“I’m not French. I haven’t lived in Italy. My grandmother is not Italian,” says Chef Jess Shadbolt, listing some of the reasons why her restaurant King is named, matter-of-factly, after the street on which it is located. Along with fellow River Cafe vet Clare de Boer and Annie Shi — a Clove Club alum who looks after the dining room — she has helped shape this once-sleepy stretch of New York’s SoHo into what the team lovingly refers to as the #6thAvenueRiviera.
As she prepares for lunch service, I ask Jess how three-year-old King, run by three former Londoners, has come to find its place in the New York dining landscape. First she regaled me with stories of a childhood spent in the south of France; of bouillabaisse with grandparents and pissaladière at the beach. But what struck me the most over the course of our conversation was the remarkable humility that forms the foundation of this very special restaurant.
A minute ago, as we discussed some highlights of the trips to London we’ve each taken this year, I noticed your face lit up when I mentioned Tomos [Parry, of BRAT].
Yes, Tomos was at the River Cafe at the same time I was! He was in the kitchen and I was working as Ruth Rogers’ and Rose Gray’s assistant back in those days.
Very cool. Have you had his food lately?
Funny thing is, I have been sending our guests there ever since it opened because I knew it would be special. But I wasn’t able to go myself until this summer. It was a very short trip and I only had the opportunity for one meal out. He’d already been open for 2 years. [laughs]
And what did you think of it?
His cooking is like a laser, very delicious, very bold. Our restaurants focus on very different cuisines, but in fact, the approach is similar. It’s almost like there is a cotton thread that connects people when you work together somewhere, especially in the kitchen. You can be anywhere around the world and you will still feel it. By now, the River Cafe has a million threads spread across the globe. What they instill in you there is something that never leaves you.
Which is what, exactly?
That perhaps it’s braver to do less on the plate. I remember this amazing serving there of broad beans and pecorino. And that was a dish, you know — two ingredients. There’s nothing to distract you.
With this approach, how do you and Clare go about composing a given dish here at King?
Well, on a salad, for instance, I feel like a lot of chefs try to put everything: crunchy, salty, sweet, and so on. We prefer to look at the menu holistically, to balance it in that way. Maybe there’s one dish that — on its own — feels more delicate, clean, curious. Perhaps another is big, bold, luxurious, indulgent. Both have their place in the meal, even if neither, individually, has all of those elements.
In his New York Times review, I remember Pete Wells joking that this restaurant can be summarized simply as “some food, a plate, a room.” Obviously the sum of those parts is so much more. But what did you make of that comment?
I think he said it perfectly! We aren’t trying to show off. There is a straightforwardness in everything we do. Wicker seats and paper laid over the tables. Each plate is a simple canvas for just a few ingredients that we think are incredibly tasty.
All along, we wanted to create a restaurant that represented a European way of eating. But we aren’t trying to emulate a restaurant in France or Italy, or even back home in London. We just shoot for deliciousness. That’s all. That’s it.