Café Rouge

Concept Rollout
Café Rouge

European Romance in Every Town

“Be on time, for God’s sake, don’t be late, not because she despises poor punctuality just because her schedule is set so precisely.”

I am early. We arranged to meet at Fernandez and Wells on Duke Street, off the golf sale signs of Oxford Street and, sort of, in the tradesman’s entrance to Mayfair.

Two minutes before we meet I get an e-mail, she is outside in the street, in her car, on a conference call. I try to discreetly scan Duke Street for her car. Looking for something large, luxury and tinted, I see only a tiny, animal print covered, electric GWiz.

On the tick of one thirty she walks in. She apologises for a lateness that does not exist. Writers love to describe people as a tour de force, but it usually means the person simply has quite a loud voice or gestures wildly in communication.

Karen enters a room like a high voltage jolt. As she makes her introductions to me she is poly-tasking – a hello to a barista, a question to counter staff.

“Make sure you record the conversation properly, use a reliable recorder and transcribe it really accurately, not because she is officious or unreasonable, it’s just that she has a really sharp attention to detail.”

Fernandez and Wells is very lovely. It is also, on a weekday lunchtime, very loud. I explain to Karen that recording the conversation may not be possible due to the noise. She waves away the comment like you’d swipe a fly at a picnic.

“Not a problem.” And so we talk.

Karen has flow, not an avalanche of semi-thought words, just a powerful beam that turns sharply and detours and then locks back onto the narrative.

We talk for an hour. Conversation with her is not a waste of time; it collides the profane into the startled face of the profound. It is less chit-chat, and more the unlocking and exploring of a vast creative zone where ideas and possibilities hang like ripe fruit waiting to be plucked and consumed.

She does eye contact. Not the unnerving eye contact that you do well to avoid on public transport, hers is a quietly confident device that holds you exactly where you want to be to hear what she is saying. It’s a very good trick that a lot of people could benefit from learning. I think, though, it is one of those instincts that are impossible to acquire, either you got it or you ain’t, that kind of thing.

Within the hour we weave through and connect Comme Des Garcons, Joan Didion, what hospitality now means, the challenges of living in London for young, creative people, the possible long-term positives of Brexit (she was a passionate Remainer, but is also a champion of democracy), the cast-iron ambition and core strength of creative people, the anticipation of Hedi Slimane at Celine, and the joy she discovered as a waitress at Peppermint Park.

On that one, Karen would have been the absolute best waitress imaginable, though she may blush to hear it. That distillation of efficiency, consideration, humility, charm and a best friend’s invitation to misbehave, would make - must have made - her untouchable. I’d go so far to say should she ever get bored of what she does now (she achieves a lot) she should tie her hair back and get back on the floor, no question.

We also managed to touch on the aesthetics of envy-consumerism whipped up and served by social media, versus the DIY and improvised aesthetics of our 1980’s, and the old version of a social media that consisted of similarly impoverished friends trying to get each other along. The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that came like coffee, with dessert, after the main course of a proper education in being a restaurateur, from working with Peter Langan.

That so much ground gets covered in a single hour hints at the ability and achievement of Karen. Karen sits on the board of Firmeich, and was previously on the board of Cofra for eight year. She has held NED roles at Booker, Corbin & King, ASOS, HBOS plc, Gondola, Virgin Active, emap and the National Theatre.

And then, casually mentioning that Fernandez and Wells is an interest of hers so there will be no bill, she is done, charmingly so. No finger snapping, no dramatic watch checking. Just a kiss, an offer to take home some cake, and a sweet goodbye.

Ain’t that a thing.

The questions I had written never got asked. She wrote a memo to watch the Joan Didion documentary on Netflix. She made me promise to read The Year of Magical Thinking.

I forgot the reason for our meeting. Karen was a client and collaborator of David Collins and the Studio. Café Rouge was her creation. She and David Collins Studio enjoyed an intense and wildly successful relationship as Café Rouge evolved from being a small café-bar group to being a hospitality big hitter. Their collaboration extended to Dome, Oriel and others, bringing a perfect ray of hope to a Britain, and a London, that was still struggling with the notion of an informal, but elegant, idea of eating and drinking.

Karen worked with David Collins Studio on her home. She remains a passionate advocate for the Studio. When she talks of the relationship with both David and the Studio, in the past and of the now, her eyes flash an intense mother-protector warning.

So, the questions get asked by e-mail.

Graham Erickson: Collaborations are great but not for the vain. Ideas often belong to the collaboration and not to the individuals involved. If you are confident and not driven by excessive ego the collaboration is a thrill. What was the single most significant thing you learned from working with David and the Studio?

Karen Jones: Exactly that – the joy of collaboration. Of seeing your own ideas understood and often augmented by others. And it was creative and it was fun.

GE: And what would you think David learned from you?

KJ: Maybe a bit about how to grow a business to begin with – but that didn’t take long!

GE: When did you first, and last, work with David Collins Studio?

KJ: First in about 1990 I think, maybe 1991 and last in about 2009.

GE: How, in the period from when you first worked together until now, have luxury and hospitality changed?

KJ: Well, Café Rouge was never about luxury – it was about comfort and accessibility - and hospitality of course. Hospitality in my view has become less about marble and rare woods and more about appreciation of the quality of what’s on offer and the craftsmanship and story behind that. Pop-ups and street food have helped that. David understood both hospitality and luxury – and he also understood a great sandwich in a tiny backstreet bar in Paris.

GE: I have drifted off in so many meetings where people are pitching for investment. They have a concept, a logo and a possible site, these seem to be critical factors. Is this, in your opinion, how you building-block a great restaurant, or a brand?

KJ: You have to know what you are and the values with which you operate. Clarity of purpose is absolutely fundamental. And you have to love what you are doing. And for restaurants you have to wrap everything in genuine hospitality, always and forever.

GE: On that subject, notionally, what is the purpose, the responsibility, of a restaurant?

KJ: To make every customer leave feeling better than when they came in – and wanting to come back.

GE: Apart from the projects which you had an involvement with, which projects best define the qualities of David Collins Studio?

KJ: The Wolseley and Zedel and Sheekeys.

GE: You asked me where I learned the word “flaneur”, and then said, with pride, that your daughter uses the term “ekphrasis”.

Bad grammar leaks out of the vent on the side of the machine of modern communication and drips into common acceptance. You speak with an odd balance of precision and passion, so, what single word defines David Collins Studio?

KJ: Beauty.

Graham Erickson is a freelance editor and writer living in London.

The photographs shown here are of inconsistent quality, aware of these shortcomings the photographs retain a significance for The Studio, and their gentle poignancy is generous compensation for the fallability.