This month's Featured Chef...
Chef/Patron, Le Champignon SauvageAll images kindly supplied by Lisa Barber www.lisabarber.co.ukDavid, thank you very much for taking the time to meet us today. It is a privilege to come to the Champignon Sauvage; I've never been here before. Let's start by talking a little bit about your early career. . . I read that you worked at the Inn on the Park?
Yes, I started there in 1978 and that was my first job. On the day that I got the interview there I also had the papers through for the Army Catering Corps.
OK, so do you come from London?
Yes, I'm Wandsworth born and bred. So I had a choice, I was standing outside the Head Chefs Office - a guy called Jean Michel Bonin and he was discussing with his Sous Chef as to whether they needed anymore Apprentices. Anyway they offered me the job and I was there for 5 years. And Jean Michel Bonin was my first experience of a "BIG" Chef that could instil great fear in people!
I guess, it was a very traditionally run kitchen?
Yes, it was a Partie system - quite military in the way it was run.
Was that a good thing?
I think so, it taught me discipline. And through the discipline it taught me speed as well as organisation. Jean Michel Bonin was there for 3 years while I was there and during that time he finally thought I was OK and started promoting me. It took him about a year to start talking to me - he'd finally say something other than "YOU!" (laughter) and I think it was only because one night all of the veg chefs went out on a Stag Night and they all phoned in sick the next day - I was the only one left picking spinach and prepping potatoes, so he put me straight on the service and because I had the "intelligence" to watch how it was done, he said I'd done a good job on this particular service and that is when he started talking to me. So, I was there for 5 years and they sent me to Tante Claire on a Stagé for a month and that really changed my whole outlook on everything. Before I had been used to working with luxuries at the Four Seasons and there was Koffmann doing tripe with certain things and pigs trotters etc. And it also showed me restaurant style rather than hotel style.
Very big contrast I would imagine?
Yes, very big difference.
Bit of a culture shock for you?
No, not really. Initially I was put outside. In the early days he had like a kitchen with a garden alley and then off that there was a table where he used to do his fish prep"¦
Yes, so I was outside. And I thought, after about 3 or 4 days, I'm fed up with this I want to go inside. So I started doing everything quicker and gradually started moving inside and then putting things on the stove for him; taking things out of the fridge for him "¦ and that's when I knew I wanted a restaurant. It was just pure concentration on food - no breakfast to have to worry about or afternoon tea shifts.
How old were you at this stage, David?
18. From there I went to 3 different restaurants in London. Steamers in Putney, which was a Seychelles fish restaurant. An American-based operation and I took a Head Chef position there to teach me about big fish. From there I went to a place in Battersea - the Grand Café, which was a sort of American Brasserie operation - again to see a different operation.
Massively different from the Tante Claire?
Yes, very different. But I always new I wanted my own restaurant so it was a case of getting to see different styles and operations. Then from there I went to a place called Fingles in the Fulham Road, which was a small 40 cover restaurant doing fine food. And that is when, for certain, I knew that was the line I wanted to go down. Helen (my wife) and I met at the Four Seasons "¦
So many relationships are formed in hotels with Chefs and Front of House, aren't they?
Yes, that's right. We met at the Four Seasons and then Helen worked part-time at the other places that I worked at so we developed a working relationship as well as our normal relationship.
So, how did le Champignon Sauvage come about?
Well, we decided we wanted to look for a restaurant. I sent off for details all around Britain and initially I thought it would be great to be by the seaside; in the afternoon walk the dogs down the beach "¦ but the more we looked into it in 1983, people thought a French restaurant would more likely be serving snails and frogs legs; prawn cocktail - the grey rinse brigade who frequented the seaside wouldn't have been supporting us. So we started to look inland more and this property just happened to come through.
Was it a restaurant originally?
Yes, it was a restaurant called La Ciboulette by an ex- Roux chef. He'd had a success in Cheltenham with another restaurant and sold that and opened this. I think it was run for 2 or 3 years as La Ciboulette. Anyway, we came and had a look around the town - loved the town; had a look around the restaurant - it was brown and nicotine-coloured - very French. We thought, yes, there is a lot of potential here. There was only really one decent restaurant in town, in those days and that was Redmond's, and we thought "yes, this is for us".
David, how much is the name Champignon Sauvage a reflection of you? Translated it's "The Wild Mushroom" - I think people who know you see a bit of Pierre Koffmann in you. The forager; maybe not using the fashionable cuts "¦ does the name Le Champignon Sauvage sum up you? And what you're about?
Well, it was initially chosen because I thought that anyone who new any schoolboy French would either know le Champignon Sauvage or le jardin d'herbes, the herb garden. That was why I chose that - it didn't have anything to do with foraging at that time that came later. On reflection, it probably cost us customers.
Because people didn't understand?
No, not really. Having a French name we must be expensive - it alienated some potential customers.
Yes, in hindsight we would have chosen an English name.
So, the Wild Mushroom - doesn't sound quite the same!! (laughter)
No, it doesn't.
So when did you arrive here?
You've been hugely successful. On your website your list of awards takes up a whole page. Did you come here with that in mind? Or were you cooking for yourself? Did you have a vision of where you wanted the restaurant to be?
Well, we have always strived to be the best we can, and through that awards have come, slowly at first though.
Is that Michelin, for you? What denotes the best for you?
Umm, I could be very blasé about Michelin and say "No, it's about bums on seats." Which it is, you do need people to support you but to be perfectly honest, to me, Michelin is the best guide there is and without doubt, receiving the first and second star was the highlight of my life.
I think Chefs see it as the most consistent guide, don't they?
Yes, I think they do. You have a lot of people that poohpooh Michelin but they are normally the ones that haven't got the stars and it's the same people each year that get on their high horse about the guide. You know, Worrel-Thompson being one that always snipes at the guide every year but I think it's one of the best. When we opened, I was cooking for the guides; unsuccessfully as it happens. You know, if I put little bits of tomato dice in a Madeira sauce to add a touch of acidity - the question was "Why is it there?" If Raymond Blanc had done it at that time because he had more PR behind him at that time it was ""¦and he did this" and it was all fantastic. So I did cook for the guides for maybe - 3 years and then I thought "No, I'm going to start cooking for the customer." Which, I have to say, I didn't really like at all. - That lasted about 6 - 8 months.
Is there a little bit of stubborn Chef-ness, in there?
Oh, yes there is . . . a lot!
But as Chef/Patron don't you need a little bit of that?
Yes, I think you do, especially to get you through the tough times. I was cooking for the customers and you were getting crazy orders in where they wanted to change this and that and I just said "NO! I'm going to cook food I want to cook." If people want to come to us it's because they like the food that I am doing and if they don't like that then they can go else where.
Yep. That's very brave.
Yes, it is. This is where the stubbornness comes in. But through that more awards came; so more people came. I was cooking food that I liked cooking; I was more confident in what I was cooking and I was happier cooking.
Have some of your dishes evolved? Do you still have some core elements from the early days? Are they still on your menu?
Yes, things like the Homemade Black Pudding and Pigs Ears and Tripe are things which we have had on the menu ever since we started. They have appeared in new ways.
Tripe is a very, very unfashionable ingredient, is that a conscious thing to use things like that? Or is it a passion?
I like eating them. I'm not particularly keen on Tripe and Onions in milk but when it's braised and crisped it's absolutely wonderful to eat. Tripe became part of my repertoire as well as my sauce and spicing. Also foraging is part of my repertoire. I have combined all of those things into my style rather than just going one way. It is always exciting because there is so much to learn and so many different ingredients out there.
Are you happy with the food that you are doing at the moment?
Yes, we are becoming more concentrated on things; a little tidier.
Why is that?
I think I am becoming less cluttered in my home life. I am a big hoarder of things and I have just started to say "No, enough is enough" and I have started to get rid of things. I think that is affecting my style and it's becoming cleaner and finer. The punchy, the masculine flavours are still there; very much masculine food not feminine, you know if you get something here you could eat it with your eyes shut because you will know what it is because it will tell you what it is.
You are very much a Chefs Chef, you are not by your own admission a PR Chef but you have had great success with you books, both Essence and Desserts and they have been very much Chef's books. What was the thinking behind the books?
I had been asked to do books for a long time and I had always pushed them to one side. Then I started to think; I thought there was a hole in the market because apart from French Chefs, Spanish Chefs and the German Chefs who were bringing out great Chef books, this country seemed to stop that. You know, you've got some great Chefs that were all going down the housewife route.
Is that because it's a bigger market?
Yes, exactly. It's constraints put on them by their publishers; they are probably told that they have to do one about "¦ starters or soups. So I put my pitch together and designed how I wanted it to be in my head; put some ideas on to the computer; recipes etc.
It must be very time consuming writing a book while running a business?
Yes, I used to do it between 12 and 3 in the morning after I'd finished in the kitchen.
I don't need much sleep; I'm lucking in that respect.
I'm like a bear with a sore head if I don't get 8 hours! (Laughter)
I approached Fiona Beckett - a Food Writer, a very good food writer. She was doing something with Absolute and she said "Do you want me to mention you?" And I said "Yeah, do." So I went along to Jon (who is the publisher and owner) and said that this is what I am interested in. And he said he was interested. I wanted to do the book in blocks, i.e. listing the ingredients for the sub-recipes rather than everything at the beginning of the dish - at the time; he was reluctant to do that. But I felt that it would encourage people to go off on a tangent and encourage them to try something different.
So can we see a follow up to Desserts? Is there something in the pipeline?
No, not yet. I'm having a rest.
I would imagine working those sorts of hours; you need a bit of a break!
Yes, I'm having a rest at the moment but I have got a few ideas but I don't want to talk about them at the moment.
No, no that's fine. Finally, David, cooking-wise you are at 2 star; 4 rosettes; 8 out of 10 in the Good Food Guide - what's the next goal? Is it a 3rd star?
Well, I am very happy in what we are doing but I would be churlish not to say that three Michelin Stars would be fantastic.
So do you, then, look at the food and say "Is that 2 or 3 star?" or do you just say "No, I do what I do and if it comes it comes."
I just do what I do. I'm sure it was the same with chefs like Koffmann and Ramsay
But surely, to go from 2 to 3 you must have to change something?
I don't know. I really don't know what Michelin look for. The only thing I think Michelin's buzz word would be is consistency. I do have enough confidence in Michelin that if they feel we deserve it then we will get it. It's just a question of getting our head down, progression is important to me 9 out of 10 in The Good Food Guide would be great too.
Last question, David who inspires you?
Well, Koffman was a big inspiration from a very early age. Nowadays, well we've eaten at Gagnaire a few times - absolutely fantastic.
I noticed that on your website that you list that as one of the best meals you have ever had.
Yes, Noma we ate there very recently and I have to say that it was one of the most inspirational meals I have ever had. Absolutely brilliant. Phill Howard is also very inspirational.
At the Square?
Yes, because he is very pragmatic in what he does. He's a Chefs Chef as well. I'd quite like to go to Japan to learn a bit more about their food.
Doesn't that have the highest concentration of Michelin stars?
Yes in Tokyo. You can be inspired anywhere - by going to a customer's house and eating something they have put together or eating at a friend's restaurant. There are so many Chefs in small businesses that just don't get the recognition that they deserve because they don't have the PR behind them, I find that very frustrating and annoying for our trade, and especially when I come across a really good restaurant with a young chef, who has had no PR whatsoever, they could do with a surge of business, but it never comes I get very angry about that. There are so many good British restaurants waiting to be discovered.
Yes, it's difficult because sometimes certain Chefs are more photogenic than others and people seek that limelight and maybe they are not always the most talented.
The journalists and TV companies seem to feed from the PR companies and a lot of the little businesses with talent get missed. We were totally missed when we opened and when we got our first star. When we got our second star we were the only one to go up from one and nobody went up from two to three and I think we got two small pieces in the national press. Very odd, but then we're still here and we are growing.
Yes. David, thank you for your time. Thank you very much indeed.