The Return of the King

7th July 2010 (Last Updated July 7th, 2010 18:30)

Following a six-year absence, July sees the return to the stove of Pierre Koffmann, arguably London's most influential chef in recent memory. Phin Foster meets the man to discuss his venture at the Berkeley, returning to his roots and the importance of cooking from the heart.

The Return of the King

Perhaps the most interesting development in the London dining scene this year has been ‘the return of the Gauls’. It started back in February when Bruno Loubet, one of the capital’s biggest stars during the 1990s, pitched up at the Zetter hotel after more than a decade in exile, immediately prompting breathless reviews and lengthy waiting lists.

Then in June it was the turn of Joel Antunes, chef partner at the Michelin-starred Les Saveurs between 1991 and ’96, and the launch of an eponymous brasserie at the recently opened £350m Park Plaza Westminster Bridge.

Antunes had spent his time away in the US while Loubet had decamped to Australia, but the biggest of all the big beasts re-entering the fray never actually left the city that made his name. July marks the return of Pierre Koffmann, described in the <i>Guardian</i> newspaper as “possibly the greatest chef London has ever seen”, following six years away from the stove.

In 2003 he closed the doors of La Tante Claire with the intention of “going fishing, playing golf and picking mushrooms”. The shock at the time was palpable. Not only was this widely considered to have been London’s most influential fine dining destination of the past two decades, but it had also spawned a series of chefs who would go on to take the city by storm: Gordon Ramsay, Eric Chavot, Tom Aikens, the aforementioned Loubet and Marco Pierre White – who famously adopted Pig’s Trotter Pierre Koffmann as a staple on his menu – former lieutenants all. Surely retirement would only be temporary.

A brief stint at the Golden Heart in Clerkenwell a year later and some consulting work aside, the 61-year-old stuck to his guns and, as each year passed, the hope of Koffmann’s return dwindled. His legacy was far from forgotten; countless chefs continued to cite him as a formative influence and a first edition of his 1990 tome, Memories of Gascony, now fetches £275, but Koffmann kept his counsel and shunned the limelight. Then, in October of last year and quite out of the blue, Selfridges announced that Koffmann would be launching a ‘pop-up’ restaurant on the department store’s West End roof. All the Tante Claire classics would be served, and an array of Koffmann protégés would be joining him in the kitchen. The reaction was overwhelming.

“I was booked for one week, but we stayed two months,” the chef chuckles. “I hadn’t run a restaurant in some time and most of my original customers had been my age or older; what if they were all dead? The great surprise was to see young people, maybe 75% were under 40 and many far younger, and that gave me the impression that coming back might be fun. Cooking in a restaurant where everyone is over 60, it starts to resemble a hospital. If that had been the case I would never have considered a return.”

The second coming

“I see too many chefs who don’t even taste their food; they see a recipe from a top chef and repeat it, but there is no heart there, no connection. In fact, many don’t even particularly like what they are creating. That will always show.”

Fast-forward just a few months and Koffmann has been dragged away from the stock pot and into the chef’s office by his partner, Claire. “He’s champing at the bit,” she says apologetically. From “a number of propositions”, it is the Berkeley hotel that has landed London’s biggest culinary coup in recent memory, a development that marks a homecoming of sorts for the chef and the latest instalment in what has been a rather strange series of coincidences.

In 1998, Koffmann sold La Tante Claire’s Chelsea site to Gordon Ramsay – it now houses the super-chef’s sole three-star venture – and moved to the Berkeley, then part of the Savoy Group. When Koffmann announced its closure five years later, Ramsay pounced again, opening Petrus under Marcus Wareing’s stewardship. The Savoy Group and Ramsay have since moved on, but Wareing remains in what was formerly La Tante’s kitchen. Koffmann’s – the name of this new venture – is just across the foyer, having taken over what was Ramsay’s Boxwood Café until its closure in April.

Wareing, who Ramsay once sent to do a stint under Koffmann, has not always had the kindest words to say about his one-time mentor’s mentor, but relations have thawed in recent times and the Frenchman claims not to find these new circumstances strange in the slightest. “For me, when something is over, it’s finished,” he says. “I never look back. It was my decision to end it at the Berkeley and now I’ve a new restaurant. Marcus and I talk, we’re friends, and if I ever need to borrow some salt he’s just across the hall.”

It is a fresh start in more ways than one. While La Tante Claire was very much focused on fine dining, Michelin-pleasing cuisine, Koffmann’s sees a return to the head chef’s roots and a focus on the gastronomic delights of his grandmother’s kitchen in Gascony. Koffmann classics such as pig’s trotter with morels and his pistachio soufflé remain, but the menu also features such simple pleasures as braised beef cheek, calf’s head and pork belly with braised cabbage.

“It is the food I was brought up on,” he explains. “stews, foie gras, magret de canard, roast chicken, and it is still the food I want to eat. I only know one way to cook, but it will be simpler than what I have done before, less fussy. As a chef you must cook for yourself, prepare what makes you happy. Do that well and in a big city like London, with however many millions of people, there will always be enough people demanding the same thing.

“I see too many chefs who don’t even taste their food; they see a recipe from a top chef and repeat it, but there is no heart there, no connection. In fact, many don’t even particularly like what they are creating. That will always show.”

This simpler, homelier approach has been mirrored by Loubet and Antunes, who have both adopted more of a bistro-style approach upon their return. “Perhaps it is a slight shift in culture,” Koffmann acknowledges, “but neither Bruno, Joel nor myself are looking to redesign the way people eat. Everything is needed, from the three-star to the humble bistro. I still love to eat at Le Gavroche or Hibiscus, but you cannot visit that sort of establishment every night. This is about creating an informal, relaxed environment.” Koffmann will be using many of his old suppliers and has drafted in Tim Payne, who has worked with him in a number of guises over the past 25 years, to head up the kitchen.

However, one should not mistake this for yet another example of a chef merely putting his name above the door and signing off on the menu; Koffmann is here to work. “The head says yes but the legs are a little fragile,” he chuckles. “At the beginning I will have to be here everyday, lunch and dinner. I have never been one to delegate and everything must be running smoothly before I slow down. Once that’s in place, five days a week seems fair. Cooking is the only thing I know and it’s what I enjoy. As soon as I enter the kitchen I am the chef – at home this is not the case, my partner hands out the orders. But however much we enjoy it, we can’t go on forever; one day we all must die. I’m nearly 62 and if it wasn’t going to be now it would have to be never.”

This commitment to the kitchen – Koffmann has been preparing veal stock when I interrupt him, an unthinkably lowly task for the Gordon Ramsays of this world to even contemplate – goes some way towards explaining why he has not ventured down the empire-building path. “I should have done it years ago,” he says with an exaggerated sigh, “but while I might have a good brain for cooking, it is not so suited to running a business. I did quite well at the stove and that was enough for me; I get my kick from being in the kitchen, not in the office adding numbers.” London must be very grateful that it looks as though that’s where he’ll be for some time to come.