The whole experience of interviewing Shane Osborn is pretty weird. I've been here before. It was February 1996, and I'd come to Pied à Terre to interview the then chef and joint-proprietor, Richard Neat, days after he had received news of gaining his second star. It turned out to be one of the hardest interviews of my life. Neat had reached a crossroads in his life and was difficult to draw out. Disillusioned by the London restaurant scene, he left Pied à Terre two months later.
The Pied à Terre that stands in London's Charlotte Street today is a far cry from the restaurant I visited seven years ago. For starters, the place has been completely refurbished (Osborn and his business partner David Moore remortgaged their houses to the tune of £150,000 to do so). The front door has been moved and a second dining room has been created at the front of the restaurant, increasing the number of tables from 13 to 19. But it's not just the layout that's changed. The mood here is different, the staff are relaxed and not as uptight as they were. Nobody is walking on eggshells.
The difference, it seems, is Osborn. He radiates calm. He's approachable, laid-back (being an Aussie, he calls everyone "mate"), buoyant and accommodating. He could do without the interview, he confesses. Sunday Times restaurant critic AA Gill has just reviewed the restaurant, giving it a four out of five rating and with the inevitable knock-on result, they're turning away table after table at lunch.
"We won't be able to sit down and do a formal interview if that's OK?" he says, but he's happy to chat away while he fillets the day's order of fish - which in itself is amazing. Osborn has a severe allergy to fish. His solution is to fillet it while wearing surgical gloves.
So how allergic is he? "I can't eat or touch it. My tongue swells, my throat becomes itchy and my hands go red. My chefs have to do most of the tasting for me, but I can't not taste my sauces. It's a shame - I absolutely love fish." Osborn hasn't always had the allergy. He showed no signs of it while growing up in his native Perth, nor when he moved to London in 1991. But after living in Sweden for two years with his (now ex-) wife in the mid-1990s, he returned to England having developed an intolerance.
We're interrupted by the bread man, who drops his delivery on the counter, turns to me, declares that Osborn's a god, then disappears back up the stairs and out of the front door.
The description might be stretching it a bit, but it's obvious Osborn commands respect in his kitchen. The atmosphere is professional and fast-working, but relaxed. All six chefs on the shift (there's a brigade of nine) tear around. Osborn deftly works through a box of scallops, then moves on to his delivery of red mullet. He manages to juggle the constant phone calls, give his staff direction and continue our conversation with relative ease.
I'm intrigued by his management style. "I suppose I was inspired by my father [who died when Osborn was 15]. He ran a garage and created such a loyal following of customers. He had a reputation for never ripping anyone off. And he was very methodical in his teaching. I guess I've got a similar approach - I like to give people time. Not enough people give time to young chefs. And because of the way some chefs treat their staff, they don't get the best out of them."
Phil Howard, chef-patron of London's the Square, is an exception to the rule, says Osborn, who worked there for two years, joining as a chef de partie and leaving as junior sous. "Phil is a brilliantly kind person. He nurtures talent, he listens to people, he asks chefs de partie to come up with dishes. They might not make it on to the menu, but he encourages people to think about different ways of cooking."
Osborn's own cooking boasts a sense of wellbeing. Pick up any review or guidebook and you find the words "flawless", "precise" and "brilliant". The AA Restaurant Guide 2003, which gives the restaurant four rosettes out of a possible five describes the menu as "an intense read of complex partnerships, creative novelties that make the reader ponder… dishes tend towards the intensely flavoured… the outcomes are generally highly successful". Time Out declared recently: "Shane Osborn creates dishes that deserve reverential contemplation and a fully operational set of taste-buds. If you were sent home after just the amuse-bouche, you would still feel you'd eaten brilliantly. This is destination Eden for food lovers."
"I have to make allowances for the presentation of my food to make sure it arrives in the restaurant how it should," says Osborn. A small, awkward staircase links the kitchen to the restaurant. A dumb waiter, unused by Osborn's predecessors, was taken out of the kitchen before he became head chef. The area has created a larger wash-up, which Osborn thinks is more valuable.
Despite the staircase and Osborn's claim that he makes allowances, his food is always beautifully presented. Dishes arrive at the table looking clean, but not clinical. He works hard to deliver a palette of colours in a dish no matter what the season. The range of produce is vast. And while the usual luxury ingredients are there - nowhere better illustrated than in his signature dish of seared and poached foie gras in a Sauternes consommé - more standard items are around too, such as belly pork, skate wing, tuna and chicken.
Fish constitutes a good 40% of the menu and currently includes roasted red mullet and deep-fried squid with baby ratatouille, fennel purée, cockle and saffron vinaigrette; roasted monkfish with cannelloni of oxtail and chanterelles with ragoût of lentils and root vegetables; and peppered seared tuna with chive-crushed potatoes and shallot vinaigrette. But Osborn has a similar love of game, with a starter of quail breast with confit leg and cured foie gras with beetroot potato purée alongside a main course of stuffed rabbit saddle with Pommery mustard sauce, caramelised onions and creamed carrots. And, of course, his precise, refined style shines through the desserts.
According to partner David Moore, Osborn has an individual style. "He doesn't need to run with the crowd and he's really comfortable with his cooking. Pied à Terre has always flown beneath the radius - it has never been a media restaurant - and it suits Shane's personality. He likes the accolades, but he likes a fairly quiet life as well."
And for Pied à Terre, he's the perfect guy. "Shane considers himself a businessman," says Moore. "If we have regulars who need side dishes or quirky requests, for the most part he's happy to do what he can. But he does draw a line at cooking fat chips regardless of whether or not the customer's drinking Pétrus. But if people want him to leave sauces off or overcook their meat, no matter how appalled by it he is, his philosophy is ‘they're eating it and they're paying for it'."
The pair are currently looking for a site to open a brasserie. It's unlikely to be the West End; Islington or Clerkenwell are far more likely locations. "It's going to be a simpler restaurant, not a Pied à Terre," says Osborn. "Starters from £5, main courses £10, a three-course meal and a glass of wine for under £25. I think London really lacks something like that."
The michelin effect
Pied à Terre was first awarded a Michelin star in 1993, 13 months after opening. Richard Neat, the then chef-proprietor, took the kitchen on to two stars in 1996, but left the restaurant within months of receiving it. His successor, Tom Aikens, held the two stars for a further three years. A month after Aikens left the restaurant, in December 1999, it was demoted to one star. Shane Osborn, Aikens's sous chef, took over the kitchen and maintained a star for two years. He was awarded his second star last month.
Business partner David Moore
In just over a decade at London's Pied à Terre restaurant, David Moore has worked with three different head chefs. Since 1993 the restaurant has never been without a Michelin star and is now in its second spell of enjoying two. To achieve this the chefs have had to be seriously accomplished, but it is Moore who has run the restaurant which has given them the setting in which to shine.
That hasn't always been easy. The chef with whom he opened the restaurant, Richard Neat, was so determined to prepare grand food that he refused to provide a green salad as a substitute first course. Moore's priority was his customers, so he simply bypassed his chef.
"Every morning someone would go to Tesco, get a salad and a bottle of vinaigrette and if anyone wanted a green salad we would make it behind the bar. Richard never discovered what was going on. We just told him that some people didn't want a first course," he says.
Tom Aikens and Shane Osborn, the two chefs since Neat's reign ended in 1996, have been happier about making a simple salad, but Moore is still highly attuned to the potential pitfalls of chefs' attitudes.
"Richard cooked what he wanted to cook rather than what the customer necessarily wanted. This isn't unusual. Chefs get bored with preparing the same dish again and again. The problem with changing too much is that customers often like the dishes that are taken off and dishes that can be made by the kitchen blindfold are the ones that achieve the consistency that we want. Rapid change affects consistency. I think consistency is what Michelin wants."
It's fashionable to play down the importance of Michelin, but Moore is unashamedly proud of the restaurant's recently regained second star. He admits to being devastated when Pied à Terre lost its second star first time around in the 2000 guide and he strongly believes it has been cooking two-star food for some time.
Pied à Terre
34 Charlotte Street
London W1P 1HJ
Tel 020 7636 1178
Proprietors: David Moore (majority shareholder), Shane Osborn, plus two non-executive directors, Nick Wright and Clifford Harris
Seats: 49 plus private dining for 15
Dishes include: terrine of foie gras with confit duck leg and cured foie gras with beetroot potato purée; spaetzli with soft poached duck egg, trompette de la mort, hazelnut emulsion with black truffle; fillet of sea bass with oysters and watercress in a vichyssoise sauce; roasted best end of Pyrenees lamb with cumin-scented aubergine purée and red pepper sauce; bitter-sweet chocolate tart with stout ice-cream; anise mousse with caramelised poached pear and liquorice sugar
Average spend: £75 including wine
Approximate annual turnover: £1.2m
The big day
On the day the dreaded Michelin Guide was published last month, Shane Osborn, in the depths of his London restaurant and preparing for service, heard a scream.
It was about 8.30am and the brigade was well into its mise en place. "I suddenly heard this awful noise coming from the staircase," he recalls. "Brian the electrician was working on the stairs, so I immediately thought ‘Bloody hell, is he alright?' but then I heard David shout ‘Yahoo', and I knew then that we'd got our second star."
The news, which made Osborn the first Australian chef to be awarded two stars, took him completely by surprise. A week before the guide came out, he'd heard whisperings that there was only one new two-starred restaurant in Britain - Pétrus, he had thought, and immediately dismissed Pied à Terre's chances of regaining the accolade it had lost in 2000.
While Osborn and Moore are clearly delighted that the restaurant has been acknowledged for its cooking style, Michelin appears not to be the centre of their universe. Osborn, in particular, is reluctant to dwell on the subject.
"I've had some great meals in Michelin-starred restaurants and some terrible ones. Without a doubt it's the most highly regarded guide in cooking, but that doesn't mean it's gospel." He prefers to discuss matters such as making Pied à Terre a commercial success and nurturing staff.