From Ireland to London, from Fulham to Soho, from Soho to Mayfair, in his 33 years as a leading London chef and restaurateur, Richard Corrigan has seen it all: haute cuisine, nouvelle cuisine, molecular gastronomy. But there is an emerging food trend that has been bubbling away behind the scenes and it’s one that Corrigan has championed from the very start: British regional produce. Richard used the term seventeen years ago and a leading London critic laughed at him. Now, it’s a buzzword. Our editor went to meet the forefather of Britain’s most important food movement to date.
Lindsay House was a Soho institution; a charismatic, creaking 18th century townhouse in a quiet and somewhat seedy backstreet, serving home-grown produce from all over the British Isles. Richard has now moved his flagship operation into Mayfair at the rear of Grosvenor House which is already causing quite a stir with the locals. Add to his portfolio the famous Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill around the corner on Swallow Street, cooking high quality regional produce in simple and sympathetic dishes, and you begin to paint a picture of a man for whom the ingredients that he puts on the plate are rather more important than a fancy pattern created with a dribble of sauce.
Corrigan grew up on a farm in County Meath, Ireland, a wholesome environment that taught him about the importance of fine basic ingredients. “I have a love of pure food, which people call organic food. It’s formed a huge part of my life. It’s how I was brought up and I really want to live it as well. That environment has a big impact on you, the vegetable gardens, the orchards, but let’s not take it to a romantic notion about how idealistic and beautiful it is; we ate like kings but there was very little cash around our business. We were cash poor but rich in every other way.
“The reality of farming in Ireland at the time was changing from a subsistence level to a more professional level and when we sold off part of our holding in 1977 it represented the end of an era – all those little subsistence farms that Ireland was covered in from the 1800s onwards – it had finished. But that’s still where my heart is so don’t be surprised if you see a Corrigan’s farm in Ireland. I didn’t go into farming to end up in the kitchen, but that doesn’t mean I won’t end up on a farm. In fact I’m in talks at the moment about buying a small farm that will supply the business.”
Corrigan takes the philosophy of sourcing British produce to a deeper level than perhaps any other restaurateur in London, supporting a home-grown industry that has always struggled economically but is finally gaining some momentum thanks to the championing by chefs like Corrigan and television programmes such as Great British Menu, on which Corrigan has been a regular presence over the years. “About 90% of everything in my restaurant is UK sourced; I only buy from farmers in the UK. Giving the farmers back the money that we make means an awful lot to me. I really don’t want a French chicken in my restaurant, I feel very strongly about that. We only serve British or Irish cheese here and our butter is made in Lincolnshire; they make it every two weeks and send it down to London. I only want produce from this land on the table.”
At the heart of this approach is recognition of the dedicated producers who make up the vibrant food scene in the UK. “I’m a great believer in the people out there. To make great food, to allow great food to happen, you need some really passionate people involved from the farming and country environment, and I think that all the regional movements in food are coming good for these people who’ve worked very hard, paddling their own canoe for an awfully long time. It’s made the whole food scene much more interesting. Britain is climbing and climbing, there’s no question about that. I think the new interest in food is phenomenal, there’s an understanding that there are regional variations between different areas here and Britain is feeling at ease with itself. And once that interest sinks down to every level then we will know that someone has achieved something.”
At Bentley’s, for example, Richard cuts out the middlemen at Billingsgate Market and buys directly from the fishermen. “Bentley’s Oyster Bar is such a brilliant operation, it really is. It’s very much a pure, natural food environment and that’s how I want to keep it. I want to keep the chef’s ego out of that place as much as possible. We don’t serve farmed fish there. We boil the crab, we pick at it, we don’t get it pasteurised in a plastic bag. And that’s the difference and it means a lot to me.”
Richard’s food is diverse and Corrigan’s Mayfair is a platform of skill and imagination in the kitchen with a menu that changes frequently, supporting the idea of working closely with producers to provide customers with seasonal food and dishes that adapt to the environment rather than buying produce from overseas to suit a particular dish that a chef has dreamed up. “Here at Corrigan’s it’s a bit more ambitious. We allow a little more creativity. But it’s wild food in season. I want people to come here more than once every two months. I want this to be a place where people can pop in and have half a dozen oysters at the bar, or maybe just have two starters and then move on. But it’s beautiful craft, not something that’s been made two hours ago.”
Lindsay House had a Michelin star that Richard handed back when he moved into Mayfair, but the new restaurant has already been winning accolades left, right and centre and this is a testament to Richard’s consistent and eagle-eyed management style. “Winning the Decanter Restaurant of the Year was great, I was very happy with that. It brought in so many different types of customers and it just shows you that any accolade or award that a restaurant gets is an important part of its evolution.”
Despite being in the heart of Mayfair, Corrigan is determined that his new venue stands apart from the neighbouring restaurants. “We could have easily turned this into an ultra fine-dining restaurant and been another totally predictable upmarket venue in Mayfair, but you can come here and have a three course meal and a glass of wine for £27 and I defy anyone to come into Mayfair and eat that well at that price. I want to have a happy place, not extortionate, where people can come and have a good time. And that’s what a restaurant is. It’s a meeting place, about getting together and sharing and communicating. It’s not about some chef with a huge ego in his kitchen.”
As a farmer’s son, Richard is an embodiment of the best of both worlds of catering; a business brain combined with a deep respect of produce from the land. He expects his staff to have the same passion, intelligence and sympathy for their craft as he does, and this is an attitude that many leading chefs in the capital have in common, to the benefit of us all. “I’ve eaten crap all over the place and you know when you get a good restaurant, they really care about what they’re doing. That’s why food in London is so good and exciting; there are lots of restaurants who really do care. Londoners support people who’ve worked hard in London and long may that continue.”
This summer Corrigan’s Mayfair are offering luxury picnic hampers that you can enjoy across the road in Hyde Park or wherever takes your fancy, containing a selection of British seasonal produce including country terrine, sliced roast beef, honey-glazed gammon and freshly cooked breads. There will be seasonal berries such as British strawberries served with lemon curd or raspberries with lavender cream. A half bottle of white or red wine will also accompany the higher tiered basket. Prices are £45 and £75. For more information, please visit the restaurant’s website.