The GRAND dame

Food and Travel (UK) - - Chefs -

Theatre­land’s lead­ing lady The Ivy cel­e­brates her hun­dredth

birth­day this year. Mark San­som gets be­hind the scenes

North Lon­don-born Gary Lee has been with The Ivy since 2007, and be­came ex­ec­u­tive chef in 2011. He lives in Waltham­stow with his part­ner Megs and their three girls. He boxes three times a week and is a keen cy­clist. He first joined Caprice Hold­ings in 2000, at Le Caprice un­der Mark Hix.

There are some build­ings that are greater than the sum of their parts. The art speaks vol­umes, staff keep se­crets and if walls had ears, you can only imag­ine the tales they could tell. The peo­ple who move through them are part of a cast, each play­ing a role, a cus­to­dian of the build­ing’s his­tory.

The Ivy – ar­guably the most fa­mous restau­rant in the world – is one such place. Cel­e­brat­ing a cen­te­nary this year at its art deco site in Covent Gar­den, it took time to build the rep­u­ta­tion it has to­day. From small acorns huge oaks grow, and on open­ing in 1917 as a small café, founder Abel Gian­dolini was un­likely to con­sider what his fledg­ling en­ter­prise would be­come.

As men fought in the First World War, the restau­rant be­gan to find its path and de­fine its fu­ture. The story of its name is the per­fect par­a­digm of the UK’s spirit at the time. As Gian­dolini apol­o­gised to one of his reg­u­lars, ac­tor Alice Delysia, for dis­rup­tion in the din­ing room, she replied quot­ing lyric from a pop­u­lar song of the day: ‘We will al­ways come to see you, we will cling to­gether like the ivy.’ Another world war, 23 prime min­is­ters and eight re­ces­sions later, like Lon­don­ers’ re­solve, the name has stayed strong and true.

An ed­i­ble ethos

At the core of ev­ery­thing is the restau­rant’s food. It’s moved with the times and doffs a cap to trends and the con­tem­po­rary, but it’s tra­di­tion and con­sis­tency that keep guests com­ing back. Dishes such as shep­herd’s pie, sausage and mash and Dover sole me­u­nière are the stuff of leg­end, while more re­cently, the likes of bang bang chicken, scal­lops with sticky pork and wa­ter­melon duck salad have taken up the ba­ton and kept the menu rel­e­vant and cool.

Over­see­ing it all is The Ivy’s ex­ec­u­tive chef Gary Lee. This year he cel­e­brates a decade in charge of the kitchen – an an­niver­sary that chimes nicely with that of the restau­rant – and no one un­der­stands the na­ture of ste­ward­ship bet­ter than he. ‘Work­ing here, you’ve got to un­der­stand the syn­op­sis be­hind the build­ing,’ he says. ‘It’s not me, you, or any­one else that made the foun­da­tion. It ex­ists to­day as it al­ways has been.’

‘I defy any­one to come here and say they don’t like any­thing on the menu,’ he chal­lenges. ‘There has to be some­thing on there that you want to eat, and that’s how I see my job. I don’t want my name above the door, I’m not fussed about Miche­lin stars; I just want to pro­duce food that ap­peals to ev­ery­body.’

‘I’ve got a menu in my of­fice from 1956, and some­times I just stare at it. It re­minds me what we are and what we’re

do­ing. We might have beau­ti­ful linen ta­ble cloths and some of the best-dressed staff in the busi­ness, but there can also be a bot­tle of ketchup or Lea & Per­rins on the ta­ble,’ he says. ‘Some restau­rants make you feel like you can’t have that. Ba­si­cally, if I’ve got the in­gre­di­ents in the kitchen, I’ll make any­thing that you want.’

In­deed, the pun­ters keep flood­ing back. As pho­tos from The Ivy’s 100-year past (see p19) will at­test, the celebri­ties come out in force. Daniel Craig, Kate Moss and Tom Cruise count them­selves as reg­u­lars, and as a new star is born, it’s the first reser­va­tion they want. ‘Sure, we get the stars, young and old,’ Lee says with a toothy grin. ‘If you’ve been a reg­u­lar here for 30 years, you’ll recog­nise your shep­herd’s pies and dressed crabs on the menu, but now you’re bring­ing your son or daugh­ter, they don’t want to eat like that. They want sashimi, they want beet­root, they want grains and pulses – they don’t want to eat like you, but they do want the level of ser­vice that you’ve al­ways banged on about.’

Home from home

Lee man­ages a kitchen serv­ing around 3,000 cus­tomers a week. Some ser­vices run to more than 300 cov­ers, and he caters for break­fast, lunch and din­ner. His life tells a sim­i­lar story of fre­netic pace, and per­haps ex­plains why he looks so damn chilled about the whole op­er­a­tion. ‘I grew up in a chil­dren’s home in Ching­ford [north-east Lon­don] aged eight to 18. It was a che­quered time,’ he ad­mits. ‘There were 12 of us in the home, all black kids. There was never any trou­ble in there, but as soon as you stepped out into the streets, you had to be able look af­ter your­self. I learnt from a young age that noth­ing was go­ing to be given to me.’

‘But that house taught me struc­ture. It taught me how to look af­ter my­self, ask for things, keep clean. It sounds ba­sic, but when you’ve not got a mum or dad to tell you that kind of stuff, who do you learn it from? I owe that place a lot. I really do.’ It’s the only time in the in­ter­view that Lee’s Cheshire cat grin falls from his face and his boom­ing laugh doesn’t echo around the room.

‘Food res­cued me. It meant that I could do some­thing peo­ple ac­tu­ally liked me for and it didn’t mat­ter about the colour of my skin. I wanted to please peo­ple, and quickly re­alised I could do it through my cook­ing.’

Lee knew on his 16th birth­day that he’d be out on his own. Bills, a roof over his head and food on the ta­ble would be his own re­spon­si­bil­ity. He needed an in­come, fast. Cue ca­ter­ing col­lege in the day and a stream of low-grade cook­ing jobs in the evening. ‘I worked in a carvery pro­duc­ing 18 dif­fer­ent sal­ads and at a grill where they’d sell 300 steaks a night. I learnt to work fast and work ef­fi­ciently.’

The 1980s marked the start of his ‘real’ ca­reer. ‘I went to a restau­rant in Tower Bridge and met the chef, a guy in his Since open­ing in 1917, The Ivy has been through six own­er­ships: Abel Gian­dellini, Bernard Walsh, Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, Caprice Hold­ings and Richard Car­ing, who bought Caprice Hold­ings in 2005. This photo shows the din­ing room in the 1940s, just af­ter the Sec­ond World War. Orig­i­nal maitre d’ Mario Gal­lati left in 1947 to set up Le Caprice in com­pe­ti­tion with Gian­dolini. The restau­rants were at log­ger­heads be­fore Caprice Hold­ings united the two. Also in the restau­rant group are Daphne’s, Scott’s, Sexy Fish, 34 May­fair, J Sheekey, Le Caprice, Riv­ing­ton Shored­itch and Riv­ing­ton Green­wich. YEL­LOWFIN TUNA NI­COISE

An Ivy twist on the tra­di­tional French salad. The in­clu­sion of Span­ish Or­tiz an­chovies gives an added umami di­men­sion.

Above: Sa­man­tha Bond and Sir Derek Ja­cobi; Alan Carr and Kylie; the fa­cade; Ja­son Statham and Vin­nie Jones; Emma Thomp­son and Greg Wise; Tom Cruise and Ni­cole Kid­man. Be­low right: Anna Win­tour and Kate Moss; Allen Leach, Phylis Lo­gan, Gary Lee and Liz McGovern

‘Food res­cued me. It meant that I could do some­thing peo­ple ac­tu­ally liked me for and it didn’t mat­ter about the colour of my skin. I wanted to please peo­ple, and quickly re­alised I could do it through my cook­ing.’ Gary Lee

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