Veteran restaurateur Jeremy King has labelled Brexit "stupid, short-sighted and xenophobic" and named it the single biggest threat to the future of the London restaurant trade.
King, who along with business partner Chris Corbin, runs some of the capital's top restaurants including the Wolseley, the Delaunay, Brasserie Zédel and Bellanger, as well as the five-star, Catey-award-winning Beaumont hotel in Mayfair, was speaking as he collected a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Harden's London Restaurant Awards.
In conversation with Harden's guide editor Peter Harden at the awards ceremony at the Hippodrome Casino in Leicester Square, King said that the restaurant industry had been "too patient" over the issue of Brexit and that it was "unquestionably" the biggest threat to restaurants in the city.
"I saw on Friday that 43 restaurants are opening in London in September. I don't know where they are going to get the staff from and I certainly don't know where the customers are going to come from. We are so brittle, I just don't understand it. And for us to be so stupid, so short-sighted, so xenophobic, so myopic, to actually go with Brexit…
"I have 57 nationalities working for me, of which 61% are European, I think 16% are international from outside Europe, and we only have something like 20-21% British. We haven't got a chance without Europeans. We built our trade with the help of the Europeans and I don't just mean in terms of labour - it is expertise, cultural, and artistic. It makes me so angry," he said.
His comments came a week after the British Hospitality Association (BHA) called leaked proposals to cut the number of low-skilled immigrants from Europe permitted to work in the UK after Brexit as potentially "catastrophic for the UK hospitality industry".
A document leaked to The Guardian contains proposals to drive down the number of lower-skilled EU migrants, offering them residency for a maximum of two years.
The 82-page document details plans for only workers in "high-skilled occupations" to be granted permits to stay in the UK for a period of three to five years.
Commenting on his and Corbin's impact on the restaurant trade over their respective careers as restaurateurs, which started in 1981 with the purchase and re-launch of Le Caprice, followed in 1990 by the Ivy (both now owned by Caprice Holdings), King said: "We are very generously credited with creating modern restaurants. I actually think the Italians, the Mario and Franco dynasty [pioneering Italian restaurateurs Mario Cassandro and Franco Lagattolla], actually broke the mould and I always give credit to Peter Langan for wanting to do it differently - the idea that you can create a brasserie where a duchess sits down with a taxi driver and that, for me, underpins everything we do."
And talking about his working relationship with Corbin, both of whom were inducted into the British Travel & Hospitality Hall of Fame in 2015, he added: "Chris and I have different opinions but where we go wrong in life is if we look for the flaw in the other person's argument rather than the virtue."
He also had some wise words on what makes good service, and how a genuine passion for looking after people was sometimes more important than skills of the trade: "Technical ability is soon trumped by genuine, heartfelt care," he said. "And when people say what is the most important thing for me in the success of a restaurant they expect the location, design, the chef, whatever it might be. I always say two things - heart and soul - and it is very hard to define."
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