Following on from her previous blog, Belle Louise Guthrie recounts Pierre Koffmann’s home truths and food wisdom from the latest Borough Talks…
“So how does it feel to be awarded three Michelin stars?”
Bloomberg’s chief food critic Richard Vines asks Pierre Koffmann the question on everyone’s mind here at tonight’s Borough Conversation event.
“Every day is special” is Pierre’s simple response. For him, the most important thing is going to work with a smile on his face.
Even if it’s not a sentiment we, the audience, can necessarily echo this drab and very rainy (summer’s!) evening, it speaks volumes about this French-born professional chef’s approach to life.
But huddled here under the safe shelter of Borough Market’s sturdy roof, with this renowned journalist promising to delve deep into the top chef’s life and work for us – plus a rich selection of artisan breads, cheeses, meats and colourful patisserie all lined up purely for our delectation – this grim day now looks set to improve.
Pierre Koffmann (born August 1948 in Tarbes, South-West France) found out early on that variety is the spice of life. After all, his mother had 20 recipes for salted cod alone. But it was his grandmother who inspired him the most. She prepared food as the seasons dictated on a big open fire, making use of everything the rural land and streams in Gascony had to offer (N.B. She did have a cooker, she obviously just wasn’t that enamoured of it). Pierre developed a love of cooking with fresh seasonal ingredients that would last a life-time.
Having completed three years at a local cookery school (it was better than having to hold down a job!), young Pierre found he had to spread his wings to really discover food. Whether it meant delving into Brittany to catch some fish, or skipping over to Strasbourg to savour some Sauerkraut, he was a man on a mission, gracing the French Riviera and Lausanne in Switzerland with his burgeoning culinary skills. Once he had truly learned his trade, he would go on to contribute massively to British cuisine and train some of our finest chefs over the decades to come.
But when Pierre Koffmann came to England in 1970, it definitely wasn’t for the food. He knew on arrival that English rugby pitches were going to hold far more allure for him than anything our indigenous kitchens could offer up. In 1971 the England v. France rugby match at Twickenham seems to have made a much more lasting impression on Koffmann than any of our national dishes (even if it was a draw).
For those of us who remember the days when prawn cocktail (with non-exotic finger rolls), mushroom vol au vents and cheese and pineapple hedgehogs were as sophisticated as it got, Pierre Koffmann, it seems, was less easily impressed.
“The food was rubbish,” he tells us “very poor”.
After all, this is the man who would dream up sumptuous pistachio soufflé, take venison with chocolate to new heights and perform magic with foie gras. While we have no evidence (yet) that he can make a proverbial silk purse out of a sow’s ear, he’s managed to elevate the humble pig’s trotter to delicacy status (pied de cochon sounds so much better) and render it a show piece to accompany chicken mousseline, select sweetbreads and morels. Rugby union can’t claim credit for that, surely.
Young Pierre soon found himself working for Michel and Albert Roux at Le Gavroche in London’s West End. Within six months he was promoted to Number 2 and after a short spell at their Brasserie Benoit in the City, Pierre was appointed Head Chef at the Roux Brothers’ new Waterside Inn at Bray.
In his five-year tenure he helped them achieve two Michelin stars.
So what was it like, Pierre, when you became one of only a handful of chefs in the UK to have been awarded the coveted three Michelin stars at your restaurant La Tante Claire which you opened up in 1977 with your first wife?
“When FOUR guys come along to tell you you’ve got THREE Michelin stars, what can you say apart from….um….well, thanks”. It’s all in a day’s working for Pierre Koffmann.
He grafted on, and worked his way towards the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge, taking up residence there in 1998.
Over the years, he’s worked with some of the finest – including Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Wareing, Tom Kitchin and Marco Pierre White – quite a line-up. Although Wareing and Koffmann didn’t always see eye-to-eye, Wareing since conceded: “Koffmann is a complete thorough-bred. He ran the kitchen from the stove”.
“So what was Gordon Ramsay like to work with?” asks Richard.“Fine, no problem. He can be tough, but I was the boss. You’ve got to manage your kitchen staff like a rugby team” (Would that be rugby union, by any chance?).
Pierre Koffmann wasn’t nicknamed “The Bear” for nothing (sore head is optional), but it certainly wasn’t because he reminded his assistants in any way of Rupert or Paddington (and don’t ever give him red chilli – that’s the one ingredient on earth he abhors.)
So where did Gordon learn his shouting and swearing? “Not from me” insists Pierre.
How was Marco Pierre White?
“Charming, if a bit dangerous” says The Bear (let’s not go there…)
Richard questions Pierre about his short-lived retirement, when, back in 2003, he fulfilled a long-standing ambition to hang up a sign saying “GONE FISHING”, only to return a year later to be a consultant to some major food retailers because he couldn’t stand the boredom.
“I travelled with a friend for a year” Pierre says “but there comes a point when there has to be more to life than having your cappuccino at 11 am, deciding what to have for lunch, then having a siesta before dinner and bedding down every night at 9.30”. Pierre admits he “nearly died of inactivity”.
He inevitably returned to his true vocation of the restaurant trade. In 2009, he took a ‘pop-up’ La Tante Claire to be the exclusive restaurant on the roof at Selfridges, supposedly for 10 days only. Eight weeks later and 12 kg lighter, Pierre was still on that roof and back to his old form – although he did come down (eventually) to return to The Berkeley to open ‘Koffmann’s’ with business partner Claire Harrison.
Tonight’s audience are so keen to ask questions that Richard Vines admits they could probably have done the job without him.
How does Pierre go about organising his menus? You plan it so you don’t repeat the same ingredients in different courses. Is there any food that he dislikes? No, no…French, Chinese, Indian, he loves it all with a passion (apart from red chilli of course, that should be banned). How does he go about concocting new and distinctive recipes? He’ll take himself to market early to bag the best ingredients, and set about carefully cooking up a different kind of storm. If it doesn’t shape up quite as planned, he’ll just move on and try something else. No point in wasting time.
If Pierre Koffmann could start all over again, would he do anything differently? Possibly (who wouldn’t?), but by and large he has no major regrets. How do you spot talent in the kitchen? Well, you can tell within two weeks whether you’re onto a winner. He particularly likes training keen youngsters who ask him lots of questions. Helping to shape their futures is one of the best parts of the job. Does he ever make mistakes himself? Yes, of course (“I’m not Gordon…”), but just don’t make the same mistake twenty times, otherwise you may find yourself confronted with The Bear.
What are his views on water-bathing? “I’m not against it, but, look, I’m an old guy” Pierre chuckles. “I don’t particularly like it because it doesn’t appeal to your smell or require your touch”.
What kind of salt does he favour? “Any…all of it. Yes, that includes pink, it looks nice, if a bit girlie”.
What does Pierre Koffmann think of the London food scene of today? It’s all brilliant, he assures us (we’ve moved on since the Seventies). He’s particularly fond of eating out in East London. It’s more affordable than West, for a start. But our capital as a whole has come on in leaps and bounds. There’s always some new kind of food presentation being developed to show off fabulous new ingredients, and yes, London is now on a par with Paris (although it’s Paris now that maybe errs more on the side of traditional).
This is high praise indeed and The Bear now seems quite cuddly. We finish on a high, and set about making healthy dints in tonight’s splendid array of Borough Market food offerings.
This day turned out quite special in the end.