinner every night! It’s a hard life for some!

I was also working in a domestic kitchen, not with the trimmings of a commercial kitchen at hand, it’s just not the same! I know that probably sounds a bit lame but it’s true. In the previous chapter I mentioned Kit Chapmans book “Great British Chefs”, I had to produce some dishes for photographs for that and have some photos of me working in a kitchen, but I didn’t have one! Thankfully Phil Britten, who was Head Chef at The Capital in Basil St., let me use his! So, all the photo’s apart from the portrait photo, were taken in the Kitchen at the Capital, thank you Phillip.

Photographs taken in the kitchen at the Capital Hotel Knightsbridge

My Dishes from Kit Champman's "Great British Chefs"

This was the first time I had worked with Martin Brigdale and when I was asked if there was a particular photographer I wanted to take the photo’s for Poultry & Game, my 2nd book, it was his name alone that I put forward. He was a great bloke and such a good photographer; his studio was a joy to work in and I learnt so much about food photography when we worked together. 

By now my wife had found a job in London working for Banham Alarms as a telephonist so there was money coming in. I was pretty much spending my days writing recipes and looking for premises for a restaurant. 

On top of everything else we were also looking for a house too as we were renting and couldn’t really afford to live in rented property in Fulham. We found a small terrace in Tooting, it was small but it was all we could afford.

We looked at a lot but the one we eventually settled on, which in hindsight was not a good choice, was in the building one down from the Barracks, the Wellington Club on one side and Bowater House on the other, on Knightsbridge, opposite Mr Chan’s Chinese restaurant and with Hyde Park directly behind us. Why was it not a good choice right there in the centre of London, almost opposite Harvey Nic’s and Harrods? 

Getting close in a car was difficult as we had traffic lights right outside and we were on that junction of Hyde Park, Knightsbridge, Sloane Street and Brompton Road, great area but a real sod for parking or for taxis dropping off and picking up. Not to mention that a few years earlier the IRA had set off a bomb blowing up soldiers and horses of the Household Cavalry almost directly behind the building we were taking on. People don’t like the thought of possibly being blown up when going out for dinner!

It was 1989, Mosimann had opened a few streets away at The Belfry, Marco was going strong in Wandsworth at Harvey’s, I think Nico had moved back to London by then, there were good restaurants everywhere. 

Before we took it on the restaurant was formerly a pasta house, one of the Kennedy Brookes stable. We took a firm of architects/designers on to do the necessary, Lemon Tree I seem to recall, they too were a bit of a mistake. I had little to do with the décor/layout, my focus was on food, staffing and building a kitchen and equipping a restaurant. Oh! And writing a book too!

It was a bit of a strange building, over a number of floors. There was a half basement affair which is where the main restaurant area was to be, half a level down from that was the kitchen (the real basement), half a level up from the restaurant was the entrance which was also just above street level, half a level up from the entrance were the toilets. At the back, same level as the entrance we had a private dining room and at the front a reception and bar lounge area.

What to call it though? We had no ideas at all, Jane was all for calling it “Ian on the Park”, it’s address was 116 Knightsbridge, for me the only name I could think of was One Sixteen, as our previous restaurant was Seventy Four (the house number) it seemed obvious to keep the theme, so we did, Restaurant One Sixteen it would be. 

I took on some great people. David Spice who was with me at Eastwell then came back to me to run Cogan House, then came to London with me as my Sous Chef, God was I pleased to have him, once again a life saver. Duncan Poyser came on board as my pastry chef, his wife, Dianne as our receptionist/hostess, Gary Pavitt and Jon Bentham in the kitchen, Aiden as our Restaurant Manager. The kitchen took some designing, it was small and we needed to get a lot in! Equipment and chefs. The only way I could make it fit was to almost build it like a reverse p. First one in had to be the last one out. The pastry was in a room off to the side and a step down, the ceiling in both was very low, so low I had to wear a skull cap as the space between my head and the ceiling was about 5cm. we tiled the walls floor to ceiling, put stoves, grills etc along one wall, central worktop fridges in the middle so someone could work off both sides, hot plate as close to the door as possible to give us maximum space in the kitchen and minimum room for the waiters, one of which was young Chris who came with us from 74.

We seemed to be overcome with problems from the day we took the building over. The first and what was probably the biggest was we needed a new extract system but were told the only way we would be allowed to operate as a restaurant was to run the extract out at the top of the building which just happened to be about 10 floors above us. The fan needed to push the air up that far was massive, like the size on an engine from a jumbo jet, then at the top of the stack it needed another fan pulling what the one at the bottom was pushing, the noise from the combined fans was immense and it cost a fortune! Even after spending more money on the extract than I thought there was in the world the kitchen was still so hot that if you put your hand on the kitchen tiles at shoulder level you would leave skin behind!

The kitchen fitters built the kitchen, it looked great, as soon as they were out the chefs got in getting ready. The first thing we did was fire up an oven and get a tray of veal bones in roasting for the jus, within about half an hour the building was being evacuated. It seems the fitters had put the stoves on a base, which I had asked for as I did not want rubbish under the stoves so I would have them on a plinth instead of legs. Now, I’m a Chef, not a builder, so I just assumed they knew what to do, turns out they didn’t. They made the plinth from pine, had it been me, the chef, I would have built a brick plinth topped with a fireproof membrane given that the burners for said oven were only about 40cm off the floor, but the builders, they just built a wooden one, which then caught fire!

Opening day! A Friday I think it was. We had invited lot’s of people for the opening night, all as our guests, many were customers and friends from Canterbury and a smattering of minor celebs and press brought in by the PR company. Arrival was set at 7.30pm, at about 6.30pm water started pouring through the ceiling into the kitchen and the pastry section. 7.05pm as the first people were crossing the road to come in I was dangling out of the tank cupboard upstairs trying to stop the flow of water from an overflowing water tank, thankfully I managed to stem the leak but it meant Duncan was wadding around ankle deep in water in the pastry all night.

It was a long hard night, I think I must have put on the most complicated menu in history, it was tough going. At the end of it all I was so knackered I went into what was the private dining room crawled under a table with a pile of dirty linen and went to sleep.

Times didn’t get any easier sadly, we were definitely getting noticed, lots liked us, we had a good number of celebrities through the doors, but a lot of influential people did not. I don’t know who I had upset. We opened in September, I think it was, even though we signed the contract back in the April. Fay Maschler, Evening Standard, came and while she was fairly complementary about the food she slated the “knicker pink” décor. I was livid, bloody woman must have been colour blind, it was apricot/pale orange, nowhere near bloody PINK! The caterer did a double spread, me and my new restaurant and the guy that had taken over Seventy-Four. Predictably he had gone bust by the end of the year, sadly we were not long behind.

Jonathan Meades, food critic for The Times, came in one night with a friend, he was half cut when he arrived. I don’t recall what he ate but I do know he picked one of the most expensive bottles of Claret on the menu, which if I remember correctly, we didn’t charge him for, he then had more drinks after dinner, again on the house, then was poured out into a taxi.

The month after we opened also saw “Poultry & Game” published, I don’t recall much about it to be honest, I don’t think I did as much travelling around this time as I did previously but I really can’t remember. There was so much going on that I ended up ill a lot of the time. I developed serious sciatica, now I know it was stress, then I didn’t, I only knew I was in agony a lot of the time and there was little I could do to relieve it. 

Pouiltry & Game, Hardback and Paperback Covers, Pigeon Terrine Photo from the book

It was also October that the bottom fell out of the world and interest rates went sky high, base rate hit 14.88% so our bank loan was up around the 18% mark, costs of everything were soaring, my sciatica got worse! 

Our first Christmas at 116 we closed for a little over a week I think, from after dinner on the 23rd re-opening on Tuesday 2nd January. Central London over Christmas & New Year, and especially during a recession, there was no business to be had for us so we were better of closing and giving the staff the time off and having a rest. The second Saturday in January Jonathan Meades told the world, via his Times article that morning, that Ian McAndrew’s 116 Knightsbridge restaurant had become the first high profile restaurant to fall to the recession. 

He had apparently turned up at the door the previous week, while we were still closed for the Christmas break looking for a table for dinner, found we were not open and just assumed that we had gone bust! No telephone call to check his facts no, let’s just go ahead and print it! We had 80 booked that night, over 60 cancelled as they had read we had gone bust, and no amount of explaining to these cancelling customers that we hadn’t hence they were talking to someone on the phone, they still cancelled. We never recovered, I never ever set eyes on that man again, he can be extremely thankful for that, for had I, then it would definitely not have ended well for either of us. Yes, we tried to sue him and The Times for the damage he caused but we had no chance succeeding against either. They printed an apology, about 3 lines at the bottom of one of his columns a few weeks later, but too late, the damage was done. We could not survive; we limped through to March but in the end succumbed to the pressure and went into liquidation. Tough times.

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