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Nico Ladenis: A self-taught master who only ever did things his way

Uncompromising: Nico Ladenis in his kitchen  (Rex Features)
Uncompromising: Nico Ladenis in his kitchen (Rex Features)

Time is a filter that warps. It’s often repeated that the first British chef to win three Michelin stars was Marco Pierre White, but he didn’t cross the finish line alone: in 1995, the guide that year awarded two restaurants run by Brits the highest accolade — one was White’s, the other was Park Lane’s Chez Nico, run by Nico Ladenis. Ladenis died yesterday, aged 89.

While White was lauded for his youth — he was just 33 at the time — Ladenis arguably had the more impressive boast: he was entirely self-taught. Few chefs of his calibre ever are.

Born in Tanganyikan and of Greek descent, Ladenis had never trained as he’d never planned to cook. Armed with an economics degree, and with a few years in the gas and oil industry in him, the gig he was gunning for was one with Shell. They told him he wasn’t a company man — given his incandescent temper, perhaps they were right — and so Ladenis, having helped a pal open a restaurant, headed to France with his wife Dinah-Jane. They lived for a year dining out for lunch and supper. That was 1972; in ‘73, aged 37, he opened Chez Nico on Lordship Lane, Dulwich. It was far more expensive than anything else around; it was also immediately full.

It was one of those restaurants — like Le Gavroche — that changed the way the British ate, that stirred spice into the staid London dining scene. It was not just the food, which was classically French (Ladenis apparently taught himself using Masterpieces of French Cuisine by Francis Amunategui); it was his uncompromising attitude.

“The customer is not always right,” he insisted. In the box where the menu had once been, Ladenis put in a sign: “We do not serve prawn cocktails, steak well-done and we only serve lamb pink — if you want to see our menu, read the reviews.” Those who did not abide by the rules were berated, or booted out.

A shot from the early days, outside Chez Nico (PA)
A shot from the early days, outside Chez Nico (PA)

And rules there were. Famously, no diner could have a second G&T — lest they numb their palate — get the lighting altered, or ask for salt. If he didn’t like a diner’s posture, he’d give the legs of their chair a little kick, so they’d sharpen up. No-shows were put in their place, too. “It made him think of the times when he used to ring people up at home after service, at one or two in the morning,” Ladenis’s daughter told Giles Coren, “to ask them if they still wanted their table or if he could let the staff go home now.”

Chez Nico moved around — first to Battersea, where he picked up his first star — but the rules remained. Critics came and went; Ladenis did not change for them. “There was a time when, if I saw AA Gill in my restaurants, I would have ejected him,” he told the Standard in 2001. It wasn’t just Gill. “You know I once said to one of his inspectors, ‘Tell Egon Ronay to drop dead.’” he said. “And to be honest, the invitation is still open.”

His fearsome reputation did not deter guests — it was considered part of the experience — and nor did it affect the talent who wished to work with him. Those who trained under Ladenis include Marco Pierre White, Jason Atherton, Jeff Galvin, Björn Frantzén, Jun Tanaka and Paul Flynn. “I spent nine of my most formative years with him. He continues to have an influence on my cooking and career,” said Flynn. “I’m grateful to have had those years of experience in one of the most elite kitchens of its time.”

He used to ring people up at home after service, at one or two in the morning to ask them if they still wanted their table or if he could let the staff go home now

Such was Ladenis’s fame that his influence made him a hero even to those who didn’t know him directly. “The chefs he trained really did make a difference, and even though I never met my hero, that didn’t mean I didn’t benefit from his years of hard work,” wrote Jamie Oliver on Instagram. “In recent years, he very kindly reached out to me and I guess you would say we became penpals.”

In short, Ladenis had a way with food that chefs wanted to learn.

It was that way that, after other restaurants including Pimlico’s more bistro-like Simply Nico, saw him achieve the pinnacle of cheffing. Chez Nico at 90 Park Lane was awarded the full five rosettes from the AA, a rare 10/10 in the Good Food Guide, and the full three stars in the Michelin Guide.

It kept them until Ladenis decided he’d had enough. In 1999, he asked the guide to no longer include his restaurants, in effect “handing back” his stars (White famously did the same, at the same time).

“People don’t want stars anymore. The day of expensive restaurants is over,” Ladenis said at the time. “Simple cooking gives me more enjoyment, and that’s the way people want to eat. I’ve made the restaurant more democratic and friendly.”

While it may have been true — and two more relaxed spots came in Incognico and Deca — later he announced he’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and retired from his restaurants in 2003, handing the business over to his daughter.

Ladenis’s restaurants may now have shut, but they changed how this country saw food. His temper may have made his name, but his food is what secured his reputation. Here’s to Nico Ladenis, who said he knew better than his customers, and turned out to be right.