Feature: A new dawn for Sale e Pepe

After half a century in the business, a lot of fond memories are held between the walls of Sale e Pepe in Knightsbridge. Now, the iconic London venue enters a new era, with Thesleff Group founder and owner Markus Thesleff at the helm

The hallmark of outstanding hospitality is being made to feel at home. Perhaps it’s service so seamless that it instantly relieves you of pent-up bodily tension, a menu that gives you a dopamine hit right from that first glance, or an atmosphere that sweeps you up in comforting warmth and makes you lose all sense of time. When you land on a restaurant that effortlessly offers all three, you’re onto something special.

Perhaps that’s why Sale e Pepe resonates with so many. Nestled in the heart of Knightsbridge since 1974, it’s more than just a neighbourhood Italian but a London institution. It’s easy to become attached to a place so rich in nostalgia.

“I used to go to Sale e Pepe with my parents,” says Markus Thesleff, founder and owner of the Thesleff Group. “I have so many memories there. Now, it kind of feels like we’ve come full circle.”

'The custodian of a legacy'

The Thesleff Group announced its acquisition of the concept in February 2023. Thesleff himself was handed the baton from Toni Corricelli – the man who managed the restaurant for 45 years from its initial launch. It became somewhat of a celebrity hotspot during his tenure, with its esteemed clientele including the likes of Rod Stewart, Roger Moore, Priscilla Presley and Ringo Starr. “It was the hottest Italian in London,” Thesleff emphasises. “Whenever my Dad would get a table, it was like who’s who in the room. It was insane.”

Then, one day in the not-too-distant past, Thesleff was having lunch and got chatting to Corricelli. “He wanted to retire and had a bunch of incredible offers from all the big groups and international names, as you can imagine. We just got talking and he was an absolute gentleman – a man of his word. He’s super old-school. He started out as the manager and worked his way up in that restaurant until he owned it. He’s the OG! For him, it was about the legacy of the brand, and he certainly knew what he didn’t want it to become. He knew that, at 83 years old, he’s not placed to put another 20 years into it. I had a certain vision so they came to me and asked whether I’d consider taking it on. How often do you get the opportunity to become the custodian of such a legacy brand?”

Elevating an icon

In 1974, James Harold Wilson was UK prime minister, the likes of Mud and Barbara Streisand topped the charts, and Blazing Saddles was the highest-grossing film of the year. There were no smartphones, no internet and not so much as an inkling of the now thriving ‘plant-based’ category. When Sale e Pepe made its debut, it was an entirely different world.

Markus Thesleff (Image: Lucy Richards)

“The hardest thing of dealing with 50 years of history is that I’m dealing with half a century of memories,” Thesleff emphasises. The Thesleff Group may only have been founded in 2019, but its owner already had years of experience as a global restaurateur – by 2021, Thesleff had collected over 150 industry awards, and had won the Restaurateur of the Year title twice in five years for his work in the Middle East. “Today, I think London is the culinary capital of the world,” he chimes. “

In the last 20 years I would say that title has flipped between London and New York. Yes, you have Copenhagen, which creates these huge movements. If you look at the world’s 50 Best Restaurants, places like Copenhagen might have a lot of influence there but, across the rest of the industry, not so much. So right now, for me, London’s the culinary capital of the world. In this city, there’s a real community within the industry. I love that chefs want to work together to better what we’re doing.Of course there’s competition, but it’s more a case of how can we be better as a whole?”

Now it seems Thesleff holds the city in the palm of his hands, having launched the blended Mexican-Japanese concept Los Mochis in Notting Hill in 2021 – with a brand-new flagship rooftop restaurant, overlooking Broadgate Circle, opening next month – and his zero-waste experiential cocktail bar, Viajante87, which launched in January 2023. When Corricelli handed over the reins to his beloved Pepe, he did so knowing it would be in safe hands. But the acquisition comes with its fair share of pressure. “I’m not normally nervous with openings, but when we did Sale e Pepe’s soft launch with family and friends, I was just so nervous!

“But the thing about this business is, you’ve got to figure out what people want before they even know they want it. With Sale e Pepe, I wanted to keep the DNA and the spirit of the restaurant the same, but give it a completely different vibe, inject a whole new feeling. What started as a lick of paint became a much bigger project. Imagine a fashion impresario’s Milan townhouse meets an anytime Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side in New York, but with the feel of a London private club. Our Sale e Pepe is a combination of those things. I didn’t want it to be like any other restaurant.”

Menu evolution

The bones of the restaurant very much remain in Sale e Pepe 2.0, but Thesleff’s ambitious reinterpretation has given the venue new life – not just in terms of interior design and general atmosphere, but its offering therein.

“Over 50% of the menu is new,” he explains. “There’s nothing else quite like Italian food. Italian served at home is very traditional – big pots, served family-style – but it’s not really like that when you go to a restaurant. I wanted to find a way to merge the two. That’s the biggest change from a strategic point of view – bringing that dining culture of sharing into the restaurant.

“From a structural point of view, I’ve added a lot of cleaner, lighter dishes and a lot of crudo – raw dishes – because that’s what I like to eat.”

Provenance is a big focus at Sale e Pepe, but also across the group at large. With its existing site and its soon-to-open sister rooftop restaurant, Los Mochis reflects Thesleff’s operational versatility. Overseen by executive chef Leonard Tanyang, former head chef of Okku Dubai (another of Thesleff’s many successful concepts), the diverse menu strikes a balance between the brand’s dual heritage, with already-established fan favourites including Truffle Guacamole on Crispy Rice, Spicy Hiramasa Maki and Trailer Park Chicken Taco.

“There are two camps in the food world: the purists and the crazy scientists, meaning the ones who like to combine things,” Thesleff observes. “I look at both sides and think they’re right. So, I tell my team this all the time: the rules are, there are no rules.”

If the process of creating dishes that tie in two global cuisines wasn’t complicated enough, Thesleff also decided to make the entire menu at Los Mochis gluten- and nut-free. “It’s the only gluten-free Japanese in the world,” he adds. “It’s all about the five Qs: quality, quality, quality, quality and quality. I’m not so worried about how original something is, or how authentic it might be. Because what actually is authentic today? For me, it’s authentic if you’re cooking from the heart. If you’re producing something from your spirit, that’s authentic.”

All systems go

Sale e Pepe had its official reopening in March, with the highly anticipated Los Mochis rooftop launching on 1 May. “It’s our biggest project yet – a 14,000 sq ft restaurant in the heart of the city. It’s a £10m plus project and I’ve not seen anything else like it in Europe, let alone the UK. We’ll follow that just a few months later with a brand-new omakase concept hidden within our rooftop Los Mochis.

“Then we’re in talks for a couple of venues in Mayfair and there’s a potential acquisition ongoing that I can’t say too much about. But we’re always on the lookout for the right deal or acquisition. If we can add value, apply something of ours to what someone else is doing or it’s something that fits into our portfolio, we’d definitely take a look.”

This is undoubtedly a milestone year, not just for Sale e Pepe, as it becomes a certified veteran of London’s hospitality scene, but also for the Thesleff Group as it stands up to the challenge head on. While Pepe marks a chance to demonstrate the art of reinvention, Los Mochis taps into a culture and ideal that’s incredibly in demand and oh-so-very now. What a way to leave a mark on the culinary capital of the world.

Look out, London, Thesleff has arrived – and you’ll be seeing much more of him soon.

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