Robert Reid, head chef at Marco Pierre White’s Oak Room restaurant, knew about the decision to close it nearly a year ago. But, as Ben Walker found out, the closure of the place he has come to regard as a “beautiful coffin” rounds off a troubled year.
Robert Reid does not sound a particularly happy man at the moment. Although he has worked for Marco Pierre White for nine years, his redundancy pay is calculated only from the four years since the company, MPW Criterion, was established.
Reid has known about the closure for some time but found out about the redundancy deal just last week. “They’re doing it totally by the book – standard statutory nonsense,” he said. “There’s no emotion. The guy who’s come in to do the redundancies isn’t even from the company.”
Reid is resigned to accepting the settlement and said that none of the 15 kitchen and 15 front of house staff had written contracts, himself included. They are working out one month’s notice until the Oak Room closes on 15 February. Reid refuses to lay any blame for this treatment at White’s door.
Reid said the hotel would try to lease out the Oak Room. Some people have expressed an interest, but he struck a note of warning: “I think anyone who came in here would be rather foolish.”
Having neither windows nor its own entrance, Reid calls the Oak Room a coffin: “A beautiful coffin, but a coffin nevertheless. It’s hard to get the ambience right.”
He has also had to live with the “added misery of smelling of chlorine, which has turned away so many customers”. The smell comes from the swimming pool in Champneys health club below. And at weekends, the chandeliers and room vibrate from the disco upstairs. “In a place like this, those kind of things count,” said Reid.
He said apart from the music coming through the ceiling, the restaurant had been quiet, especially since 11 September. MPW Criterion, which ran the Oak Room and Titanic restaurants in London, is being wound up. It lost more than £2m in 2000 and £3.3m in 1999, according to the most recently filed accounts.
Reid even criticised its central London location. “It’s good for the trendy, fashionable market, and the Oak Room is neither. Piccadilly’s full of crowds, but quite deceiving. They’re all backpackers who don’t want to spend a lot of money. It’s becoming a bit rough. Druggies. You see them shooting up round the back,” he said.
Looking back on his nine years, Reid found work less stressful after White left. “When Marco handed back the three stars [in 1999], there was less pressure, so I became a slightly better person to be around.”
Despite his long service and key role in establishing White’s restaurants, Reid is remarkably modest. “I wouldn’t consider myself successful. I’ve done alright. It was Marco’s car. He built it and drove it. I partook in helping him,” he said.
“Marco wrote the menus and asked, ‘Do you have an idea?’ and I helped. That’s part of the reason I stayed – because he listened. We had a hell of a lot of fun. I would say we’re still friends. Things are slightly different now. He’s busy expanding his empire, so I don’t see him as much as I’d like.”
The past year has not been a good one for Reid. His wife has left him, and they are getting separated. “I would like to have a child, but in the current situation I can say thank God I don’t.” He acknowledged that being a chef could be hard on a relationship: “If you’re with someone who doesn’t do the same job, they get left on their own a lot, and get the feeling that you’re always having fun.”
Reid, 35, still wants to be a chef but said that the first thing he will be doing is taking a holiday in his native South Africa. “I’m developing a taste for a holiday – that’s the only dish I’ve got,” he said.
Reid said he would be very cautious about opening his own place and refused to be drawn on his future plans.