When news broke in 2009 that Selfridges would be hosting a two week rooftop pop-up restaurant with Pierre Koffmann in the kitchen, their phonelines went into meltdown. Fans of Koffmann whose 27-year tenure at La Tante Claire had made him one of only a handful of British-based chefs with three Michelin stars were delighted that he’d been enticed out of retirement. And for those of us, who hadn’t eaten there the first time around, it was a chance to make up for our loss.
Two weeks turned into two months and it was clear that such was the demand for Pierre’s cooking, that it would be foolish for him to return to a life of consultancy and guest cheffing spots. The Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge, where Koffmann had moved La Tante Claire after selling the Royal Hospital Road site to Gordon Ramsay in 2000, came calling and snapped him up once again.
Hot Dinners' Editor Catherine Hanly caught up with Pierre at his new restaurant – Koffmann’s - to find out how he’s enjoying being back in his own kitchen, whether he really has mellowed and what still drives him on after 35 years at the top of the restaurant business.
Presumably you were much in demand after the Selfridges pop-up. What made you return to The Berkeley in particular?
When we did the Restaurant on the Roof at Selfridges - it was planned to be for a week, and there was such big demand we did two months there. So I was very excited and there were a lot of people who came and said; ‘If you want to start again we’ll give you some money - maybe a dozen people.
Some had restaurants that weren’t working well and they wanted me to look after the restaurant for them. The Berkeley came to me and in the end it was the best proposition – the best deal, so I said yes!
Were you surprised at the buzz your stint at Selfridges caused?
I thought I’d see only my old customers – and most of them were dead! But 75% of those who came were young people. I was a bit surprised – I suppose all of that was due to the pigs’ trotters. Pigs Trotters are Pierre Koffmann’s signature dish. We used over 3,200 pigs trotters in two months – and we use only the back legs so that’s 1600 pigs! So we had a lot of them and a lot of young people trying them.
And it wasn’t only the food that was a success. The restaurant was very well done. It was such a special occasion. Here [at Koffmann’s] we sell up to 30 trotters a day. And of course it’s still got to be done to perfection. We’re not a brasserie, and we’re not Tante Claire anymore but it still has to be done the exact same way – and we have to show the staff here how. Most of the time I’ve got to do it, because they forget the little details. As a chef I don’t want to cut corners – the trotters have got to be as good as they used to be.
Did it take a lot to entice you out of semi-retirement?
When they asked me I thought about it for 20 seconds and said yes.
Was it a conscious decision not to resurrect La Tante Claire?
I’ve been there once and that was enough. La Tante Claire was a very simple restaurant, especially when we were at Royal Hospital Road – it was 40 seat restaurant. We never spent a lot of money on cutlery or china. It just happened that we had three stars – it was very sweet, very nice.
The big difference [between La Tante Claire and Koffmann’s] is that here we’ve got to work with less expensive ingredients. We don’t use so many truffles. But we use only wild fish – no farmed fish. So on the menu, the fish are a bit expensive, but when you buy Dover Sole it’s £20 a kilo and we serve only huge Dover Sole!
...we’re looking for a full restaurant and to make people happy. When people come into the kitchen and we can see how happy they are - that’s my reward.
It’s the same with the meat – we buy beef from Scotland which is quite expensive. The thing is - after we cut we don’t put such expensive garnishes on it, we keep it much simpler. And we don’t have so many staff. You’ve got to make sure at the end of the month when you see your report that you’re in profit.
Are you back in the business of searching for Michelin stars?
We are not looking for Michelin stars at all.
Does that make running the restaurant a more relaxing experience?
For me it doesn’t change anything at all. At Tante Claire I wasn’t looking for a third star – it just happened that it came. Here if we got one, I’d be pleased for the chef, but we’re not looking for one – we’re looking for a full restaurant and to make people happy. When people come into the kitchen and we can see how happy they are - that’s my reward.
There’s been a lot of buzz about you on the internet – are you aware of that?
I never read that. I’m hopeless with the telephone – I just don’t look at it. But I suppose it was a bit like Frank Sinatra coming back for a concert in London after ten years. That kind of thing excites people.
And are you happy with what you have here now?
It’s my job – I’ve done it all my life. I’m happy when I cook – cooking is fantastic. The problem is always with the staff – looking after them. I think they’re getting worse and worse. But cooking is no problem at all.
We heard you don’t have any French staff here at all.
For the first 20 years, all my staff were French, because at the time the French were the best. They had a good training at school, they were coming young and knew how to cook fish stock or veal stock, so that was a good start. The English weren’t into cooking at that time. In the eighties, English chefs weren’t very popular, so I was happy with French chefs. That’s why my English isn’t very good because I was talking French all day long!
You can still see some beautiful French chefs from time to time but in general the French are a pain in the arse, to be honest. They aren’t the worst chefs, but they’re the worst to work with. They always need assistance, always complaining - they’ve got very bad habits. And I’m not the only one to say that.
There’s been a lot of talk that French cuisine has lost its way – do you agree with that?
You can still find some beautiful restaurants in France. The three stars are better in France than England (or as good) when you talk about small restaurants. You’re too young, but the idea your Dad may have had in going to France for a holiday and stopping for a nice meal – that’s completely gone. You can find good restaurants, but you’ve got to do your preparation first.
If you want a nice meal, it’s better to travel to Spain. The North of Spain – South is rubbish. Last week I was on holiday – we took the kids to San Sebastian. Because we were with the kids we didn’t go to the top restaurants, but everywhere we went we got a nice meal. It’s not cheap any more – but at least it’s nice. In France a lot of the restaurants are completely crappy.
What do you attribute that to?
You’ve got a lot of chefs who don’t cook what they like to eat. That’s a big problem. You have to cook what you enjoy eating eating or you’re not going to put your heart in the dish. They try to be fashionable instead of doing regional cooking. Now you can eat the same dishes from Marseilles to Lille. Whereas when I was young every region had its identity.
Chefs don’t have the training anymore so they’re either pretentious or completely rubbish.
Chefs don’t have the training anymore so they’re either pretentious or completely rubbish. And a lot of chefs don’t season. Most of the time the difference between a good and bad dish can be a pinch of salt. If you have to add salt on top of the dish it’s not the same as if you cooked with it.
Where did you draw your inspiration from?
My mother was a very good cook as was my grandmother. In the fifties and sixties women weren’t working as they are now, so they were looking after the house, feeding the family. Nearly all women were good cooks.
My grandparents were farmers – we had simple food, but it was always very fresh. All our chicken were from the yard. Twice a year they killed the pig. They made their own fois gras. My mother was a much better cook than my grandmother. She hated the farm so she managed to leave the farm when she was young – she wanted to live in town. Tarbes in the Pyrenees wasn’t a big town but there was a plentiful supply of good food. But if you wanted to eat lobster, you couldn’t buy it – there was either freshwater fish like trout or carp, or we had salted cod.
My grandmother was brilliant at doing jugged hare in red wine. The neighbours, when they shot a hare, would take it to her to prepare it for them. Even now, when I do one, the taste in my mouth is still carried according to how my grandmother did it – the same number of onions, the same number of garlic. To do it right, you’ve got to find a good wine, because the wine there is completely different. There, they make their own wine and when you drink it, there’s a purple mark on the glass. We call it the gros rouge qui tâche. And it was perfect for cooking – not too much alcohol.
Were they surprised you made cooking your career?
No, they were very supportive. In fact when I opened Tante Claire in 1977 my grandmother said ‘I’m going to send you 10 chickens!’ Can you imagine her going through customs? It was very sweet – they were so excited.
What was your last good meal in London?
The place I love to go is Joel Antunes, in that big hotel. The food is brilliant. It’s simple food, but executed to perfection – you should try it. The room isn’t so good – the hotel has these great views and they’ve put the restaurant in a space with no windows. But the service is good and the food is excellent.
Bruno Loubet – we also go there. Those are the kind of brasseries I like. I like Arbutus too. And a step up – Hibiscus is very good and Texture.
Another one with beautiful food is La Petite Maison. It’s always good, they do 250 covers a day in a small place like that. Raphael Duntoye used to work for me. He wasn’t a chef when he came to me, he was an engineer. I remember he came and said; ‘I would like to be a chef.’ I said Raphael – tomorrow you start on the vegetables. So the next morning he was there, he stayed with me for seven or eight years and he’s a brilliant chef.
I’ve had some brilliant guys working for me – Tom Aitkens, Tom Kitchin, Helena Puolakka at Skylon. And Bruno Loubet – he’s a brilliant chef. Eric Chavot is certainly the best of all.
You’ve trained up so many good people...
I’m not a horsetrainer. I always say with a donkey you can’t make a racehorse. They are people that come and think because they’re working with me they’re going to become a good chef. It’s because they want to be a good chef that they come to me. They take my ideas and the way I work.
I’ve had some brilliant guys working for me – Tom Aitkens, Tom Kitchin, Helena Puolakka at Skylon. And Bruno Loubet – he’s a brilliant chef. Eric Chavot is certainly the best of all. Marco Pierre White (if you want people like that) – there are some chefs that aren’t interested in being chefs they just want to be on TV.
You did a television series yourself back in the 1980s
Yes, that’s when we closed the restaurant for refurbishment. I bought the shop next door to Tante Claire to make the room more square, less of a corridor so we closed for five months. It was the series Take Six Chefs . They asked me to do it and I had nothing else to do. But I never enjoyed it.
What about books – are there plans for any more?
I did two ([La Tante Claire and Memories of Gascogny). If someone said I’d give you a million pounds to do another, maybe I’d change my mind, but I doubt it. To be honest, I just did the recipes – all the writing I had a friend Timothy Shaw do it for me. I find it boring to sit down and write how much salt, how many carrots. A book if you do it, it’s got to be stupid-proof, whereas cooking there’s a freedom to test it out.
You had a reputation for being a hard taskmaster. Is that still the case?
Not any more. Sometimes if [the staff] don’t do what I want after I’ve repeated it ten times, it’ll be a serious problem. But nothing compared to how I was before. I’m getting older and I’m getting softer.
So what were you like before?
If a guy wasn’t doing what I wanted, I would say; ‘You’ve got the front door or the back door – choose which one you want to leave by’. I never had a big team and I’d prefer to be on my own than with a bad chef. But I was very hard, yes. Especially with Bruno. Bruno was one of the first ones and I was very, very hard there.
Now it’s completely different – I’m more like a professor. I’ve got a girl from Australia here and she’s brilliant. You show her something and she wants to learn it – and that’s the thing, she wants to learn. You give her a recipe, show her how it works and she wants to do it properly. Those guys are a pleasure to work with.
So there are some people you gel with and others – like Marcus Wareing – that you don’t get on with at all?
Exactly, sometimes you don’t connect with people. With Marcus – there’s no point talking about that. He was not interesting at all. But Eric Chavot did five years with me and the beauty of him was that he knew me, he was one step in front of me, anticipating my move.
A lot of it comes down to getting the right staff then.
If you could do it without the staff it would be absolutely fantastic. From time to time you find good ones where it’s such a pleasure to pass on your knowledge to them.
But you seem much happier back in the kitchen than you were in semi-retirement. What were you doing between closing La Tante Claire and the Selfridges pop-up?
I did some consultancy – at the Bleeding Heart, the Head Chef left and they asked me if I wanted to come and I stayed there for nine months. I did some consulting for other restaurants – it’s good money and not too much responsibility. But the head chefs in these places never want to learn, they think you’re coming to take their job, so the best thing to do is find a new chef.
Presumably being a chef in a hotel restaurant is less stressful than owning your own place?
I’ve got my name on the door and I’m responsible for the restaurant and all the paperwork is done by the hotel. I choose the staff and suppliers - all the donkey work is done by the hotel. I’ve never been good with paperwork – I hated it. When I started Tante Claire I started it with my wife – she passed away – and she was great at all that and greeting the customers. She was absolutely brilliant. That’s why I never go into the dining room – I was always in the kitchen.
Now I’ve got a partner Claire – she’s very good with the customers. Some of the customers come back for Claire and not Pierre!