Pierre Koffmann: an exclusive interview

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th December 2013
Pierre Koffmann is regarded by many as the greatest chef to have worked in the UK. He grew up in Gascony in the south west of France where he was inspired from an early age by the local peasant dishes cooked by his grandmother. In 1970 he came to the UK, not for the food but to watch England against France at Twickenham. He soon met the Roux brothers and began working at Le Gavroche. He then moved to head up their new restaurant, The Waterside Inn in Bray, which quickly gained two Michelin stars. In 1977 he opened his own restaurant, the legendary La Tante Claire in Chelsea where he earned three Michelin stars before finally closing in 2003. In 2009 a brief pop-up re-run of La Tante Claire on the roof of Selfridges inspired him to come out of retirement and open Koffmann’s at The Berkeley, serving the simple, delicious Gascon food of his childhood. With his protégés alone garnering more than 20 Michelin stars between them, no one has more of a claim to the title of living legend than Pierre Koffmann. The Staff canteen was lucky enough to get an exclusive interview with him… Your grandmother’s influence on your cooking is very famous; if you were forced to pick one of her dishes above any other, which one would you pick? It’s not easy because she was such a fantastic cook! Maybe the croustade aux pommes – it’s a dessert with a kind of filo pastry with apples and Armagnac. It’s a typical sweet to that part of France but only within a 50km radius. It’s quite difficult to make and not something everyone can do. At that time you couldn’t buy filo pastry so she used to make the filo from scratch. Would you say your grandmother was the biggest influence on your cooking or were there other chefs or cooks who influenced you as much? In the beginning it was my grandmother and my mother, maybe my mother a bit more because my mother was cooking every day for us whereas my grandmother was just during the holidays. As a chef, at first I never worked in two or three star restaurants but I was reading a lot of news at the time about Paul Bocuse or Michel Guérard and people like that but I never worked with them. From the start I just cooked the food I liked to eat – the food from the south west of France that I used to eat when I was young. You almost fell into cooking as a career; when did you realise it was the thing that you wanted to do for the rest of your life? Right from the beginning I guess, I just wasn’t clever enough to recognise it! I went to cookery school at the age of 14 because at that time you had to choose a career and it’s not very easy at that age. I went to the cookery school because it was still a school and I wasn’t ready to be a responsible man. The other option was working for the French railway or the French post but there you had to be a man. I wanted my school holidays! And you didn’t get a very good final report from your cookery school, did you? No, we were a team of naughty boys who were more interested in rugby and girls than cooking. My report book at the end of the three years said: “Pierre will never do anything in catering.” The funny thing is about five years ago I went for a reunion at the cookery school and the old head mistress was there. She was 93 at the time and she was still sparkling, with a very bright mind. I mentioned it to her and she said “Pierre, everybody can make a mistake!” What were your first impressions of the UK, particularly the food, and did that first game at Twickenham live up to expectations? Oh yes, because that first game, France beat England 35-3 and it’s not often you win 35-3 at Twickenham so I was very lucky at the time! The food was very poor at the time. I came to work at Le Gavroche and the food was smoked trout with horseradish sauce, smoked salmon, avocado cocktail – it wasn’t bad but it was miles and miles away from French food. But I really enjoyed it at Le Gavroche and after two months I was promoted to sous chef, then they opened the Waterside Inn and gave me the job of head chef and I was able to do the food I wanted there; they never interfered with me and I really enjoyed it; then the food started to improve in England with new chefs coming from France and English chefs becoming better and better, so everything changed from there. Looking back at your career in the UK; what times hold the fondest memories for you? The Waterside was a very happy time. I was 24; I had the job of head chef with my wife as the manageress and the Roux brothers were very rarely there, so it was like running my own place. Then of course opening La Tante Claire was absolutely brilliant. It was very different; it was my own place and I had total freedom over what I wanted to cook. Do you ever regret the decision to come out of retirement and work in a busy kitchen again? No I don’t regret it. My legs are suffering a bit but I still have a few more years of cooking left in me and I still enjoy it, more importantly. The day I don’t enjoy it anymore I will bow out. It’s a very demanding job and if you don’t enjoy it, you shouldn’t do it You recently became Slow Food UK’s Chefs’ Alliance 100th member; what is it about the Slow Food movement that is important to you? Slow Food is what I’ve always cooked. I think the term ‘slow food’ can sometimes be misinterpreted but it really just means ‘good food’, ‘traditional food’. Hopefully the idea of local seasonal ingredients is here to stay. It starts with the farmers and realising what fantastic products you’ve got. Whereas in the past it was about who had the biggest onions, the biggest carrots, the biggest leeks, now people are beginning to realise it’s not about having the biggest but having the best. In Britain you have absolutely fantastic products; it’s an island so you have all the fish you want; you’ve got brilliant meat; the vegetables are not quite there yet, but it’s coming. Some of the produce is limited by the weather but what you’ve got is really nice. Nowadays people are going to the woods to pick English mushrooms where before nobody would do that; and of course products like scallops and langoustine are unique and lead the world. Before, everything was going to France so if you wanted to buy British langoustine you had to call France; they were going from Scotland to Paris and from Paris back to London! You enjoy reading cookbooks; do you have a favourite? My favourite cookbook is Escoffier. You’ve got everything you want in it. Sometimes you get people saying that something is their own recipe because they call it ‘fillet of sole with cucumber’ but if you go to Escoffier you find exactly the same recipe but it’s called ‘Dorian’ because at the time they gave the recipes girls’ names. As a young chef, you only need one book – Escoffier. Where do you like to eat out in the UK? There are many places; it depends on the occasion. We recently went to a fantastic pub in Milton Keynes called The Crooked Billet. There’s another fantastic place in London called Hereford Road; it’s a small restaurant with simple food – absolutely brilliant. La Petite Maison is another place we go, also Le Colombier and Brasserie Chavot. There’s a lot of choice; it’s not like when I came 40 years ago; now you have a big choice of restaurants, as big as any capital in the world. Which chefs in the UK are doing particularly exciting things at the moment? There are a few fantastic chefs. There is a beautiful restaurant – sadly I don’t go there often enough because it’s too far – which is Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham. Eric Chavot is another brilliant chef; up in Scotland you have Tom Kitchin who is another great chef; the head chef of La Petite Maison, Raphael [Duntoye], is an amazing chef as well. There are a lot of great chefs around; they’re doing the things they like to eat and that’s the most important thing. The problem is you’ve got a lot of chefs that don’t enjoy eating and they just cook food that is fashionable; it’s okay but there’s a little something missing in the taste. I like to go places where the chefs cook what they like to eat. British cooking has come a long way since you first arrived; does it still have some way still to go? I think people need to stop following fashion quite so much. It’s like suddenly everyone is using beetroot. Before nobody was using beetroot; now everyone’s using it. A lot of people are looking at what’s happening in Peru or Brazil and they get a lot of publicity for it because people like to eat what’s fashionable but taste sometimes gets forgotten; it’s a bit of a case of the emperor’s new clothes. You are well-known for not being particularly worried about Michelin stars anymore; do you think too many chefs nowadays are too obsessed with chasing stars? Yes, but I can understand it; it’s quite a competitive business and you want to be the best but people don’t realise that being the best is having a full restaurant and happy customers. Everyone wants their name in the red guide because then they are part of an elite, but I’ve been there myself so I can’t really criticise anyone else. You love your traditional French dishes; are there any traditional British dishes that you particularly like? As I said before we went to The Crooked Billet pub recently and had traditional roast beef and it was fantastic; I was very happy; it was just how a pub should be – good quality food and a simple environment. A Frenchman enjoying roast beef? There are only two types of food – good food and bad food! I love Chinese food, Indian, anything as long as it is good. You originally came to Britain for the rugby; do you still go to Twickenham to watch England v France and how many times have you been? Many, many times, at one stage we used to go every year – one year in London, one year in Paris. The funny thing is that now we have many English rugby players coming to the restaurant like Martin Johnson and all that team and now we are friends – all those years ago we were enemies and now we are friends! Could you ever see yourself going back to Gascony and opening a restaurant, maybe having a small farm like your grandparents? No, I’m 65 years old now and I think my best years are behind me; I’m on the wrong side of the slide! England is my home now. We go to France three or four times a year and that is absolutely perfect for us.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th December 2013

Pierre Koffmann: an exclusive interview