Pierre Koffmann is making a comeback, for two weeks, in a marquee on the roof of Selfridges, as part of the first London Restaurant Festival. Kerstin Kühn talks to the man, whose reputation at La Tante Claire was unrivalled, about Michelin stars, retirement and other great chefs.
"Pierre Koffmann is God," a chef once told me. Well, God is back.
Nearly seven years after closing his iconic La Tante Claire restaurant, the French chef has decided to return to the stove next month in a pop-up restaurant at London department store Selfridges. La Tante Claire at Selfridges will form part of the inaugural London Restaurant Festival and will, no doubt, be one of its biggest highlights.
A chef so dedicated to his restaurant that it would close when he was away, Koffmann ran La Tante Claire for 25 years. His culinary style - a refined version of the French country cooking of his home region of Gascony - not only gained him the top accolade of three Michelin stars, but has also inspired the cooking of countless other chefs, among them Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay. The latter made Koffmann an offer he couldn't refuse when Ramsay bought the original La Tante Claire premises on Chelsea's Royal Hospital Road in 1998, prompting Koffmann, after more than 20 years, to relocate to the Berkeley hotel. The move cost La Tante Claire its third star, which it lost in 1999, and Koffmann never regained it.
"I was not jumping with joy when that happened," he recalls. "But once you're part of the [Michelin] game you have to accept that you either win or lose. If you're at the top the only thing you can do is come down."
But, he adds, there was a sense of disappointment that still lingers today. "I know that other chefs were warned by Michelin if they were in danger of losing their third star. I got no warnings and I felt really disappointed with Michelin for that."
Koffmann closed La Tante Claire in December 2002 and things became very quiet around him. Apart from a few consultancy jobs here and there, the man who for 25 years was famously wedded to his stove, disappeared off the face of the London restaurant scene.
Does he have any regrets? "No, I don't regret anything but, looking back, maybe I would have done things differently," he ponders. "Perhaps I would have employed a very good head chef who could've replaced me but, at the time, I didn't think like that. I needed a break; it was my choice to stop and it was an amazing feeling to be able to retire."
But after closing the restaurant and travelling for a year, Koffmann returned to London and found that retirement wasn't all it was cracked up to be ("it's very boring"). Plans to open another restaurant never materialised and instead he helped other chefs and operators to success by consulting on their projects. However, talking to him today it's obvious he never truly forgot his kitchen.
"I still miss cooking very much," he admits. "As soon as I have my feet in a kitchen I am happy. Cooking is the only thing I know and I still really enjoy it."
And so he's back; even if it is just for 10 days. "I'm very excited. There will be a lot of pressure but that's what working in a restaurant is all about: the tension, the noise, the smell. It will be a challenge but something I will very much enjoy."
TANTE IN A TENT
La Tante Claire at Selfridges, which will run from 8 to 17 October, will be housed in a marquee on the roof of the Oxford Street department store, which this year celebrates its 100th anniversary. The 80-cover restaurant will be designed, set up and managed by Selfridges with its high-profile sommelier Dawn Davies overseeing the front of house. All produce will come from Selfridges' suppliers.
Koffmann will be joined in the kitchen by some of his former La Tante Claire protégés, who these days are celebrated chefs in their own right. They are: the Michelin-starred chefs Eric Chavot, Tom Aikens and Tom Kitchin as well as Raphael Duntoye, Helena Puolakka and chocolatier William Curley. Each one of them will spend a day in the kitchen with Koffmann, cooking a three-course menu to represent their respective restaurants. "It will be such a pleasure to work with them again - they are all really great chefs," Koffmann says with a distinct sense of affection and pride.
So what will be on the menu? "At first I thought I would do some new dishes but after talking with old customers and friends they all said I should do the classic dishes, the ones I am well known for," he says.
Indeed the menu, priced at £75 for three courses, will include some of his most famous dishes: pig's trotter stuffed with morels and sweetbreads; foie gras galette with roast shallots, fried potato cake and Sauternes sauce; and pistachio soufflé and ice-cream. Other dishes will include a starter of lentil soup with potted duck scratchings; a main course of salt cod confit in spiced goose fat; and a classic dessert of rum baba.
"I am doing a short menu of five starters, mains and desserts. There will also be specials every day as I do want to cook something different from the classics," Koffmann explains. "The chefs coming in have given me their menus but it's their responsibility and they can do what they want. The only thing I asked is that they cook something seasonal. It'll be October so I don't want to see asparagus or strawberries on the menu."
Despite a reputation for shyness, Koffmann is warm and engaging in conversation and shows a passion for cooking that is as alive as it ever was. In the modern age of the celebrity chef, Koffmann has always been an anomaly, a stark contrast to some of his contemporaries. He's a cook at heart, who is simply not interested in stardom and doesn't see any value in being a celebrity.
"Chefs these days want to be in Hello! magazine and become as famous as Madonna. I don't see the point," he says. "They spend years working together and suddenly they don't like each other any more. If they were more clever, they would help each other, not criticise each other."
Koffmann admires the likes of Ferran Adrià and regards the chef-patron of the three-Michelin-starred El Bulli in Girona, Spain, as "a genius".
"You go to El Bulli and have 35 courses, of which five will be absolutely incredible and five you won't like; the remaining 25 are creativity at its best," he enthuses. "I could never cook like that, it's not my style, but I go there and have a beautiful time. I have been about 16 times and every time the menu is different - you never see the same dish twice."
He argues that while France is still in a league of its own when it comes to fine dining, Spain now offers a better selection of restaurants on the whole. "I have had some really bad meals in France in recent years. The days where you drive around and stop anywhere and find a great simple restaurant are long gone. I think you eat better in Spain now than in France but in terms of the bigger picture France is still on top."
What about the UK? Koffmann says Heston Blumenthal's three-Michelin-starred Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, is arguably the best restaurant in the UK, but comments: "It's not as creative as El Bulli." His favourite restaurant in London is Arbutus. But it is obvious he would like to have a restaurant of his own among his favourites.
"I would love to open another restaurant. Not one to have Michelin stars or anything like that; just a simple restaurant or brasserie where I can cook the things I want to eat. A place where I am happy to cook," Koffmann says with a sparkle in his eye. "Hopefully it will happen before I get too old."
DON'T MISS THE LONDON RESTAURANT FESTIVAL
The inaugural London Restaurant Festival will take place from 8 to 13 October and has been created by the London Evening Standard's food critic Fay Maschler and Simon Davis, who together run restaurant consultancy Private View.
Supported by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and tourism body Visit London, it will be a city-wide celebration of dining out designed to raise the profile of establishments involved and drive footfall.
The London Restaurant Festival will run as an umbrella under which a variety of events will take place. These will include "gourmet odysseys" on London buses travelling between different restaurants from course to course; a food film festival; a Bistrotheque pop-up restaurant at the Andaz Hotel; and the biggest ever Sunday roast cooked by chefs including Fergus Henderson, John Torode and Mark Hix at Leadenhall Market. It will culminate in an awards gala dinner held at Soho House Group's Pizza East.
See www.visitlondon.com/londonrestaurantfestival for more details.
GUEST CHEFS ON COOKING WITH KOFFMANN
Executive chef, Skylon, London
Worked with Koffmann 1996-1999 and 2001-2002
"I'm really looking forward to cooking with Pierre again. He came to my kitchen recently to do some mise en place and I was really stressed out beforehand. But it was great to have him, he's different now. All the consulting he has done has made him a great teacher; he wasn't like that at La Tante Claire."
Owner, William Curley chocolate shops, London
Worked with Koffmann 1994-1996
"It's wonderful that in this age of celebrity chefs Pierre Koffmann is still very much the king of chefs. When I first moved to London at the age of 20, Koffmann opened so many doors for me - he not only taught me how to cook but also how to organise myself and work properly. I'm very excited to be able to give him a hand."
Chef-proprietor, the Kitchin, Edinburgh
Worked with Koffmann 1996-1999 and 2001-2002
"It's a great honour for me to be involved in this. Pierre Koffmann is a legend and like a father to me and it's such an honour for me to represent my own restaurant in his kitchen."
Head chef, La Petite Maison, London
Worked with Koffmann 1997-2002
"It's a trip down memory lane and a real honour to be cooking alongside Pierre again. I once said that if one day I am a great chef it will be because of him. The biggest thing I learnt from Pierre was to be true and cook honestly."
Chef-proprietor, Tom Aikens and Tom's Kitchen, London
Worked with Koffmann 1992-1993 and 1997
"It will be really good fun to be back in the kitchen with Pierre; I know how much he misses it. Things will be different between us now as I'm not as much of a little boy any more."