Pierre Koffmann returned to a London stove for one night only last month to host a culinary demonstration for industry butcher Nigel Fredericks and a select gathering of chefs. Joanna Wood was there too
Pierre Koffmann's La Tante Claire restaurant closed its doors in London five years ago, yet his reputation as an immensely skilled "chef's chef" has remained undimmed in the intervening half-decade.
So when industry butcher Nigel Fredericks, in association with government promotion body the English Beef and Lamb Executive (Eblex), announced that it was hosting a one-off Koffmann masterclass at its Colindale headquarters last month, there was no shortage of chefs taking up the chance to see their idol in the flesh.
Astonishingly, it was the first masterclass that Koffmann had ever hosted - "I might make some mistakes," he joked. He opted to cook beef and lamb bistro classics - daube of beef, navarin of lamb, rump steak à la bordelaise with marrowbone, leg of lamb - Gascony style, with anchovies, in honour of his home region in France - and a beefburger with foie gras, again in homage to Gascony.
Throughout the masterclass - in which he was ably assisted by Jeremy Trehout from the Bleeding Heart restaurant, London - Koffmann not only passed on kernels of culinary knowledge but also chatted openly about his career, past and future. Why, for instance, he had pulled the plug on La Tante Claire. "I was fed up," he explained. "At the beginning it was fun and I enjoyed it, but towards the end I was cooking food that wasn't my style any more. I always wanted to stop cooking at 45, but then you get to 45 and you can't afford it. But at 55 I said ‘enough'."
He added: "Then Gordon [Ramsay] came into the restaurant one day and said, ‘chef I want to buy Tante Claire.' So I said, ‘I'll give you a price but you won't be able to afford it.' A week later his father-in-law came back with the money."
As to the persistent rumours of his return to the restaurant scene, he told his audience that these were a little premature, even though he had been behind the stove at the Bleeding Heart for lunch services in July - as part of his consultancy work for his friends, its owners Robert and Robyn Wilson. But he conceded that he still thinks about buying another restaurant. "My head says ‘yes', but my legs say ‘don't be stupid'." If he did go into business again, he added, it wouldn't be to chase Michelin accolades, rather to put out tasty, brasserie food.
Koffmann was, famously, the first chef to gain widespread acclaim in the UK for transforming pigs' trotters into haute cuisine. "I didn't invent it - just changed the recipe a bit. I used to do it with sweetbreads, morels, chicken mousse to bind, onions. The funniest thing was teaching young English chefs to debone a trotter - they took ages," he recalled with a smile.
The dish, of course, has been widely imitated. Among British chefs, Marco Pierre White, who once worked for Koffmann, gained plaudits for his own interpretation. Recalling White's time in his kitchen, Koffmann said: "Marco was a very good chef, a good worker - but he had a few problems with discipline. The most brilliant chef I ever trained was Eric Chavot. He talks a lot but he's brilliant."
Many other subjects were touched on during the evening - subjects such as his favourite dishes (bouillabaisse to eat, lièvre royale to cook) the value of books (they should be guides, not bibles) markets (they save money and encourage you to use your brain) molecular gastronomy ("I think it's brilliant if you can do it as good as at El Bulli but I can't imagine myself going to El Bulli every Sunday lunch - I go there once a year"), and the mystique of cooking, a subject raised by the Square's chef-proprietor Phil Howard, one of the specially invited audience, who mused that the joy of cooking was missing if you got too scientific in the kitchen.
"I suppose you lose some of the romance of cooking when you use a water bath - I do a dish like a daube of beef because I first tasted it when my grandmother cooked it and I do it the way she did. I've never used a probe because I think it takes away some of the skill of the chef. Cooking meat is all about touching," responded Koffmann.
Another "touching" skill is the art of baking, and one of La Tante Claire's trademarks was its 12 varieties of bread. "When I came to London there were no good bread suppliers, so we had to bake every day. But it's a very sensual thing, baking bread. I would love to have been a baker," admitted Koffmann, before giving away a trade secret: "Use bottled water - it rises better."
He gave away one more secret, too - the reason why he came to London more than 35 years ago: "I love rugby - I came to see the French beat England at Twickenham." No one mentioned Argentina.
Eblex Quality Beef and Lamb Schemes
To guarantee the consistently high-quality dishes that customers expect, chefs must be able to work with high-quality ingredients. This not only gives them confidence in the dishes they're producing, but also protects their reputation, and that of their business.
As beef and lamb are central to so many dishes on the average menu, it's essential that chefs ensure they're using a high-quality supplier.
The English Beef and Lamb Executive's (Eblex) Quality Standard scheme for beef and lamb, of which Nigel Fredericks is a member, was developed to address key consumer concerns about the eating quality of red meat, such as succulence and tenderness. It is the only scheme in the UK to cover eating quality.
Beef and lamb suppliers which are members of the scheme will be able to meet requirements over and above the current legal standards, guaranteeing their customers a product of integrity and consistently high eating standards.
Only beef and lamb sourced from a fully assured supply chain registered by Eblex can carry the Quality Standard Mark and scheme members are independently inspected at every stage of the supply chain to ensure only beef or lamb that meets the scheme's requirements is sold as Quality Standard.
To join Eblex's Quality Standard scheme and benefit from the range of marketing and point-of-sale materials available to members, caterers simply need to register with Eblex, which will verify that they are sourcing from an approved supplier.
For further information, call 0800 781 4221 or visit www.eblexfoodservice.co.uk.
Founded in 1890, Nigel Fredericks is recognised as one of the catering industry's top butchers, known for sourcing quality produce from both the UK and Europe.
The family-owned and run business is based at Colindale in north-west London. In addition to climate-controlled storage and hanging facilities (including a dry-ageing room for beef), it has a development kitchen in which it frequently holds bespoke training courses for its clients.
The Pierre Koffmann masterclass was the first event of this kind held in the development kitchen, but Nigel Tottman, the company's managing director, anticipates hosting similar demonstrations in the future. "The feedback we had from the evening was that everybody had thoroughly enjoyed not only the cooking but chatting with Pierre - about his childhood and the chefs he has worked with," he says. "There are some incredibly interesting people in the industry out there, so we are looking in to making the masterclasses a regular occurrence."
(Nigel Fredericks was awarded National Catering Butcher of the Year in 2006.)
Tel: 020 8905 9005, web: www.nigelfredericks.co.uk
For more recipes from Pierre Koffmann, go to caterersearch.com/recipes