There’s son Richie, daughter Jess, sister Deirdre and soon other son, Robbie, all eager to join the ebullient Richard Corrigan’s restaurant empire. Fiona Sims joins the family to talk about the future
I’m having dinner with a corral of Corrigans. There’s Richard Corrigan, the rumbustious, Michelin-starred chef-owner of Corrigan Restaurants, his ebullient 27-year-old son, also called Richard (everyone calls him Richie), and his bubbly daughter Jess, 21.
I’m at Corrigan HQ on Park Lane, Corrigan’s Mayfair, and I’m here to discuss their latest plans – many of which involve the family. “If you thought Roux was the only restaurant dynasty in London, you would be mistaken,” giggles Corrigan senior, slurping a G&T and beaming proudly at his offspring.
In fact, we’re all sipping G&Ts, and the decibels are rising rapidly – getting a word in will be a challenge, but a fun one. Richard is even jollier than usual. He has just announced that his eldest son has joined the family business as general manager of Corrigan’s Mayfair, which is celebrating its ninth year. And we’re sitting in what will be Richie’s first task – to oversee the makeover of the bar.
In short, the bar will separate from the restaurant. It will have its own front door and it will be partitioned off completely, save a discreet connecting door. And it will have a few more seats – 50 in the bar, with 55 in the restaurant next door. It will get its own name, too: Dickie’s (Richie’s mates call him Dickie).
Meanwhile Richard’s sister Deidre – keep up – has also joined the business. She will now be running the weddings at his Irish country pile, Virginia Park Lodge in County Cavan, which he bought in 2013. It hosts private parties, corporate events and weddings in 700 acres of lush lake country, an hour’s drive north west of Dublin, offering 23 rooms plus a new addition of 12 shepherd’s huts.
And Jess? Well, when she’s not doing her day job, PR-ing for restaurant industry veteran Maureen Mills at Network London, she’s covering reception (or the cloakroom) in the restaurants in the evenings, helping out when it’s busy, which is often. Oh, and there’s another bit of news – Ross Bryans has taken over as head chef at Corrigan’s Mayfair. Yes, the big man has finally taken a step back.
“This is a young man’s game and you need to be focused,” shrugs 53-year-old Richard, who is recovering from a recent hip op.
In fact, he is so impressed with Bryans that he gave him a 20% share in the business, Richard tells me, as he lets Bryans choose off the menu for us. “You look at things in a different light when you’re a shareholder,” Richard explains. “It’s only his second week in the job, but I reckon that in a couple of months he’ll be smashing it. And look, he’s got a great sense of humour, and he enjoys a beer, which is important in a chef, honest to God,” he trumpets with a twinkle, prompting more familial guffaws.
It’s just as well that we’re sitting in the private room – one of three, to be exact, ranging in size from the six-seat Kitchen Library to the 30-seat Lindsay Room – all of which are booked (it’s a rainy Tuesday night).
The Kitchen Library is more of a snug – albeit an ultimate snug, curtained off from the main kitchen in its own plush, panelled, air-conditioned bubble, with a view on to the pass, where Bryans is busy plating up our four starters, which Richard directs us all to share.
Pearl of London
In addition to Corrigan’s Mayfair there is, of course, Bentley’s, which Richard acquired in 2005. Or Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill, to give it its full name, which has been feeding Londoners fish and chips for over 100 years. “All roads lead to Bentley’s and all roads out,” quips Richard.
Bentley’s is a huge operation, with two kitchens, a dedicated shellfish and fish prep area and a bakery. There is the 50-cover, more traditional Grill restaurant upstairs, overseen by Bentley’s executive chef Michael Lynch, and its jewel of an oyster bar, with its 12 coveted counter seats, another 40 covers inside and 40 on the terrace, where Spanish royalty slip in incognito for a plate of shellfish. In addition, there are two private rooms – the 100-capacity Swallow Street Room, with its own entrance and bar, and the 12-seat Crustacea Room.
There are 70 employees here, compared with 35 at Corrigan’s Mayfair. “Who else in London is boiling their crabs any more? We are at Bentley’s,” announces Richard, who got his first taste of cooking there back in 1992.
“I had been in charge of the kitchens at Mulligan’s in Mayfair, but it wasn’t stretching me, so when the opportunity came up to go to Bentley’s, the famous old fish restaurant in Swallow Street, I took it. I learned so much about fish from the customers and the suppliers – there was something special about this place that made me snap it up when I had the chance to take it over in 2005,” he writes in his 2008 memoir-cum-cookbook, The Clatter of Forks and Spoons.
“And it reminded me of the happy truth of simplicity. You can sit at the bar and just have a plate of oysters and a glass of wine or a dressed crab. Or you can sit upstairs in the restaurant and have Dover sole done in four different ways. And they are equally good because everything is based on the same respect for freshness, simplicity and deliciousness,” he continues.
It’s this quest for the best produce and craving for simplicity that unites Bryans and Richard. “I never got into the whole gastronomic boom,” Bryans tells me later. “Yes, we share the same philosophy – we like to keep things simple, from cooking through to what you get on the plate. Do I see any particular challenges working with Richard? Not really. Obviously, I need to grow myself and I need to build a great team of chefs around me. It’s important for me to know I have the right people around me who share my vision,” he says. “But whoever I have working with me, we have to have lots of fun. I care about what I do and hopefully that will become infectious.”
Born in Irvine, North Ayrshire, in 1980, Bryans has been cooking professionally since he was 20 years old and came to wider attention when he opened Pollen Street Social for Jason Atherton back in 2011. Most recently, Bryans was the opening chef for the Clock Tower at the New York Edition hotel (another Atherton restaurant), where he spent 18 months. A mutual friend put him in touch with Richard. “I met up with Richard in the Groucho Club over a whisky or two, and that was it,” recalls Bryans with a grin.
So how does he intend to compete on the personality front? “He’s such a big character, loved by millions, so I think this is more a matter of doing things together. Though my personality will come through on the plate,” promises Bryans. “I’m still finding my feet, but I’ve got a good idea of what I want to do. I guess my French technique will come to the fore.”
Talking of French technique, every year Richard takes his key chefs to sample the delights of three-Michelin-starred French kitchens, visits that have included L’Arpège, L’Astrance and L’Ambroisie in Paris.
That said, what you see is what you get at a Corrigan restaurant. There’s no spherification here. “I love the old craft of cooking. I do worry about the younger guys coming through with their fecking ants crawling up leaves – but what happens after that? There’s a lot of bollocks out there,” he grumbles, good-naturedly.
“We frequently have to babysit young chefs who arrive from other Michelin-starred kitchens. They might have learned all the skills, but they are cooking by numbers, not by instinct. I’ve experimented in my career, of course – chefs and their toys. For too many years I was trying to be too innovative for my own good – and you can get carried away with ego and the pretension of it all. Now I just want to row the boat backwards as fast as I can, and be confident about doing it,” he wrote, back in 2008. And he’s still rowing that boat backwards.
The early years
Richard’s career started in the Netherlands and as head chef of Mulligan’s in Mayfair. He gained his first Michelin star as head chef of Fulham Road in Fulham in 1994 and his second at Lindsay House in Soho in 1997.
He was born in County Meath and brought up on a small farm. “The farming mentality makes you very unpretentious about food and it instils respect, because you know the hard graft that goes into producing it,” he says. “And I’ve always had that little business thing in my head. There are so many chefs I’ve met who are broke. It’s tragic that cooks don’t look after themselves more.”
So what is Richard’s growth strategy? “The equity I had in Lindsay House 20 years ago allowed me to get the business up and running initially. I believe restaurants only thrive when ownership is there,” he declares. “We open something, we pay off our debts, and then we move on – on average, about every five years. It’s a nice way of doing business. We don’t have to open something every few months. We don’t want a formulaic restaurant group, either. These are standalone businesses, each with a quirkiness to them, and I love that.”
Up until January there was also a Corrigan outpost in Harrods, called Bentley’s Sea Grill, which ran for four years, but ended when the famous department store decided to rethink its Food Hall. “That was a win-win. It paid for my walled garden at Virginia Park Lodge, thank you very much,” grins Richard.
So what’s with the country estate? “Virginia Park Lodge was a bit of punt,” admits Richard. “I had been looking around for quite a while, and age was a factor, if I’m honest – I just wanted to get on with it. But this place already meant something to me – I got married here 27 years ago and I’m still with the same amazing woman. It was the first time in 50 years that it had come on to the market – it’s only been sold six times since it was built in the 1600s,” he says. He reveals that the gardens were the number one reason for buying it and the first thing he finished renovating, as the produce now supplies all of his restaurants.
Richard also reckons that he has broken the mould for large event catering. “We do à la minute for up to 300 people,” he enthuses. “Everything is plated as we go. It’s very special and amazing to watch. We say that if you can do it for 40, then you can do it for 300.”
Any other secrets to his success? “If you are commercial in your approach you stay around; if not, you don’t. Don’t take all the money out of the business. Pay the fish man, pay the meat man – and most importantly, pay the VAT man,” he advises. And his suppliers love him for it, he says, and give him first dibs on the best produce. “We are one of the few restaurants who deal directly with oyster farms. Everything is handpicked and hand-stacked for us. That’s unusual. If you look after your suppliers, they will look after you.”
Richie takes this moment to recall peeling crayfish at Lindsay House as a teenager. “I might still be just 27 years old, but I feel like I have a lifetime of knowledge,” he says, explaining that until recently he has been working in F&B at the Rosewood London. “But I always knew that I would come into the family business. No one cares about a company quite like a family does. You can’t help where your heart lies.”
So who will come to Dickie’s Bar? “All sorts,” replies Richie. “As we have a 3am licence we are hoping that many will come from the hospitality industry. We want it to be somewhere that young chefs and restaurant managers will want to hang out.”
One of the bar’s USPs will be its homemade sodas made from ingredients from the walled garden at Virginia Park Lodge. Irish whiskey will be a focus, too, as well as food. “We will be offering the kind of things people want to eat in a bar – shellfish, tempura, game schnitzel. I don’t want to say any more as I want to do the big unveil when it opens in June,” he says.
Jess, meanwhile, has worked in the family business since she was 16. Before taking up a job in restaurant PR, she completed a psychology degree, which she has already found useful. “As soon as a customer walks in you can tell if they want to be left alone or want a bit of banter,” she says. Which is her favourite restaurant to work in? “Bentley’s – I love the camaraderie,” she replies. “Even though restaurant PR is what I’m happy doing right now, my ultimate goal is to work for Dad.”
There is another Corrigan sibling waiting in the wings – Robbie, 17, who is still at school. He has already pulled a few shifts at the bakery in Bentley’s and is due to work at Virginia Park Lodge this summer, reports Richard. “I always hoped that the family would come into the business – and it now it looks like I might get my wish.”