After 18 years as head chef of first Conran Restaurants' then D&D London's Design Museum restaurant, the Blueprint Café, Jeremy Lee left the company at the end of last year to join the Sam and Eddie Hart's restaurant, Quo Vadis. Tom Vaughan catches up with the Menu of the Year Catey winner to see what new challenges tempted him back into Soho
Having built a great name for yourself over nearly two decades at the Blueprint Café at London's Design Museum, what made 2012 a time for change?
The Design Museum was moving to Kensington and I was thinking: "Should one explore this or should one look for new opportunities?" But it never really occurred to me that I could come back to Soho after all these years. The world had changed, I'd done that and grown up.
Then one day, Eddie [Hart, co-owner of Quo Vadis] called up and said: "Can you come and talk to us?" I liked very much what they were saying and suddenly I found myself having to go and see Des [Gunewardena, CEO of D&D London] and Dave [Loewi, managing director of D&D London] and Sir Terence Conran and explain that I was leaving. Luckily they were all very charming about it.
What precipitated the need for change at Quo Vadis?
They were very up front - it was struggling, as many great restaurants do. It is very hard to interpret reasons why a restaurant can almost begin to calcify and it can be very hard to put your finger on it. It was not always a bed of roses at the Blueprint Café and we don't have the thing where a great restaurant can go for ever. Nowhere bar the mighty Gavroche [in London's Mayfair] or Waterside Inn [in Bray] can consistently amaze these days.
What is the set-up? Have you come in as an employee of Quo Vadis?
Yes, but there might be a slice of the action once we've got this ship sailing proudly at sea. In the meantime they've been very generous.
After 18 years spent establishing a real identity at the Blueprint Café, was it hard coming to a restaurant that already has a very strong identity itself?
When I think of the best success stories, like the River Café, they have always been about great teams of people. When it all rests on one pair of shoulders, those shoulders tend to sag after a while and it becomes too much. And if you are the brand - boy that is a lot of pressure and it's not for everyone and it's certainly not for me, although I applaud the ones that do it.
Tell us some more about the plans for Quo Vadis.
Already we've taken a lot of the grand furniture out of the restaurant and brightened it up. Downstairs there is a bakery that does the bread for Quo Vadis, Fino and Barrafina. Carol down there is an absolute sweetheart and when I went about changing the kitchen, which was a rather gloomy environment, suddenly appeared this little elf who'd been hiding downstairs. It was like something out of Harry Potter. "Where did you come from? And what's this big machine you've got behind you?"
Once we get it going there will be baskets of bread on display, and so on. The plan is to have the dining room and bakery all done for 1 October. The bar is closely tied to the private members' club upstairs and that will be next. And that is going to be an interesting journey. It's about us sitting down and thinking "What is a drinking club?", "What is a dive bar?".
We also have the whole top floor which is currently made up of offices. It was where Karl Marx once lived and I'd love to turn it into a series of sitting rooms one day, have people popping Champagne up there and think of Marx turning in his grave.
What have you changed about the food offering?
Well, asking a Frenchman to cook British food is a big ask. I think Jean-Philippe [Patruno, former head chef at Quo Vadis] is an exemplary chef, but British cooking is as singular as regional Italian or regional French and it is really great gutsy cooking.
The menu was huge before - vast! Oh, she was a lovely thing - luxurious, gorgeous, no-expense-spared options. I love being at the receiving end of a menu like that but when it comes to cooking it - urgh, no thanks! We've kept the boxes of dishes that will remain - oysters and pies and steaks - but the rest is a daily changing menu of five starters and five mains.
Rumour has it that you have a vast collection of cookbooks. Are these a constant source of inspiration?
I love books and was lucky to have a mother who had a fabulous collection of cookbooks and the most amazing eye for a recipe. When I was coming up through the ranks, second-hand bookshops were amazing and somehow we could afford things back then. When you're in that kitchen and a boring carrot is going to get chopped up and cooked in butter, suddenly it can become this amazing ingredient.
What are your dessert island cookbooks?
Oh, Elizabeth David's French Provincial, Richard Olney, Julia Child, Ambrose Heath, Anissa Helou's Lebanese Cuisine when you need a ray of sunshine. Can I have a trunk that counts as one item?
You built a reputation at Blueprint Café for the quality of your produce. Have you brought many of your suppliers to Quo Vadis?
Oh yes, all of them. I've been spoilt over the years with my relationships with producers - Neal's Yard Dairy, La Fromagerie, Yorkshire Game, Ben's Fish in East Mersea. A lot of these guys have been with me since I was at Bibendum and a very young man.
At the moment, our herbs come from a Soho character with an enormous garden who asked if we'd like some. That's what I want to do more and more: go straight to the producer and cut the middle man out. It's eminently possible but a lot of work, looking around for word-of-mouth recommendations, and actually more expensive as it's about manpower and delivery.
The menu is reasonable for central London, with starters about £6 and mains about £18. Surely you could get away with charging more?
I hate big prices. You can make your GP - whatever that is - and still have an empty restaurant. What's the point of that? I'd much rather have the place full. Bibendum and Blueprint Café might never have scooped all the accolades but they were much loved and had great crowds, and a lot of great crowds don't have deep pockets. The last thing I want is to be head chef of somewhere you come only if it is your granny's 80th.
So, with 93 seats in the restaurant, is it more about ensuring good volume of custom rather than consistently good GP?
There's a knack to it. Some things don't bear analysis, otherwise you end up doing the same thing every day and nothing would change. That dish will give you 78% - great, but we're all dying of boredom. You want to keep the menu as alive and fresh as possible and that's the skill of a chef, the honing of years on the job. You are defined by your judgement and judged on your judgement.
Has it been hard going from a large company where you are a bit more protected to a smaller operation where you are a bit more vulnerable?
I think that has been the most fascinating thing. Take the Olympics - there was an enormous ask of London restaurants [to soak up the lack of business]. At D&D you might just think "Oh well" and get on with it; here you are in the firing line. I've got to sing for my supper here - if I keep doing that and the restaurant keeps performing, I'll be looked after. But then, it's not rocket science - either you're doing your job or you're not.
It's certainly an interesting challenge in the middle of Soho in the middle of London in the middle of a recession. Wow, this is five years' work - buckle your seatbelts!
Menu of the Year Catey sponsor comment: Quorn Foods
The talent, innovation and originality shown throughout the Menu of the Year category this year was once again phenomenal. In a year when things have been tough for the industry, we were delighted to see true creativity and originality showcased in the menus of the finalists.
The record number shortlisted on the evening goes to show the quality and passion on display this year.
Great value for money and a breath of fresh air for the industry, Quo Vadis is an inspirational winner and should be praised for its wide-ranging and authentic concept.
At Quorn Foods we understand individuality, innovation and the willingness to take a risk and celebrate these attributes across all the entries that were put forward this year.
Quo Vadis and the Hart brothers
A Soho landmark, there has been a restaurant at Quo Vadis since 1926, when Italian Pepino Leoni opened an Italian eatery on the site. Going back further, to the mid-19th century, Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital while living at number 28 (the restaurant now comprises four former town houses knocked together - numbers 26 to 29).
Sam and Eddie Hart - the sons of the hoteliers behind Rutland's Hambleton Hall - bought the site in 2007, adding it to their two other London businesses, Spanish restaurants Fino and Barrafina. Before that it had spent a decade as an Italian in Marco Pierre White's stable of restaurants. The purchase came about purely by chance - with the pair looking for a second site for Barrafina, they ended up in conversation with a property agent about Quo Vadis and the rest is history.
Head chef Jean-Philippe Patruno was replaced by Jeremy Lee at the start of this year. The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive - as well as scooping the Menu of the Year Catey, the restaurant has won plenty of plaudits: Observer critic Jay Rayner claimed that Lee's "killer combination of French technique, an instinct to feed, and a love of the robust over the fancy made it almost perfect".