Notting Hill’s latest top restaurant also has its best-named restaurateur. Wolfe Conyngham talks about confounding expectations and taking chances
I’ve never interviewed anyone called Wolfe before. Come to think of it, I’ve never met anyone called Wolfe before. And so meeting Wolfe Conyngham at his new Notting Hill restaurant, I had odd visions of meeting either some uber-hipster, complete with beard the size of an Old Testament prophet and more tattoos than skin, or alternatively some near-feral figure who whispered frighteningly while holding a blood-stained knife. And so, when I was greeted by a pleasant and charming chap in his mid-thirties, casually clad in a stylish T-shirt and jeans, it proved something of a relief – if a slight disappointment, too.
His eponymous restaurant has a decent claim to being one of the most stylish in the area. With 19th-century preserved ferns on stripped plaster walls, and a proper old bar in the corner, it feels like an upmarket version of many East End restaurants. Wolfe estimates that the average spend is ‘about £60’ per person; which is fairly reasonable when compared to other pricey restaurants in the area offering similar high-standard cuisine. The chef is understandably proud of the near-Mediterranean feeling that his establishment has, all the more so because when he took the site on, it was a rather run-down Thai restaurant on the verge of closing (‘I first saw the owner outside in the street, and he said “I hate this restaurant!”’).
Wolfe, the younger son of none other than Henry Mount Charles, 8th Marquess Conyngham – the so-called ‘rock ‘n’ roll peer’ – has worked as a chef for years. After studying at the prestigious Leiths cookery school, he has been in environments ranging from grand private houses to pubs. Opening his own place has been both a natural progression and a gamble, as he explains. ‘I’d become a father, and so I had more at stake, but I wanted to have my own place. There’s a lot riding on this, as I’ve literally put in every penny that I’ve got; I can’t afford marketing or PR or interior decoration, which means that I’ve had to do it all myself.’ Nonetheless, this absence of external pressure means that he’s able to have complete autonomy when it comes to running the restaurant his way. ‘We have a small menu, which changes every day, with an emphasis on simplicity and high-quality ingredients. We don’t have a concept – I’m just serving what I’d like to eat. My biggest influences are mainly female chefs like Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David, but we’ve got Asian, Spanish and Italian influences.’ He admits he’s easily bored, ‘I’ve got to change things constantly, but we make a point of making everything in-house. Apart from the salt and pepper. And the milk.’ I resist the urge to make a dreadful pun about cows and wolf(e)s not being a good combination.
The restaurant first came to public notice shortly after its opening, thanks to a glowing review by the doyenne of food critics, Fay Maschler, and Wolfe’s hugely grateful for the publicity, especially as he hasn’t gone down the time-honoured route of having legions of bloggers trooping in to Instagram, Twitter and lord-knows-what- else their food. ‘Since Fay’s review appeared, the phone’s been ringing constantly and we’re already building up a bit of a regular clientele, which is great. One couple are even coming from Australia in August, and have booked their table already, which is amazing!’ However, he’s also aware that the restaurant’s still a work in progress and that finding the right staff, especially, has been been difficult at times.
Maschler mentioned one of them being ‘an understudy for the intern in the series W1A’, and I’d bet that, judging by Wolfe’s slightly strained smile when I mention this, he is one of the people who will no longer be spending their evenings chez Wolfe. ‘I’ve had some problems with getting people completely on board, certainly, and one of the problems that we have is that we don’t have a French or Italian attitude towards service. If you look at Michel Roux Jr and Le Gavroche – and I know that’s the top level – everyone there is genuinely proud to be working there.
‘But what we have so often is someone coming in, doing it for a few shifts, deciding it’s not for them, and going off again. I’m very patient with my staff, and I always say “It’s fine to make mistakes, just put your hands up and say ‘It’s me’.” But what’s no good is having the wrong attitude.’
Wolfe, certainly, appears to have the right attitude towards his customers. While he knows some very famous people indeed, the only name dropped during our conversation is his friend and our very own food columnist Tom Parker Bowles, who lives locally, and who presumably will be an honoured guest when he visits the restaurant, even though Wolfe claims ‘everyone gets treated just the same, regardless of who they are’. Although he claims that the six months it’s taken to get the restaurant up and running has ‘completely removed’ his social life, Wolfe mentions Brett Graham and the nearby Ledbury as being one of his favourite spots to pop in to, along with the much-acclaimed Bird in Hand pub in Brook Green, where he currently lives.
And, finally, how did he get his unusual name? He laughs, with a refreshing lack of irritation at a well-worn question. ‘My father was always a great admirer of General Wolfe, who won a famous victory over the Canadians in the 18th-century, and so I was named after him.’ He smirks. ‘The irony is that all of my siblings have got perfectly normal names, such as Alexander and Henrietta – it’s just me who has got the eccentric one!’ Still, his talking-point moniker is fitting for his beguiling restaurant. This Wolfe doesn’t need sheep’s clothing to enjoy what should be a long and fruitful success.
29 All Saints Road W11 1HE, 020 7985 0831, firstname.lastname@example.org; wolfe.london
Words: Alexander Larman