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Although acclaimed by chefs and critics, Jeremy Lee has always been something of a best-kept secret. But with a move to Quo Vadis in Soho, the charismatic Scotsman is stepping into the limelight, says Ben McCormack.
You hear Jeremy Lee before you see him, his rich Scots tenor booming out, all imperiously rolled ‘r’s and the sort of clipped enunciation that would have made Jean Brodie proud. Since he took over the stoves at Quo Vadis in January, mealtimes at the Soho icon have become punctuated by Lee trotting up the stairs from the kitchen, showering ‘darlings’ and smacking kisses on regulars who have followed him from his former home at the Blueprint Café.
He may seem very much the showman, but for the past 20 years, Lee has been something of an insider secret, staying true to the modern British ethos at the Blueprint since 1995, as indifferent to passing trends as the changing tides of the Thames outside. Restaurant critics and fellow chefs raved about him, but with only those diners prepared to trek beyond Tower Bridge able to sample his cooking, he seemed very much a chef for the cognoscenti. But now, with a move to the West End and British food all the rage, 2012 feels very much like Jeremy Lee’s moment – and he couldn’t be happier.
‘It’s amazing, it’s thrilling, and I’m delighted,’ he exclaims in typically exuberant style. ‘We hoped Quo Vadis would do well, but there was a great deal of suspense before we opened, and I had no idea that we were going to get this much attention.’
‘We’ is Lee and Sam and Eddie Hart, the brothers who own not only Quo Vadis but also Spanish stars Fino and Barrafina, and who have made Lee a partner in the restaurant. Quo Vadis, of course, is one of the legendary London dining rooms: the site where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital, opened as a restaurant by Italian Peppino Leoni in 1926, taken over by Marco Pierre White and Damien Hirst in the mid-90s, and bought by the Harts in 2008. Despite good reviews, that sense of Cool Britannia excitement was never recaptured and it seemed like the old dear was drifting.
All that has changed. It’s a credit to the invigorating effect of Lee’s arrival that Quo Vadis feels like a brand-new restaurant: the formidable black exterior has been repainted a fetching duck-egg blue, the protective screens have been taken off the stained-glass windows to allow more light in, the YBA paintings have given way to fresh flowers, and a bar area can accommodate walk-ins and snackers. ‘We’ve already had a staggering response from regulars,’ Lee says. ‘It’s been terrific, and what’s been most brilliant is folk coming back: that’s our primary concern and the greatest compliment a restaurant can get.’
It’s not just Lee’s cooking that’s keeping them coming back, though. The rebooted Quo Vadis has what was conspicuously lacking during Marco’s reign: a genuine sense of hospitality. Partly that’s due to another canny appointment, front-of-house supremo Jon Spiteri, most recently at Corrigan’s Mayfair. And partly it’s to do with the prices: there’s an all-day set menu at £20 for three courses, half the mains hover around £15, house wine is £18, and there are carafes aplenty. What’s more, there’s a bar menu where 20-somethings on first-job salaries can get a bite of the top-end restaurant scene.
‘One of the things my father instilled in me,’ Lee explains, ‘was his hatred of big price tags in restaurants – he absolutely loathed and detested them. He couldn’t understand why you would spend that money when you could do it at home much better – bearing in mind that we lived in a little village outside Dundee, so there wasn’t really a lot on the horizon anyway. Of course, I’ve paid those sorts of bills in my time. But they are not my happiest restaurant memories, and I think there’s a definite pleasure to be had from making sure that whoever comes through the door leaves at their happiest and feels that they’re in the right place. There’s tons of stuff that I learnt from Terence Conran [former owner of Blueprint], and one of the most brilliant was “jeans and tiaras”, the idea of having a room that is open to everyone.’
So, what is his happiest restaurant memory? ‘You know when you eat abroad for the first time, you’re in France and you have the best chicken and chips you’ve ever eaten, washed down with a bucket of Beaujolais? I still hark back to that as one of the best things I ever ate. It was delicious and it struck a chord, and I think that probably best sums up what we’re trying to do here.’
There’s no chicken and chips on the menu, but there is duck with apples and prunes, squid with fennel, wild garlic and peas, a pie of the day – beef and hare, say – and loin of Middle White pork from the grill. A daily weather report on the menu sums up the mood of brisk, no-nonsense Britishness. Ingredients are chosen judiciously and cooked with certainty.
‘It’s all the things I like to eat, I suppose,’ Lee says. It’s also a reminder of the simplicity of the first wave of modern British chefs that hit London in the early 1990s, when Lee worked at Sir Terence Conran’s Bibendum under Simon Hopkinson, and then at Alastair Little on Frith Street in Soho.
‘When I started out, there was a tiny pool of people who were interested in restaurants. We just loved it. If you weren’t cooking at a restaurant, you were eating at one. The scene was much smaller then and much more charming. Terence Conran only had Bibendum. These enormous businesses that exist today were not even a twinkle in the eye. There was a level of naiveté to it all.’
Lee attributes an almost academic mindset to those pioneers – not just himself and Hopkinson, but Sally Clarke, Rowley Leigh and his old boss Little, who were all inspired by the writings of Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson. There was an intellectual rigour that was lost, Lee says, as the 90s turned to the noughties and eating out became an extension of the entertainment industry. ‘Now, going out for dinner has a bit of a Marx Brothers, popped-balloon-in-front-of-your-face, gag-a-minute quality. The restaurant scene has changed dramatically; there’s no stone unturned as to what can make a buck.’
But, for Lee at least, the tide has turned in his favour: fresh, seasonal British cooking has been one of the biggest trends of the past few years, and Quo Vadis is once again one of the hottest tables in town. For Lee, it’s something of a homecoming. ‘When I was 16, my father brought me to London and we stayed at the Piccadilly Hotel, which is now Le Meridien. As soon as I was able to escape my dad, I was straight off to The French House on Dean Street for a vermouth. And when I was cooking with Simon, we ate out around here all the time. So Soho’s always figured large for me, and I suppose there’s a nice cycle and something that feels very right about this, which I like a lot.’
With Quo Vadis playing to packed houses, Jeremy Lee is far from being alone in liking that a lot.
This interview was published in the spring 2012 edition of Square Meal Lifestyle.
© photography by Laurie Fletcher.