Lorne: the calm after the storm

'The water was up to our waists': how Lorne survived a flash flood

by Pete Dreyer 07 December 2018

Lorne was a restaurant on the rise until a blocked drain put their kitchen underwater in a matter of hours. Pete Dreyer talks to head chef Pete Hall about the day of the infamous flood, how the restaurant has bounced back, and what it’s like having Pierre Koffmann as a regular.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

‘It was about three o’clock, we had one table left in the restaurant – they had just ordered desserts I think. One of the chefs came up and told me there was a problem in the kitchen – I went down and there was a bit of water on the floor. I was like, 'just mop it up!' He pointed to the drain outside, and the water was gushing out – it was nearly knee-high off the floor.

‘We started trying to catch the water in bins, running upstairs to pour it out into the street in front. In hindsight I think we were just pouring it back into the same drains, so it was just coming back in. Katie was already on the phone to plumbers but no one would come out. We phoned Thames Water, who said that someone was on their way. After about forty-five minutes, the water was up to our waists in the kitchen, so we started to evacuate things that we could save. Fifteen minutes later, we killed all the switches and the fire brigade showed up, and told us not to go back downstairs. All the fridges were underwater. The ovens were underwater. Yeah. It was pretty devastating.’

Sitting in the dining room at Lorne today, you wouldn’t know the restaurant had suffered so much in the last six months. Pete Hall and Katie Exton – a former chef and sommelier at The Square and The River Café respectively – opened Lorne in early 2017 and were flying high until a sudden flash flood derailed their restaurant in May the next year. ‘It was surreal,’ says Pete. ‘We all stayed until about 2am scooping all the water out, then we mopped the floors, sanitised everything – we thought we could be back open by the end of the week!’ In the end, Lorne stayed shut for the next three-and-a-half months. Thames Water rolled into town and condemned the whole kitchen, and the staff had to chuck everything – fridges, cookers and all – straight in the skip.

The team were, understandably, gutted – in just a few hours, years of hard work had gone up in smoke. This could have killed a lesser restaurant, but Pete and Katie are made of sterner stuff, and they had been smart with their money. A lot of the damage was covered by insurance, as was the loss of earnings, which meant that Lorne managed to keep all its staff during the closure. ‘They loved it,’ he laughs. ‘The hottest summer on record and the World Cup was on!’ They were still hit with a considerable bill for repairs though. ‘They said we should have insured the walls and ceilings,’ says Pete with a roll of the eyes. ‘Fortunately the business had been doing well, so we managed to just about cover it.’

Pete Hall and Katie Exton have a great pedigree behind them, but have really come into their own since opening Lorne
After the flood, the dining room was changed slightly, but it remains a very verdant, calming space for lunch or dinner. The kitchen, however, had to be completely gutted and rebuilt from the ground up

When Lorne re-opened in mid-September, Pete and Katie found themselves back at square one. ‘We had literally nothing in the bank,’ says Pete. Three months out of the restaurant rat race had completely cleared out their savings, but also gave the pair a chance to reflect, and they both came to the same realisation. ‘We weren’t really enjoying it,’ he says. ‘It was just stress. I don’t want to end up being a grumpy old chef who hates his job – we came back determined to enjoy ourselves more, and have a bit more fun.’

The community that made Lorne a success the first time around rallied around the restaurant in support too. Andrew Wong – who’s restaurant A Wong is just a few doors down from Lorne – has been a constant source of support, as have the many customers who keep coming back. ‘The amount of support we’ve had has been really humbling,’ says Pete. ‘There’s one guy who often comes in, a local – he offered us a blank cheque! People just rallied around us.’

This is no accident either – spend a bit of time with Pete and Katie, and you realise the friendly atmosphere that permeates the restaurant comes from them. Katie’s role as front-of-house leader is just as important as Pete’s – together they put a huge emphasis on making guests feel welcomed and remembered. ‘We don’t really think about being the best restaurant in London,’ Pete explains. ‘We don’t have the resources for that. But we always want to be people’s favourite restaurant. We want people to come in and know that we recognise and remember them.’ If you have visited before, the team will recommend dishes based on what you enjoyed last time around, or they might send you a taster of something to try. Katie – with her encyclopaedic knowledge of wine – will happily chat through the list and make recommendations based on your previous choices. Lorne is a true neighbourhood restaurant, one that cares about building a relationship with its clientele.

Pete is the driving force behind the food and the menu, but his whole team contributes when it comes to developing dishes
Lorne also regularly takes on cookery school students for up to four weeks, getting them properly involved in the day-to-day activities of the kitchen

If you’re looking for proof, just ask Pierre Koffmann – the legendary chef has become one of Lorne’s most regular regulars, despite seemingly visiting every restaurant in the capital (according to his Instagram account at least). Recalling the first day he came in, Pete says: ‘I was like, 'oh my god, Pierre Koffmann’s here, everything has to be perfect!' Now it’s just like, 'oh, Pierre’s here again'.' He laughs. ‘He’s a real chef’s chef, he just loves food. He’ll often come down to the kitchen and chat to us about the dishes we have on. You can talk to him like a chef, it’s actually really great.’

Pierre isn’t the only legendary chef who frequents Lorne regularly – Phil Howard also stops in from time to time to visit the team. In between stints at The Star Inn at Harome and the now three-Michelin-starred Benu in San Francisco, Pete spent four years at The Square alongside Phil and a powerhouse brigade of chefs that included Gary Foulkes, Rob Weston, Ross Gibbons, Mark Kempson and Dan Fletcher. ‘I still speak to all of them,’ he says. ‘Looking back, it was a juggernaut of a kitchen, there was so much talent in one place.’ After Pete left The Square, he and Katie approached Phil for investment, and Phil backed the pair. ‘He pops in pretty often,’ says Pete of his old mentor-turned-investor. ‘He’s been really supportive, especially during the flood.’

There are clear echoes of Pete’s time at The Square in his cooking at Lorne. Dishes like chestnut gnocchi, hen’s egg, trompette, Parmesan and autumn truffle, and a stunning chocolate dessert with feuilletine, hazelnut and raisin have obvious classical underpinnings, as does much of the menu – but there are interesting twists and turns through each course. Dishes like mackerel with salsify, kohlrabi, beer scraps and shiso, and duck liver with spiced kumquat, smoked eel and wood sorrel show off Pete’s inventive streak and willingness to stray from the beaten path.

‘The principles of how we construct a dish, how we build flavour, how we work – that all comes from The Square,’ says Pete. ‘The dishes themselves are very much our own.’ The beauty of working with a small menu – just five starters, mains and desserts – is that Lorne can stay adaptable and hyper-seasonal. Rather than requesting specifics from their suppliers, Pete and his team take whatever is at its best and construct dishes around that. ‘It’s a nice way of working,’ says Pete. ‘At the end of the night, we all stand around the table in the middle of the kitchen, look at what we have coming in the next day, and think about what dishes we can put together for tomorrow’s menu.’

With the restaurant thriving again and Christmas firmly in the headlights, it’s odd to think that Lorne could very easily not be here. It’s a reminder that no matter how talented you are and how well you’re doing, running a restaurant in London is a fragile business – it just takes a freak occurrence to bring everything to a crashing halt. So many restaurants sink under the rising overheads every year, but for Pete and Katie, there was never any question they would re-open – the flood was merely a hurdle, and a chance for a fresh start. I ask Pete how he feels about things now, and he shrugs: ‘We’re back open, and we’re busier than we’ve ever been. That three months gave us all a chance to reflect on things. I wouldn't wish it on anyone, but taking positives out of it has been a good experience to go through. And – touch wood – we’ve come out stronger than ever.’