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Jeremy King, a London restaurateur, is shown exiting


LONDON — When Jeremy King’s partners won a bitter and long battle for control of his restaurants on April 1, they wasted no time in tossing him to the curb. Forced to hand over his company’s iPhone and laptop, Mr King told colleagues he feared his family would not be able to contact him when they heard the news of his ousting.

It was a quick defenestration for a famous London restaurateur whose setbacks had become an anxious topic of conversation among his devoted diners. They talked about it, sotto voce, as Mr King walked past their tables at Wolseley, Delaunay, Bellanger, Colbert, Fischer’s and Zédel – sparkling gems in a gastronomic empire that many credit with transforming the scene of the city’s once noisy restaurants.

For Mr King loyalists, the crude circumstances of his departure have led to angry vows that they will never return to the restaurants he started. It set off a small earthquake in London’s social circles, where Mr King’s tables attracted celebrities and corporate titans, artists and politicians, theater royalty and real-life royalty. Princess Diana was a regular at her first establishment, Le Caprice.

“Jeremy King is an accomplished restaurateur,” said Roland Rudd, a well-connected public relations executive who sat at a regular table under the Wolseley’s wrought-iron chandeliers. Mr. King, he said, combined “astonishing” attention to detail with impeccable customer service, while being “one of the nicest, kindest and most loyal human beings you can ever find. to meet”.

‘By removing Jeremy,’ said Mr Rudd, co-chairman of Finsbury Glover Hering, ‘the faceless business owner has ripped the heart out of the restaurant and will leave a sad shell of himself.’

The owner of the business in question is Bangkok-based hotel giant Minor International, which bought 74% of Mr King’s company, Corbin & King, for 58 million pounds ($75 million) in 2017. The new investors said Mr King had blocked their attempt to expand his restaurants to Asia and the Middle East. They said Corbin & King was weeks away from insolvency, a crisis they blamed on mismanagement and the pandemic, which forced its nine restaurants to close for months.

“Jeremy was losing a lot of money,” said William E. Heinecke, an American-born billionaire who is Minor’s chairman. “All I wanted was to see this company grow and take care of its employees.”

In London’s sympathetic media, Mr King’s feud was framed as a classic David and Goliath tale. While it is true that Mr. Heinecke used bare-knuckle tactics, it is also true that Mr. King hired him as a partner, hungry for cash to fund his ambitions in an expensive market. And Mr King, 67, has fallen out with at least two previous partners, a testament to his uncompromising style.

Like many such disputes, this one is covered in layers of claims and counterclaims, accusations of bad faith and litigation that still continues today, which is why Mr. King refused a claim. maintenance.

“I can’t talk about it,” he said, though his friends were happy to give his side of the story.

They describe a principled owner who was desperate to protect his employees and the reputation of his restaurants from his bean counting partners. Among their proposals was opening a Wolseley in Saudi Arabia; Mr King told friends his regulars would be outraged by this because of human rights abuses by the Saudi government.

They also say that restaurants make a profit. However, by demanding immediate repayment of a loan, Minor forced Corbin & King into administration, the UK’s version of bankruptcy. The administrator then held an auction for the company. Mr. King, backed by a New York investment fund, Knighthead Capital Management, has filed an offer to buy out his partner. But Minor outbid him, offering 67 million pounds ($87 million) for the rest of the company’s equity, as well as its debt.

“I will no longer have any holdings in Corbin & King,” the normally talkative Mr. King said in a terse farewell email to employees after the auction. “It remains to be seen how the transition will take place.”

Wrong, as far as Mr. King’s clients and employees are concerned. The day after the auction, his restaurants posted a black-and-white portrait of him and his longtime partner, Chris Corbin, to their Instagram accounts. It was both a melancholic tribute and an unequivocal message to new bosses.

The pair first met in the late 1970s when Mr King was butler at Joe Allen, the London outpost of Manhattan’s theater district restaurant, and Mr Corbin worked at Langan’s Brasserie, where actor Michael Caine once was. an owner. Together, they buy and resell restaurants that have become landmarks, including Le Caprice, J. Sheekey and the Ivy. (Mr. Corbin retired from active management years ago.)

“Jeremy has always done brave restaurants,” said Ruth Rogers, owner of the River Cafe, another renowned London eatery. “There was a sense of occasion. You can still feel at home, but in a glamorous way.

Focused on French and Austrian cuisine, Mr. King’s restaurants evoke the Parisian brasseries or the great Viennese cafés. Customers could splurge on a sumptuous dinner or order a bowl of soup for lunch for under £3. It was a new concept two decades ago in London, where the culinary scene was bifurcated between temples of haute cuisine and mainstream restaurants.

This earned Mr King a legion of high-profile clients, who followed every twist of his corporate divorce. On Twitter, actor and author Stephen Fry lamented the way Mr King was kicked out. “Will it always be a world where the good guys lose and the greedy, soulless and wicked win?” he said.

Mr. Heinecke, who is a Thai citizen, once played David in his own tale of David and Goliath. In 1999, when his company was much smaller, he fended off Goldman Sachs, which was trying to buy his stake in the Regent Hotel in Bangkok. “There’s a lot more to it than money,” he said at the time. “This property has a bit of emotion attached to it.”

Mr. Heinecke acknowledged the reversal of roles. But he said he had been unfairly portrayed as the heavyweight in the case, arguing that Mr King filed the first lawsuit when the partnership soured and then bashed him in the media. He joked that he might not get a table at the restaurants he now controls.

“I was the punching bag. I guess I feel a bit aggrieved too,” Mr. Heinecke said. “All creatives are unique but in Jeremy’s case he started to believe his PR”

There is no doubt that Mr. King is a big part of the London restaurant scene. His network of contacts is unparalleled; his careful and distinguished manners; his fanatical work ethic. His colleagues marvel at the way he shows up at each of his restaurants almost every night. A tall, silver-haired man known for his tailored suits, Mr. King can inspect a dining room in an instant and detect if something is wrong.

“The problem with all his restaurants is that they are never factories,” said Robert Peston, a prominent broadcaster who knew Mr King at the Ivy and frequented the Wolseley and the Bellanger. “He walks the floor of each of his locations every day and night and maintains a personal relationship with hundreds of customers.”

Like other regulars, Mr Peston said he would stop dining at either restaurant if Mr King was gone. Whether future customers or tourists visiting London care is another question. Mr Heinecke called Mr King a “very nice set-up”, but stressed that he was not the chef of his restaurants.

As for Mr King, he has told friends he is too young to retire and is already considering his next move. This could include opening another restaurant.

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