Former Roussillon head chef Alexis Gauthier has just opened his own restaurant, Gauthier Soho, taking on the potentially tricky site of the former Lindsay House in London's Soho. Rosalind Mullen caught up with him.
A relaxed, smiling Alexis Gauthier jogs down the narrow stairs of Gauthier Soho to greet me, showing none of the side-effects of stress you might expect from having recently opened a new restaurant. Maybe it's got something to do with the response of London's food critics who, by and large, have been enjoying their visits to his corner of Soho - or maybe he's just an upbeat sort of guy.
It's probably a bit of both. Certainly, not many chefs would be dynamic enough to open their first solo venture on the site of chef Richard Corrigan's acclaimed Lindsay House in Romilly Street. To start with, Corrigan had built up his restaurant's reputation over 12 years so there's a lot of comparison to withstand. Second, even Corrigan admitted the higgledy piggledy Georgian townhouse was a tricky space for a modern restaurant operation. Third, Soho is perceived as edgy and the council, City of Westminster, is notoriously tough.
For Gauthier, however, it was the end of a lengthy property search and a chance to put his name above the door. "I thought if I don't do it now maybe I will regret not taking the risk," he says. He seems more than ready for the challenge. At the age of 35, having spent 12 years as head chef at the one-Michelin-starred Roussillon in Pimlico, he felt his career was going nowhere. "I thought either I start playing golf or I go for it and take my career to the next stage." The problem was that he had outgrown his two business partners. As he became hungrier to develop Roussillon, they remained content with its tried-and-tested format. "They weren't from the industry and didn't have the same vision, so it ended," Gauthier says.
Despite the fact several key staff have moved over with him, Gauthier still has a share in Roussillon and the official line is that there is no bad feeling. That said, he has been careful to arrange the partnership differently at Gauthier Soho. Here he splits the business between two minority partners - both former colleagues at Roussillon. He partners sommelier Roberto Della Pietra on the wine side of the business, and head chef Gerard Virolle on the food and restaurant side.
While some might criticise him for denuding Roussillon of staff, Gauthier explains that they wanted to flex their talent. In fact, he supports several other Roussillon colleagues, investing money and expertise in Voyageur Nissart in Nice in 2008 with former restaurant manager Maxime Devaere and La Table de Tee in Bangkok last October with former sous chef Tee Kachornklin. This October he will partner another former sous chef, Chris Krogh, at Club Bison in Calgary.
At Gauthier Soho, the partnership puts Virolle in charge of the kitchen and allows Gauthier to oversee the business. But while, Gauthier can be found in the office from 3pm to 5pm every day, he still oversees the menu and is present for service, tasting every sauce and checking each dish. Such attention to detail is paying off. Critics such as Giles Coren are already describing the food as two-Michelin starred, but Gauthier says his ambitions are more complex than that.
"Roussillon reflected my personality when I first came to London 12 years ago. London hadn't influenced me then. It may sound weird, but now I want to make sure people have value for money because that's what I look for in a restaurant."
On first glimpse, Gauthier's style of cooking hasn't changed much. His famous flair with vegetables remains, with dishes such as purple artichokes and young carrots, black truffles and aged balsamic vinegar; or young spring vegetables, Parmesan velouté and sweet cured bacon. "Where I come from I can't work with foams and jelly. I can't understand it. We are customer-led so we follow what people tell us," says Gauthier. "A vegetable is a real part of the dish. I believe in intensifying flavours rather than confusing them. I toss vegetables using classical French techniques such as beef reductions."
So what is new? Well, one major difference is that he has restructured the menu to offer more flexibility and choice. Instead of the standard three courses, he has introduced a five-course dinner menu with the option of having either three, four or five courses, priced £27, £36 and £45 respectively. Diners can choose multiple dishes from any section of the menu (for instance two fish dishes) and the portion size alters accordingly so if they have five courses they aren't over-faced. In effect, it also allows diners to devise their own tasting menu - although for true gastronomes there is his trademark 12-course "goût du jour" tasting menu, priced £70. Lunch has a more traditional set menu at £25 for three courses. Average spend is £35 per person for lunch and £70 for dinner, with filtered water thrown in for free. The nature of the four-storey townhouse means the 35-seat restaurant is divided between two rooms on two floors. There is also a private dining room for 12 and another for six. On average, his 10-strong brigade cook for 25-30 guests at lunch and 45-50 at dinner.
Despite the building's warren of rooms and narrow staircases, Gauthier shrugs off speculation that it will cramp his style. "The kitchen is bigger here than at Roussillon. I knew it was an old house with stairs when I took it on, but to be honest it has been a restaurant for at least 25 years, so it's not a problem for me. Richard Corrigan did it for 12 years and we are as fit as him," he laughs. "My worry is serving food at the right temperature, but the way we cook and the style of service means we can use cloches. They are designed to keep the heat in, although in 2010 it's surprising for some customers."
Ironically, the constraints of the townhouse have spawned at least one innovation - a wine shop. This is run by sommelier Della Pietra, who explains: "The original wine cellar was down steep, narrow stairs, which we all regarded as a health and safety hazard. How the team at Lindsey House did it for so long terrified us." To get round the situation, he turned a spare ground floor room into a temperature-controlled wine store where guests can go to choose their wine. "I can't do it with everyone, but it is a nice idea to invite them if they are interested," says Della Pietra. More radically, it will also operate as a shop where diners can buy a bottle they particularly enjoyed or order it later online. Della Pietra is also launching a wine club, where for a monthly membership fee of £75, customers will be sent a selection of six new wines to try every month. "They will be able to take a bit of Gauthier Soho home - it will extend our reach," he says.
Like Gauthier, Della Pietra subscribes to value for money, so about 40% of listed wines are priced under £41. The gross profit on the list price is about 70%, falling to 25/30% on retail. The wine list itself will be limited to 280 wines so it can be easily managed and so that regular guests can see it isn't static. Most of the wines are southern French, with a smattering from less well known vineyards in the Lebanon, and possibly from Greece and Morocco in the future. "In say four years' time it would be nice to have a warehouse and to be able to import wines that are not available in the UK. I am trying to add value," Della Pietra says.
Gauthier is similarly keen to shake things up a bit, which is why he welcomes being in Soho, the centre of club and theatreland. Not only is his restaurant attracting a younger, trendier customer base than at Roussillon, it is giving him the chance to start experimenting. He also disputes the fact that this infamous red-light area is sleazy, pointing out that there are hundreds of restaurants, cafés and bars nearby,.
In short, Gauthier is a happy man, who, despite his rolled Rs and Gallic charm, says he sees himself as a Londoner first and a Frenchman second. And at the moment he reckons no amount of success can tempt him to use his name to launch a string of Gauthier restaurants, either. "There won't be another in the world - I hate that," he says.
(for six people)
For the dacquoise
• 250g ground hazelnut
• 250g caster sugar
• 200g egg white
• 100g icing sugar
For the feuillantine (enough for three batches)
• 300g praline
• 150g feuillantine
• 75g white chocolate
For the chocolate mousse
• 200g ganache paradis
• 175g whipping cream
For the ganache Paradis
• 250g valrhona chocolate 70%
• 225g whipping cream
• 375g water
• 300g sugar
• 125g double cream
• 125g cacao powder
Whisk the egg white until firm and fold in the ground hazelnut, caster sugar and icing sugar. Spread on a baking sheet and bake at 190°C for about 20 minutes until just set and a little soft in the middle. Cut six 10cm diameter rings and reserve.
In bain-marie bowl, heat the white chocolate and add the feuillantine. Spread a thin layer of feuillantine on each ring of dacquoise. Keep in fridge.
Shred the chocolate thinly. Boil the cream and add the chocolate. Boil while stirring for a minute. Add the water, sugar and cacao powder. Keep in fridge until needed.
Whip the cream and add some ganache paradis (about 200g). Put a hoop round each dacquoise and fill it with the mousse. Freeze for four hours. Just before serving remove from the freezer take away the hoops and glaze the dacquoises with some warmed Ganache Paradis. Set and serve decorated with gold leaf.