Larry Jayasekara on why The Cocochine is not just another high-end restaurant

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Chef Larry Jayasekara on his new Mayfair restaurant The Cocochine

Related tags Larry Jayasekara The Cocochine Fine dining Mayfair Gordon ramsay group

Phone bookings only, bespoke menus on demand, original Andy Warhols on the walls… this is Mayfair dining but not as you know it.

This restaurant has been an unusually long time in the making. How does it feel to finally open the doors?

I’m simultaneously excited and nervous. The team is gelling together well. I anticipate that in four to six weeks it will all come together like a jigsaw. This restaurant has been a long time coming to the point that it has sometimes felt like a daydream. I first started looking at sites in 2018. But I’m good at keeping myself busy. During the pandemic I cooked 247,000 meals for the NHS. More recently, we have had our hands full launching The Rex Delicatessen (across the road from The Cocochine) and have also been working on the menu and doing private dinners in our nearby development kitchen.   

Why has it taken so long to get The Cocochine off the ground?

It took a long time to find this site (on Mayfair’s Bruton Place). The location needed to be close to Hamiltons Gallery (owned by Jaskara’s high-profile backer Tim Jefferies) which narrowed the search. The building was not a restaurant previously, so we had to pretty much rebuild it. We then suffered two big, unexpected delays. First, there was not enough electricity, which took about six months to put right. Then, just as we were about to put the final touches to the site last October, Thames Water dug up the road and flooded a nearby office. This led to the road being closed for another six months, meaning that we could not get our furniture into the restaurant.

The Cocochine is striving to do things differently from other high-end restaurants…

We are trying to make The Cocochine a more attractive place to work than most small, high-end restaurants in London. We own a total of four buildings on the street. That means we are able to have a staff canteen and male and female changing rooms with showers. The main kitchen is also very high spec with lots of natural light. No expense was spared. I want my team to feel like this is their home. I also don’t want to serve the same dishes as other chefs. Most of my inspiration comes from my travels and my ingredients - some are sourced from our farm in Northamptonshire but we also using top-end ingredients from all over the world.

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Are there any influences from your home country Sri Lanka?

There are a few in the deli, but my career has seen me travel all over the world. I was in Norway recently and came across shikabushi (smoked reindeer heart) so we’re using that in one of the snacks, it’s similar to smoked bacon. My launch menu includes otoro tuna with Japanese soy and golden Oscietra caviar; hand-dived Orkney Island scallop with pumpkin, pickled strawberry and elderflower sauce; Poulet de Bresse chicken with leek, morel mushrooms and jus gras; and Rowler Estate quince and vinegar tart with Tosi gorgonzola.

You only take bookings via phone. Why is that?

We like old school hospitality. If we actually speak to someone, we can find out things like whether it’s a special occasion and their likes and dislikes. Online bookings are just bums on seats. This approach means we employ two full-time reservations people. We keep track of everything using our own bespoke software system that handles bookings, guest profiling and marketing.

Tell us about the setup of the restaurant 

We have 28 covers on the ground floor offering three course a la carte (plus a succession of snacks at the beginning). But if a guest requests a tasting menu or asks us to put together a menu for them, we can do that. This restaurant is all about flexibility. At the seven-seater chefs counter upstairs it’s possible to have just one course and a glass of wine. Being in Mayfair, a lot of our customers are going to be businesspeople who don’t have time for lengthy tasting menus. We also have a 14-cover private dining room upstairs. Those who book that can have anything they want. If they want fish and chips, we will make it for them. The private dining room has some original Andy Warhol prints while the wider venue will rotate various art and photography pieces from Tim’s personal collection.   

This has not been a cheap restaurant project to deliver. Won’t this level of flexibility make it difficult to generate a profit?

This is not a vanity project. Our a la carte menu is £145 a head. We have a very serious wine cellar, and the private dining room obviously comes at a price. The team is small too. We have around 10 in the kitchen and a few more than that front of house and a couple of people that come and clean in the morning. That said, we are not going to become millionaires off this place.

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Tell us about your background

I was born in Sri Lanka. I married an English woman who I met while working as a surfing instructor and I travelled back with her to Devon. Not really having any skills or education, I enrolled at catering college and did NVQ Level 2 and NVQ Level 3. I did well at college because I was able to follow exactly whatever was shown to me. I was watching Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, and I told my wife ‘I want to work with him’. She told me I would not last long. But a few years later I ended up working for Marcus Wareing at Petrus. I then worked at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. While I was there, Michel Roux Jr came in and offered me a job.

So, he poached you?

I went with Clare’s (Smyth) blessing. I loved the Waterside Inn as the pace was a bit slower and it was in the countryside. Then I went to France to work at Restaurant Bras. That was the best place I’ve ever worked in terms of the precision and organisation - every single team member was equally as important. I have been heavily influenced by that here. People don’t work for me at The Cocochine, we work together. I then spent four years at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, although I could have stayed there forever. It’s a beautiful place to work because it’s so seasonal.

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Where did you go next?

I went back to work with Marcus around the time that he and Gordon parted ways. During that time my wife was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Our little boy was just turning two at the time and I thought my career was done. My priority was to find a way to save her and bring up my son. I had been spending so much time working I barely knew how to change a nappy. But she pulled through. I didn’t really work properly for 10 months. I went back to Petrus part time but was soon back to full time and was promoted to head chef. This level is all about commitment. It’s 16 hours a day. You have to be committed, loyal and honest. If you do it, you have to do it 100% or don’t do it all.

And then you won National Chef of the Year

I won the competition the same week that Petrus regained its Michelin star. I was on cloud nine. I ended up staying at Petrus for another four years. I met Tim in 2015, and he said ‘what would you like to do?’ and I said I would love to open a restaurant but I had no money. In 2018 he said, ‘find me a space and I’ll find the money’. And here we are.

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