Serge et le Phoque, from the duo behind the Hong Kong restaurant with the same name, is opening in The Mandrake hotel on Newman Street this month. Restaurateur and chef, Frédéric – Fred – Peneau and designer, Charles Pelletier have teamed up with hotelier Rami Fustok on the project, which has, according to Peneau “been five years in the making.” The space, inside the 34-bedroom hotel, will include a 58-cover restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner (and weekend brunch), a 16-cover private dining room and three bars.
The restaurant is scheduled to open mid-late August, with no date yet specified. Eater London was given a first-look at the building site and spoke with the duo about their past, what it means to be a chef and an operator and the plans for their London debut.
“Something cool is happening in London,” Peneau says of his new home. “There’s more freestyle — I feel more freedom, rock ‘n’ roll.” Peneau was part of the team, together with chef Iñaki Aizpitarte, who opened Le Chateaubriand in 2006 in Paris — a seminal restaurant that came to define the neo-bistro — at the vanguard of the bistronomy movement in Paris. That was, in short, a restaurant that did not show fealty to the formal conventions of (French) gastronomy; a freewheeling, irreverent environment for ‘fine dining’. It was a restaurant — and an idea — that was almost by definition anti-Michelin; ignored by the Red Guide, but which raced to number seven in the World’s 50 Best. It was a game-changer.
Remembering his time as the proprietor of his first restaurant, Cafe Burq in Montmartre, Paris, Peneau says that sometimes he was chef, sometimes behind the bar, always patron. “I still feel I’m not a professional, but I’m successful,” he says casually. He’s always chosen a different way.
“People call me ‘chef’, but I am not a chef. I am a restaurateur — I know what I like and I know what I don’t like. I love to create places, make them going up,” Peneau says of his form for getting businesses of the ground. “[After Le Chateaubriand] Le Dauphin was my baby. But I got tired, so I sold everything.” Pelletier, a friend from his Cafe Burq days, was living in Bali, where Peneau went to visit. The plan was to buy a beach. They found one before quickly realising that developing it would be a stretch to far and so went to Hong Kong for a weekend to explore opportunities there. Fast-forward a couple of years and they were the successful duo behind the only Michelin-starred restaurant in the world where guests had to walk through a car park to the bathroom. (The name was given to the restaurant by Peneau’s son, Serge, who permitted the use of his name only if they added et le phoque — ‘and the seal’. Why? Because the other was called le dauphin — ‘ the dolphin’.)
Of the project in Hong Kong, Peneau says, “I could not repeat [Le Chateaubriand and Le Dauphin]. We had to invent another story. We were in China — very inspired by Asia. All this mix created Serge et le Phoque. We’re now in London so it’s going to be another story. I don’t know yet. I have my ideas. It’s good to be inspired by your environments. I love to mix [different cuisines] — then you create a new kind of cuisine, it brings a new singularity.”
“We still have to write the story,” Pelletier adds. They don’t say it themselves, but the three words that appear to underpin their stories are, appropriately, liberté, égalité and fraternité.
“London is booming. It’s the city in the world. People are going for it,” Pelletier says, referencing, with awe, “the 24-, 25-year-olds at Perilla [in Newington Green.]” The two also talk about having eaten excellent meals — “the best Indian [sic] meal of my life at Hoppers” — at Lyle’s, Clove Club and The Ledbury. And when asked how they, as Parisians, are going to adapt to a new London restaurant scene that has in large part been invigorated by what the likes of they started in France, Peneau quips, “We’re going to try and cook some pie.” But the duo do seem aware of their environment and of the competition in London. “Don’t be too expensive,” the chef self-instructs. “We get good products so we can’t be super cheap but it’s going to be good value for money.”
As well as humour and a generally laid back attitude towards the very notion of restaurants and their role, Peneau, as a chef, seems to be defined by spontaneity. Despite being in the company of the pair for over an hour, it was difficult to gain any kind of clarity on the kind of food that will be on the menu in London. But, like Serge et le Phoque in Hong Kong is inspired by the ingredients and flavours of China, their London restaurant will use British ingredients — “the quality has improved so much” — as well as import from France and Italy. One infers that, even if only vaguely, it will belong to the modern European tradition, more than anything else — where innovation, plurality of influence and seasonality direct the kitchen. Peneau, even his train of thought, comes across as a restless creative. It’s easy to imagine that the restaurant will be malleable, always evolving.
But Peneau is eager to impress upon his audience that it’s not all about him. “I’m fed up with the super-communication of chefs. It’s teamwork. I don’t mind to be a star. I don’t want [that].”
Even if he will be the chef in London, he wants the restaurant to take precedence:
“We’re doing Serge et le Phoque. And I hope it’s going to be Serge et le Phoque. The champagne is good, the wine is good. Everything is going to be good. And it’s a restaurant in a hotel that’s cool. We don’t give a shit about who’s doing it. Just Serge et le Phoque — it’s a good restaurant. Come to eat at the restaurant — fini. [Historically guests] were going to nice restaurants — nobody knew the chef. I would love to create that because I’m pissed off watching chefs on the TV shows and they don’t cook any more. I say that I’m not a chef but I think there are very famous chefs that are not chefs either like me.”
“It’s becoming too much of a business instead of trade,” Pelletier adds. There’s no doubting they’re very much in the business themselves but in age where restaurants are too often derivative and the industry is increasingly at risk of homogeneity, operators who are trying to do something different — something a little more lighthearted and fun — ought to be allowed to tell their story. Just expect twists in the plot.
Serge et le Phoque will be open all day for breakfast, lunch and dinner; brunch at the weekend — until 10.30pm every day, excluding Sundays when it closes at 9pm. There are 3 bars on site: The Waeska Bar (hotel bar open to the public; until midnight), Serge Bar (for restaurant guests; until 10.30pm), and Jurema Bar (on the hotel’s first floor terrace; midnight Mon-Weds; 12.30am Thurs-Sat; 10pm Sun.) The Mandrake Hotel 20 - 21 Newman Street, London W1T 1PG