Coming into the year just past, predictions for the future of restaurants were nearly as dire as those for polar bears, politicians and Liverpool’s football team.
Free-spending bankers and other bonus-flashers were downsizing from magnums, and expense accounts were shrinking; the days of the under-£20 set lunch were coming back, along with a general sense of pessimism. So, the crunch arrived and… well, you could get a seat for lunch at a starry restaurant on a week’s notice, you could get better wine by the glass than the year before.
Restaurant closings were only slightly below normal, while openings were about the same. Heston Blumenthal announced plans to open a place in London, as did celebrated New York chef Daniel Boulud.
Half a dozen Michelin-starred chefs have expanded into what we used to call gastropubs (now, apparently, they’re ‘dining pubs’, a delightful misnomer). It really does seem that we have become, firmly and finally, a nation that not only enjoys eating out, but also does it pretty well. And we’re not turning back.
One chef who’s been helping us stay on course is Richard Corrigan, who had an especially good year despite opening his eponymous restaurant on the brink of the recession. Buoyed by ebullient good humour, open-handed hospitality and one of London’s best wine lists – a showcase for many artisan winemakers – Corrigan’s Mayfair is thriving, and is the Decanter/Laurent-Perrier Restaurant of the Year for 2009, an early favourite from the first meal.
Sitting in his restaurant now, Corrigan smiles as he surveys success made visible: the long marble bar, polished brass and oak, fresh flowers, vivid paintings he’s acquired over the years and a collision of awards piled up on the end of the bar, just ahead of a stack of copies of his excellent cookbook, The Clatter of Knives and Forks. In the late 1970s, as a 14-year-old apprentice in a small-town hotel kitchen, this would have been only a dream – and an unlikely one at that.
It’s a long way from a small farm in rural, and very rustic, County Meath: ‘Cash-poor and food-rich’, he says, shooting pheasants and rabbits in their fields, poaching salmon from the river (‘we called it “acquiring” but only what you’d be eating for your supper, or distributed in the community, in the spirit of proper, traditional poaching’). Even today, he refers to ‘the farmer in me’ that keeps him grounded: ‘We weren’t educated about food, but we knew a hell of a lot,’ he beams.
Ireland to Holland
Ireland was stirring back then. ‘A food culture had begun, with immigrants and bright Lefty drop-outs from Dublin who’d heard the story that western Ireland was where it was least likely that an atomic bomb would be dropped,’ he says, roaring with laughter.
‘A decade later, when they realised Armageddon wasn’t coming, they got busy, and a lot of them put their entrepreneurial skills into food. A lot of them were women, inspired by Myrtle Allen at Ballymaloe, who set the pace.’
Ambition had hold of him too, and when the manager of his hotel, who was Dutch, went home to run a fine-dining restaurant, Corrigan asked him for a job and got enough reassurance to go to the Netherlands. He was all of 17 years old.
‘I thought I’d get a foot in Europe, see how it was, try it for six or seven months, then maybe go to Switzerland, maybe France, see what happens. Why not? The first thing I got was a library card. I read a lot. Most cooks, you know, we read cookbooks, but I was reading Hegel, recommended by a Lefty friend, and loved it!
Food was important – farmers’ markets were starting up, and the kitchens I worked in were first-rate – but the culture was fantastic. My eyes were really opened – I’d walk around the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh museum on a regular basis. It was so liberating, coming from the conservative culture of Ireland. To this day, I have a lot of Dutch working for me, and Scandinavians; they have the work ethic, get things done. I call them Germans with a sense of humour.’
He stayed for four years, and was about to move to Geneva when he met a girl on holiday from England. ‘We had a great time, and I thought, maybe I’ll give London a shot instead, and I came over, and it was buzzing, pretty cool, and one year led to the next, and it just grew on me. Now when I’m at Heathrow, coming back from Ireland or wherever, I think, I’m coming home.’
Making his mark
Mid-’80s London was the right time and place for a big, brash lad with a talent for cooking. Money and ambition flowed, and the Roux-based French style was morphing into what we came to call ‘modern British’, full of possibilities.
Corrigan went with the flow, to the eccentric and gifted Stephen Bull (‘I’m not sure I’d be where I am today without him – he really had a good food head’), then to Mulligan’s, an Irish-style oyster house he put on the culinary map of the moment.
Then on to Bentley’s venerable but run-down fish restaurant (‘I was brought in to shake the place up, and I did, but it was never going to work, it was just being patched up’). Back with Bull at Fulham Road, he won his first Michelin star and, in 1997, opened his own place at last: Lindsay House in Soho, an immediate hit. In 2005, success was even sweeter – he bought and lovingly restored Bentley’s, now Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill.
As the lease ran out at Lindsay House, he moved his crew, paintings and loyal customer base to the new place. When I ask him whether it was him who scribbled a bit of graffiti in the men’s room at Lindsay House that’s stayed with me, a quote from James Joyce (‘Where would the Irish be without someone to be Irish at?’), he simply winks and unfurls that always-ready, loud laugh.
From the first days at Lindsay House, he’s always had good, solid wine lists, but his latest at Corrigan’s Mayfair – nearly 300 bins – is superior. ‘There’s a lot from Caves de Pyrène. [Sales director] Doug Wregg is in the DNA of my company; he’s always has been a big part of our wine lists.
Caves de Pyrène has so much organic, biodynamic stuff from artisan producers, it’s great. The first time I tasted some of those organic wines from the small producers, I knew that’s what I wanted; that purity. I’ll tell you something: all our butter is handmade, organic, so’s the flour.
We buy directly as often as possible – about 80% is from the farm or the boat. So why the hell talk about purity when you’re letting down the side when it comes to wine? I love the idea of my pound going back, as much as possible, to the producer – it gives me a kick to have it between the two of us. If I could buy my wine direct, I would, believe me.
‘The wine list is like my cooking, all over the place at times, but there’s a core of honest eccentricity running through it. I’m a bit quirky, but I think that’s allowed, don’t you?’ If anyone is to own the last laugh, it would seem he’ll have a strong claim to it.
Written by Brian St Pierre