As he relaunches Bibendum this week, Sir Terence Conran’s flagship restaurant in the iconic Michelin building in London’s Fulham Road, Claude Bosi tells Fiona Sims what he has planned for the venue
A corner of Bibendum’s iconic stained-glass window is just visible above a large piece of plywood. It has been propped up there to protect it while builders transform the place. In case you didn’t already know, Claude Bosi is moving in.
The two-Michelin-starred chef closed Hibiscus, his Mayfair restaurant, last October, and he has upped sticks to Fulham Road, to Sir Terence Conran’s flagship, which has been renamed Claude Bosi at Bibendum. He has taken over this legendary South Kensington landmark and flung open its doors on Wednesday this week (29 March), with a fine-dining restaurant upstairs, and a refreshed all-day café and seafood bar downstairs.
Bosi will, of course, be bringing his familiar wizardry to the new kitchen here, but he’s also bringing back some Bibendum classics – albeit a tad tampered with.
Bibendum, which has never had a Michelin star in its entire history, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. The building – called Michelin House – was commissioned by the Michelin Tyre Company as its British headquarters in 1909, but it moved out in 1985, when Conran and publisher Paul Hamlyn snapped it up.
“A lot of the stuff we have ripped out dated back to the 1980s,” says Bosi, surveying what will be his new, partly open kitchen. Its strategically placed windows look out over that cavernous first-floor dining room and the elegantly stuccoed Pelham Street.
Treading new ground
The restaurant was a trailblazer when it opened in 1987, a time when the capital’s food scene was enjoying a newfound confidence.
It sat alongside other groundbreaking newcomers, notably the River Café, Kensington Place and Alastair Little.
Bibendum’s opening head chef, Simon Hopkinson, continued to break the mould by celebrating the simplicity of cuisine from the Continent. Among the dishes served were tripes à la Lyonnaise, calves’ brains with sauce gribiche and rabbit with mustard sauce.
That Bibendum is reinventing itself now, in these unsettling times of Brexit et al, seems entirely appropriate. And that it is rising from the ashes with a mighty Michelin-starred Obelix such as Bosi at its helm is also fitting – and should bring some much-needed cheer to the capital. And yes, tripes à la Lyonnaise will still be on the menu.
“If I had tried to put tripe on in Mayfair, people would turn up their noses,” scoffs Bosi.
“But it’s always been on the menu at Bibendum, along with other French classics – and yes, some of those dishes are from Lyon, where I’m from. I’m not saying these dishes weren’t done properly before – just that we will refine them. The idea that I can use produce from my area for this venture excites me.”
Bosi explains that of the seven or eight starters and the same number of mains planned for the new à la carte menu, there will always be one or two Bibendum ‘classics’, mixing up the simple with the sophisticated. Though how simple is simple, exactly?
“If it says calves’ liver and onions, you’ll get calves’ liver and onions. But I’ll make sure they are the right onions, and maybe I’ll do a little farcis with the onion and the bacon to keep the flavour of it. The dish will have a little bit more detail, but without departing from the original flavour – that’s important,” he stresses.
And, promises Bosi, there will always be roast chicken on the menu, another Bibendum classic, which will be part of the new carvery element he will be introducing. “It’s a direct nod to Hopkinson,” says Bosi, who is still yet to meet the man.
He’s also excited about the vintage 1928 guéridon he has tracked down – in fact, trolleys will be a thing here. There will also be a dessert trolley packed with classics, such as Paris-Brest and îles flottantes, and an ice-cream trolley. “Or maybe chariot sounds better?” laughs Bosi.
There will be sharing dishes, such as that chicken, plus a whole Dover sole farci for two. There will also be a plat du jour, which will include a main course, a glass of wine and a coffee, the price of which Bosi is still playing around with.
“We’ll charge what we need to charge for the plat du jour, but it won’t be expensive. That said, we are hoping that not too many people will come and have just one or two courses or we’ll go bust,” he laughs.
So who will come, exactly? After all, the area has changed dramatically over the last few years, now colonised by non-doms who have snapped up many of the surrounding properties only to leave them empty.
“Well, for starters, we’ve got lots of offices in this building, so I’m hoping they will want to come in for a quick lunch or a business lunch,” replies Bosi. The restaurant will open for lunch and dinner from Wednesday to Saturday, and it will open for lunch on Sunday, while the all-day dining seafood bar and cafe will open daily.
“I’ve been thinking more about my heritage recently and this place is giving me that opportunity. Before, I had a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in the city. But it could have been any two-Michelin-starred restaurant in any city. This place will represent where I come from and I’m going to make sure that comes across,” he says. “But although I want to move away from the more usual image of fine dining, we will be definitely trying to get back to where we were in Maddox Street – two Michelin stars. That’s what I came here for.”
And he might just pull it off. He has brought his 11-strong brigade with him from Hibiscus and a fair few of his front of house team, including his sommelier Martino Bosco.
There question is if any of his fellow countrymen are on the team. Bosi, who has lived in the UK for 20 years, got involved in a bit of spat a few years back when he told a journalist that he thought “the French are a very lazy people”, that “they live in the past”, and that he could never go back home. He has tempered that opinion now, somewhat. Any French chef who has travelled extensively, or lived in the capital and is used to our city ways and the long hours, aren’t included in that slight, he says.
“You still get issues with some of the young lads who come here straight from home. They have a quality of life in France that they think they will get here, and very few of them accept those changes, such as the longer hours and the general pace of life here,” he shrugs.
As for going back home, there’s no chance. He’s an honorary Brit and his idea of a perfect day off is a pie and a pint down the pub. “You can go have a drink, read the papers, or eat a big meal. Or watch France being beaten at rugby – again. Who doesn’t love a British pub?”
He loves them so much, in fact, that he also owns a couple with his brother, Cedric. There’s the Church Inn in Ludlow, which they bought just before Christmas, and the Swan near Esher in Surrey, which they snapped up in May last year. In addition, the brothers co-own a nine-room hotel in Ludlow called the Townhouse. Claude and Cedric did once own a couple of London pubs, including the Fox & Grapes in Wimbledon, which won the Menu of the Year Catey in 2011, but they sold out their share in them in 2013.
Not that this love of the grassroots prevents him being seduced by the fancy stuff. Expect carpets, curtains, linen and silver at the new-look Bibendum. “I do like a carpet in a restaurant, especially in a big room like this. And I like tablecloths, too – I think it would look weird without them. And I like silver – lots of it, and fine glasses. I think that’s my French side coming out,” he shrugs. “I know it’s not cool and trendy, but I love it.”
So is this it for Bosi? Any more pubs up his sleeve? “That’s it. My life is here now – my wife Lucy would cut my balls off if I opened anything else,” he grins. “But I’m looking forward to it. I’ll be living in this building for a good while yet, fingers crossed.”
Bosi will open with around 75% of the menu consisting of spring 2016 dishes from Hibiscus. “We took some of the most popular dishes, such as the crab and elderflower starter, and the sea bream with morels, coffee and tarragon. I thought it was rather silly to have all our old team here and start with everything new; why kick yourself in the nuts?” as Bosi elegantly puts it. Why, indeed.
“I will also be reproducing some dishes from home, from Lyon. But I will try and find the produce here, if I can. For example, I’ve been looking at different chickens. For the rôtisserie, the heat is different, so I need to find a particular type – ones from Bresse are prohibitively expensive, but I think I’ve found a good producer in Scotland,” he says.
Another of those dishes from home includes the beef à la Ficelle – poached beef. “We’ll serve it from the guéridon,” he says. “I’m also doing a dish of tripe and cuttlefish that my mother used to make. I served a version of it at Hibiscus. And I will make these little savoury cakes inspired by a Lyon speciality made with
parsley, pig’s ears and Parmesan.”
Bosi isn’t holding back on the brawn. Veal brain will feature on the menu, another throwback to Bibendum’s classics. “I’ll serve it with sauce gribiche,” he says.
He is also promising to make certain dishes a permanent fixture, such as that roast chicken. “People need to be able to go to a restaurant and know a dish is always there if they want it,” he says.
The wine list also sounds promising. Bosi has put natural wine guru, Isabelle Legeron, in charge of putting the list together, but stresses that he will take a rather tamer approach this time around. “I don’t want to put people off, so I’m not taking as many natural wines here as I did at Hibiscus. Maybe a few more downstairs – natural and biodynamic wines pair well with oysters and shellfish. But upstairs we will go a bit more classic – the theme is ‘fantastic traditional’.”
Sir Terence Conran on Claude Bosi
When the last of the chefs who worked in the original Hopkinson team left the company last year, Michael Hamlyn and I realised that our beautiful Bibendum needed a major refit. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for Claude Bosi to approach us, keen to do a deal with us as a chef and an equal shareholder.
He loved our restaurant and, of course, our Michelin building, so we agreed to the new structure and he has played a huge role in the new Bibendum.
Claude has completely revitalised our restaurant, recognising the tradition of the Bibendum menu but modernising and breathing new life in to it with his own dishes and vision. The food really is quite simply superb, cooked in what must be the best modern kitchen in London.
We have all worked closely on the interiors with Isabelle Chatel de Brancion of Spin Architecture, who has refreshed the space while making sure the regulars will still feel very much at home in the new restaurant. The stained-glass Monsieur Bibendum looks on proudly from all corners of the room and the light- filled dining room is as elegant and beautiful as ever.
Bibendum remains the most personal restaurant I have ever created, but Claude has played a major role in bringing it up to date and revitalising it. After 30 years of success, we hope that his new Bibendum will give our loyal customers pleasure for the next 30 years.
Nunc est Bibendum!
Claude Bosi – the early years
Claude Bosi was born in Lyon in 1972 and he developed a passion for cooking at his parent’s bistro. After graduating from catering college, he worked in Paris with legendary chefs Alain Passard and Alain Ducasse. He moved to the UK in 1997, settling in Ludlow, where he worked as sous and then head chef at Overton Grange, earning a Michelin star at just
25 years old.
Bosi and his former wife Claire then opened their own restaurant in Ludlow, called Hibiscus, which subsequently gained two Michelin stars. They then surprised the industry by moving the starred restaurant to Mayfair, in 2007, and
then he surprised everybody once again by selling up last year.
Bosi explains: “My rent was going up from £185,000 to £250,000. But the business rates were going up even further, by a rumoured 100%. We were looking at around £400,000 that we would need to pay out every year. We could have just about afforded it, but I talked to my wife, Lucy, about whether it was really worth
it. We found someone who made us a good offer, so we thought, why not? We can start again. I’ve done it before, so why not again?”
He then had an email from Conran’s office, asking him whether he was up for some consultancy work at Bibendum. “It was in such a state I said I couldn’t
put my name to it. I told them I would need to be here all the time to make this work, so I walked away. I got an email a couple of days later, asking me to meet up with Sir Terence Conran, and he talked me into a permanent position, as head chef. Then we decided to get even more involved so we bought some shares,
using the money from the sale of Hibiscus,” he explains.
Bosi is optimistic about the partnership with Conran. “If I could have his mind at that age – he’s 85 years old – I would be very happy. I’ve had a few business
partners in my time, but no one quite like him. It’s great to work with someone who understands what restaurants are about. He asks me things like, are you sure you’ve got enough space between the tables? Have you got enough
waiter stations?” says Bosi.
So how has it been for him, refurbishing a landmark? “I can run a restaurant, but dealing with builders, project managers, designers – this is new territory for me. To be honest, I can’t wait to get back to where I belong – in the kitchen,” he says.