Nico Ladenis's relationship with the brasserie-style eateries that bear his name is an uneasy one. He sold Simply Nico and Nico Central to Roy Ackerman's Restaurant Partnership three years ago, and, although he is retained as a consultant, he accepts that different standards in the brasseries could have a detrimental effect on the feted Chez Nico restaurant.
At the beginning Simply Nico and Nico Central were praised. They were the Independent's bistros of the year within 12 months and earned a Red M in the Michelin Guide. The problem now, says Ladenis, is one of control, or lack of it: "There comes a time when the control is getting further away and you reach a point where you say perhaps it's not doing my name any good. I'm beginning to get worried about losing control over the standards to such an extent that my role as consultant will be annulled."
There is a cartoon at the entrance to the headquarters of Nico Ladenis's gastronomic empire in London's Grosvenor House hotel. It shows an irate Ladenis brandishing a meat cleaver and chasing a couple of terrified diners from Chez Nico. One of the diners says to the other: "Well I didn't know he hadn't got his third star in the Michelin Guide!"
The Jak cartoon appeared in London's Evening Standard just after the publication of the 1994 guide. The third star that the notoriously quick-tempered Ladenis so passionately wanted had once again eluded him and he was not a happy man: "I was convinced that I had been scratched from the race. Eleven years at two-star level is a very long sentence," he records in Nico, his volume of recipes and recollections that was published in 1996.
The 1995 guide brought better news. After 25 years in the kitchen - and 14 years after Michelin had first recognised Ladenis's talent by giving his restaurant, then in Battersea, one star - the Greek-born naturalised Briton was elevated to the rarefied ranks of three-star chefdom to rub shoulders with Pierre Koffmann of La Tante Claire, Michel Roux of the Waterside Inn, and the newly-promoted Marco Pierre White, then cooking at the Restaurant, Hyde Park hotel.
"It was like a new lease of life," Ladenis says of winning the ultimate culinary accolade. Four years on, the 1999 Michelin Guide has confirmed Ladenis's position at the top of the culinary tree. He is determined to remain there for the foreseeable future, despite the pressures that come with three stars and despite approaching an age - he is 65 next month - at which most people start to think about taking it easy. He is in no mind to let standards slip, and although he no longer cooks - "it's better in the kitchen since I stopped interfering" - he discusses every detail of the menu with head chef Paul Rhodes, demands to know how dishes are selling, and insists on hearing diners' comments.
His determination is remarkable: "I will never lose a star. I will not stoop to the indignity of that. I will surrender the stars to Michelin when I am ready and then hand over the restaurant to the Grosvenor House. I will not let others gloat."
And his recipe for keeping the three stars shining is simple: "I simply will not allow any inconsistency in my food. I am single-minded in the control of my kitchen and my food, and I have an excellent head chef who is also very single-minded and not a prima donna in any way. My wife and children are my worst critics, but I'm very careful to monitor our position with customers too - I always try and find out from them if we're going in the right direction. I get worried when there are no comments."
French without fears
Ladenis eats in his own restaurant three or four times a week and confesses to liking his food more and more. Unashamedly classical French, it pays little heed to food fads. "My food is a reflection of who I am and what I am. I am conservative with a small and a large 'c', and I'm very single-minded. There is so much in French classical cuisine that there is no point in deviating. That would be confusing." His preferred ingredients are very classical and very luxurious - the starter menu alone boasts delicacies using foie gras, pigs' trotters, lobster, black truffles and Oscietra caviare, while John Dory, Bresse pigeon, sweetbreads and milk-fed veal feature on the main courses.
The menu is tweaked every few months rather than radically overhauled, to avoid disappointing regulars who come to enjoy a specific dish. Ladenis's signature starter dish of seared escalope of fresh foie gras with brioche and caramelised orange, for example, has remained on the menu little changed for 19 years. "We've tried it different ways, with fruit for example, but it didn't work and we kept going back to the old way," says Rhodes, who was at Ninety Park Lane before Ladenis took over the restaurant in August 1992 and now leads the 14-strong brigade in the Chez Nico kitchen. Another favourite starter is the warm ballotine of quail with salad and crispy potato which has been on the menu for about two years. "It's such a simple dish, and the flavours are outstanding," he says.
Of the main courses, Rhodes picks out the noisettes of saddle of lamb. Now on the menu for more than a year, the dish is prepared with a coating of breadcrumbs, garlic, olive oil and served sliced on a galette of vegetables and wild mushrooms. "The morels and girolles are a fairly recent addition. It's a very pretty dish with a lot going on." It goes without saying at three-star level that all the ingredients are the best available.
Puddings err on the side of the simple rather than the dramatic, Ladenis rejecting the precarious creations found in many a trendy restaurant. Rhodes says: "We do the best lemon tart in London. It's full of lemon, simple and stunning to look at; and the chocolate tart is also one of the best." Other best-selling puddings include the plate of assorted mini desserts which brings together 10 tiny puddings, and the tulipe with vanilla ice-cream and red berries steeped in Armagnac.
Even though the cooking is Rhodes's, Ladenis lays claim to the dishes: "They are all completely mine. I developed them with Paul. There is nothing on the menu that did not come from me." The same principle works for what is not on the menu - you will never eat rabbit at Chez Nico, Ladenis loathes sun-dried tomatoes, and, while he enjoys eating at London's Royal China, Tamarind and Old Delhi restaurants, whiffs of fusion cooking will never emanate from his kitchen.
The fusion threat is a real one, though, and Ladenis believes its popularity can only rise to the detriment of classical French cooking such as his. He reluctantly admits that fusion flavours could make inroads even in France.
But for Ladenis, by far the greatest threat to the British culinary scene is not related to food, but to attitude and a lack of mutual respect among chefs. He bemoans the in-fighting and jealousy in the industry, and argues that until they disappear the UK can never begin to touch the gastronomic heights enjoyed by France.
"In France and Italy, chefs are friendly. There is a lot of co-operation. Burgundian chefs have associations, they work together to try and improve training, for example. It is a more mature industry, it has its feet on the ground. Perhaps the whole business of good food is too new for us in the UK, perhaps it is still too different."
Criticising peers is the ultimate in unacceptable behaviour, he says: "I believe that one Michelin-starred chef should not criticise another because in doing that he is only criticising himself. That's the golden rule. Anyone who has earned a star is worthy of it, and chefs need to be companions, friends, brothers."
It may all sound a little holier-than-thou, but Ladenis is quick to point out his own failings: "I'm not a saint and I'm not saying that in my early days I didn't show passion and I didn't present myself as someone who was aggressive. In my case aggression was a manifestation of insecurity. But I only had one target - the critics - and I vented my fury against them either by confrontation or by correspondence. Now I respect their stance and the fact that they won't be bullied."
He reserves his greatest respect for restaurant critics Jonathan Meades, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Fay Maschler, although his past relations with Maschler have been stormy: "We didn't always see eye to eye at first, but now we are friends. I admire her consistency." Ladenis's respect for fellow chefs - he cites Raymond Blanc, Michel Roux, Pierre Koffmann and Marco Pierre White, whom he sees as "close to a genius" in the kitchen - has never wavered, he says.
Reluctantly, Ladenis admits that even if chefs do stop the in-fighting, the British culinary scene will still struggle to reach the same standard as the French: "We are always being told that Britain is the gastronomic capital of Europe, but it's just not true. France and Italy will never be caught up by Britain; Paris will never be overtaken by London. Food is ingrained in the French way of life. In London it is not yet mature, and has not reached that level."
Ladenis argues that while the quality of food served in a British restaurant can match that served in a French one, high standards are attained in many, many more restaurants in France than in the UK. Paris boasts six three-star restaurants, 23 two-star restaurants, and a staggering 53 one-star places. London's quota stretches to two three-star; five two-star; and 19 one-star establishments. Up to now, and for the foreseeable future, the balance is tipped firmly in France's favour. n