Effortlessly weaving South African influences into a Modern European vernacular, Kudu in Peckham has earned plaudits for its food and atmosphere since opening in 2018. Per co-founder Amy Corbin, “If we make it good enough, then people will come.” Here, she talks about Kudu Collective, taking a risk on Peckham, and what it meant to win a Bib Gourmand.
When The Times review was published, people would arrive at Kudu and place a cut-out of the piece on the table. “We could see them literally crossing off every dish he’d ordered”, says Amy Corbin between bites of biltong, perfectly ruddy and veined with thick streaks of fat. “It was surreal.”
Corbin is as excited as you’d expect any restaurateur with a glowing review in The Times to be. A rave from a national critic is something most can only dream of, and it has, she admits, done very well for business. Even months later, Kudu is full – and this is a quiet Wednesday night in the depths of Peckham.
We’re perched on the pink velvet, high-top stools that line a semi-private nook a few steps from Kudu’s main dining space, talking over wine and a scattering of small plates. Under the golden drop lighting, Corbin leans in. Being surrounded by customers might normally call for hushed tones, but the story of how her first ever restaurant ended up on the map really is quite something. “He didn’t criticise anything. It was honestly amazing”, Corbin grins. I don’t doubt it – few can claim to have wooed a critic with just their bread and butter alone, but Kudu is a different beast.
Later, just eight months after the first plate left the pass, Kudu was honoured with a Bib Gourmand by the Michelin guide. Kudu’s appearance on the list caused quite the stir – no one quite expected a former chicken shop on Queens Road to make its mark on the London food scene so soon or so brilliantly, certainly not Corbin or her partner, co-owner and chef Patrick Williams. “Now that was extremely, honestly, very unexpected,” says Corbin. “We were never even aiming for that, and not in a million years did we think that our little restaurant would turn into something like this.” A year on and Kudu still holds their award. “That’s all thanks to Patrick really. That’s his cooking.”
“Not in a million years did we think that our little restaurant would turn into something like this.”
Despite its success, Kudu almost never came to be. Amy Corbin is the daughter of Chris Corbin – one half of Corbin & King, the revered partnership behind The Ivy, The Wolseley, Zedel and others – but joining the family business was not initially part of the plan. Corbin grew up in Clapham, but at the first chance, left it all behind to study Interior Design in New York. Straight out of school, she landed a job and stuck it out in the Big Apple for more than half a decade. “I honestly thought I would stay there forever,” she reflects.
In the end, it was the same restless energy that drew her to New York that eventually had Corbin pining for something more familiar. “Manhattan is a strange place to live,” she reflects, nipping the flesh from a plump, green olive. “People just come and go. No one is from New York. They all come here to make something of themselves. I lived there for five years, but I felt like I’d done it. My job at the time offered me the opportunity to come back to London and open an office here, so that was a good exit route.”
Ensconced back in London, it was only after Corbin met Williams that any serious thought about entering the food world started to brew. “It was always in the back of my mind to follow my dad’s footsteps, in a way,” says Corbin. “Nothing like what he does, but something like having my own small little thing – I thought I would do a coffee shop or a cupcake shop. It obviously made sense to do a restaurant after I met Patrick.”
In the era of dating apps, Corbin and Williams met in pure rom com style: a family friend made the introduction, secretly slipping Corbin’s number to Williams after a meal at The Manor in Clapham. Williams had just moved from South Africa and was working as the restaurant’s junior sous chef; the next day they set up a date, and the rest was history. With her knowledge of the industry, was she ever apprehensive about dating a chef? “No, I knew the gig. I knew the hours but I wasn’t thinking that far ahead.” Corbin insists. “I was just going on a date – I wasn’t planning my life.”
For a while that remained true. She continued working in interior design while Williams started work at Robin Gill’s (now-closed) Paradise Garage in Bethnal Green. The challenge of juggling two hectic schedules was beginning to put a strain on things, and as the relationship developed, the dynamic started to shift. “After we had been together for a while, it got to a point where I was like, I’m not sure how long I’m going to be able to do this for”, she says. “I’d have a 9 to 5 job where I’d go to bed and he wouldn’t be there,” explains Corbin. “I’d wake up and he still wouldn’t be there because he had already left. We were just living opposite lives.” They soon both realised that something had to change if they were going to make their relationship work. And this is how, Kudu – their modern European restaurant with a South African accent – came to be.
Williams would put his culinary expertise and South African roots to use behind the pass while Corbin would work the floor. Although her experience of managing a restaurant extended to just a couple of stints working for her father at The Wolseley, a lifetime of exploring London’s restaurants meant that Soho, Shoreditch or any of the other central London spots held no sway over her. “We wanted to [get off] the beaten track,” says Corbin. “We wanted to do modern European food with some South African influences in a relaxed but refined way that hadn’t been done in London before.” Crucially, they didn’t want an occasion restaurant – Kudu was to be a neighbourhood hangout.
It was only after one evening in 2017, while out for dinner with her brother, that the idea of opening in Peckham came to be. “My brother was living around here at the time and I would come and visit him,” she says, swirling the dregs of a 2017 Les Vignes de L’Eglise vermentino around her glass. “We would go to a restaurant and there would be a 40 minute waiting list. It was busy everywhere and, to be fair, it wasn’t even like the food was that great.” They had spotted an opportunity, and only for a moment did they consider the risk of opening away from the usual restaurant hotspots. “I was a little nervous to come to this side of Peckham, but there was this element of, ‘If we could create something that was that one step up from what everyone else was doing… if we make it good enough, then people will come’.”
Looking at the packed-out restaurant, it’s clear that it was a risk worth taking. With so many brilliant restaurants closing their doors across the city, Kudu’s success has defied the odds. Yet, as the restaurant passes its second birthday, Corbin and Williams aren’t about to stand still. Soon Kudu will become Kudu Collective as the couple prepare to launch not one, but two more sites on Queens Road.
In the pipeline is Little Kudu – taking over the old currency exchange next door. It will have the same vibe as its sister restaurant, but won’t, as Corbin quickly points out, be a Kudu 2.0: “We want to keep it within the Kudu brand, but for it to have more of a relaxed feeling,” she explains. “The idea is to have a walk-in only tapas restaurant. Instead of people coming here and ordering four or five courses, you can go next door and just have a bottle of wine and a few snacks and catch up with a friend for £20-25 a head.”
I try to dig a little deeper to find out what will be on offer, but for now the menu is hush-hush. One thing Corbin does admit is that the Kudu’s signature bread – that Afrikaner mosbolletjies, brioche that’s served alongside a pool of melted seafood or sumac butter – won’t be making the leap. For a taste of that, you’ll have to return to the mothership, explains Corbin: “That will not be moving next door, because this is a statement of our signature restaurant. But there’s a few classics and we do have another bread coming on the menu next door. Really, we’re trying to keep [the restaurants] pretty separate so that you could come to both for different occasions.”
“I was a little nervous to come to this side of Peckham, but there was this element of, ‘If we could create something that was that one step up from what everyone else was doing… if we make it good enough, then people will come.’”
Like Little Kudu, Smokey Kudu is also slated to open in early 2020. The plan is to replicate the table service bars found in Soho by opening a grown-up cocktail bar under the railway arch next to Blackbird Bakery. Pivoting from food to drink will be the biggest step up for the team, but having Smokey Kudu down the road will also bring additional benefits: “Because [Kudu is] such a small site and the demand is so high, we struggle to find a place to seat people when they come early”, explains Corbin. “We have to tell them to go to the pub next door, but you don’t really want a pint of beer before a nice dinner.”
“It’s not really the same vibe. We’re talking more about a lounge bar, where you can have a few nice cocktails before your dinner, and then we can call them and say your table is ready.” It’s a smart idea, and one that allows diners to experience the pair’s brand of hospitality from beginning to end.
But with the plan to open two locations before the year is out, the pair have a lot of work to do. I wonder how Corbin and Williams will split their time between the Collective – not just because the couple have recently turned their family of two into a family of three. Will juggling a new toddler and a growing business prove to be a problem? “We have an incredible team behind us,” says Corbin with a nod towards the kitchen where Williams and said team are plating up. “Obviously I have a baby, but the luxury we have is that they’re all so close together.”
If Kudu’s reputation is any indication, then there’s little doubt that Kudu Collective will be just as brilliant. Our talk and our nibbles are done. On my way out, I joke that their new daughter will be one of the best fed toddlers in London by the time all three locations are up and running.
“I don’t know.” laughs Corbin, “She’s a bit of a fussy eater at the moment! She only likes fruit and yoghurt. I’m still having to work on the savoury stuff.” Shame, I think, but at least that means more Kudu bread for the rest of us…
Smokey Kudu will open on January 22nd.
Kudu, 119 Queen’s Rd, Peckham, London SE15 2EZ. For more info on Kudu Collective visit, https://www.kuducollective.com/