Anthony Demetre believes in fate. The new head chef at fashionable London restaurant Putney Bridge had always rowed straight past its door, gazing up at the handsome steel-and-glass structure on the banks of the Thames, thinking how nice it would be to work there. Now he is working there - and he still rows past, early on a Saturday morning, congratulating himself on his fortuitous move.
Demetre was brought in to salvage the fortunes of Putney Bridge after diners lost faith in the restaurant following a couple of lukewarm reviews when it opened in March 1997. And when the ground floor bar started attracting a rather laddish crowd, diners were scared off. The building itself, though, always garnered praise. Designed by architects Paskin Kyriakides Sands and interior designers Fitch, the £3m purpose-built restaurant is the proud holder of a Royal Institute of British Architecture Award for Architecture.
The restaurant's owner, property developer Gerald Davidson, decided something had to be done. He approached Demetre while he was still head chef at L'Odeon, where he had cooked since its opening three years earlier, and persuaded him to have a look around the Putney eaterie.
Demetre told him that the original brasserie-style operation was not the way to go. The well-heeled locals could afford to spend a bit more, and besides, the building begged for something smarter. He was certain that, with the right team, he could achieve his dream of a Michelin star.
So last October the original team made way for Demetre and a completely new set of staff. Demetre brought with him L'Odeon's restaurant manager William Smith, pastry chef Azzedine Zarzi, and two of his sous chefs, Martin Dunn and Richard Sawyer. Then, with Smith, he set about recruiting the rest of the team and modifying front of house presentation.
Crisp, white cloths now cover the tables, with gerbera adding a splash of colour. New plateware has been designed especially by Peter Ting at Thomas Goode. Seats have been cut back from 145 to 95. A sommelier, Franck Payraudeau, now cruises the tables with the new 400-bin list, and waiters have been practising their carving techniques because Demetre wants to bring back the art of guéridon.
Diners now get an unscheduled savoury "something" to kick off dinner, and there's always a pre-dessert, not to mention the coffee, which comes with no less than 16 petits fours (£8). Average spend is now £45 a head (excluding wine).
Davidson is also spending a small fortune refurbishing the bar. He has hired restaurant interior designer David Collins to give it a softer, more loungey, feel. It should be finished by mid-April. Now all that has to be done is to convince people to come back.
News hasn't travelled fast. Lunches are still a struggle, although it's better than it was, according to Demetre. "We'll get 14 in one day and 31 the next," he says, adding: "We know it will be an uphill struggle." In fact, lunch is a steal at £13.50 for two courses and £17.50 for three.
The food is classic French. "But with a light touch," he says. "It's what Joe Public can identify with, and it's what I like to eat. I can't be doing with Pacific Rim - who can identify with kangaroo? I think people's perception of a great meal is always French."
The menu now carries dishes like boudin blanc, made with pheasant when in season, and a pithivier of snails. And there's foie gras terrine, with pears, celeriac and "quatre épices". Poached egg is cooked "en meurette" with lardons, cäpes and more foie gras, which is diced and sautéd. Chicken is from the Landes, served roasted with Ratte potatoes, cäpes, salsify and a tarragon jus; and there's daurade (the menu is a jumble of French and English spellings) served with a saffron risotto, spring onions and a light chicken jus flavoured with orange and rosemary. Demetre's favourite dessert - and a top seller - is the warm Valrhona chocolate moelleux, served with an almond milk sorbet.
"Pithiviers and boudin are skilful things to do," he says. "That's the big difference between Pacific Rim and French cooking. There's no depth of skill in Pacific Rim, no powerful red wine sauces."
One of the most popular dishes on the menu is poached eggs in red wine. The cooked egg white absorbs the red wine reduction like a sponge, and when contrasted with the bright yellow yolk, it turns heads. It's one of Demetre's favourites and it pays homage to a former employer, Pierre Koffman.
Another fixture is crème brulée scented with lavender, the pastry chef's own creation. Zarzi came up with the dessert at L'Odeon. "But everyone's doing it. So many people have taken the credit for that dish," says Demetre. "Zarzi is from the south of France and uses lavender a lot in his cooking."
This brulée is about as rich as it gets. The only cream Demetre uses is in the pastry section. He doesn't use much butter either, preferring vegetable infusions or reductions to add weight to a dish. Spending time on stocks and reductions is time well spent, he maintains.
However, he is not above the odd short cut. Bread, for example, is pain poilane, which Demetre gets delivered twice a week from his Paris suppliers La Fromagerie. "If I can buy a product that can be better produced outside the kitchen then all well and good," he says. He even admits to tinned apricot for his apricot sauce, when good fresh ones aren't available. "Good-quality tinned, mind," he adds. Another supplier, Valimex, sources these from France, along with many of his vegetables, plus his Landes chickens, farmed rabbit and French ox cheek - which is the only beef he uses.
The menu changes with the seasons, and in addition to the fixed-price three-course dinner menu of £37.50, there is a "menu gourmand" at £50 for eight courses. Top-selling dishes over the winter months included crab rémoulade with artichokes, chicory and pink grapefruit gelée; risotto nero with steamed scallops, lime and ginger; and roast poulet des Landes.
Demetre's Putney Bridge menu is the culmination of knowledge gleaned from working with the likes of Pierre Koffman, Daniel Boulud, Gary Rhodes and Bruno Loubet. He spent five years with Loubet, first as his sous chef at the Four Seasons, where they gained a Michelin star, then as his head chef at L'Odeon. Loubet left soon after L'Odeon's opening to pursue other interests, leaving Demetre in charge.
"The best experience I ever had, though, was when I worked at Tante Claire for nine months in 1990," he remembers. "But it was Gary [Rhodes] who taught me to cook." His worst experience can't really be repeated. Suffice it to say, a big name chef (not one of those mentioned in this article) hit him over the head with a roasting tin, turning him off the whole industry for a while. "When I see articles in magazines about these chefs, I think, do they really know the damage they are doing to aspiring youngsters?"
In fact, Demetre didn't always want to be a chef. He grew up in Birmingham with his Greek father and Irish mother. "My mother was a terrible cook, so it was left to my Greek grandmother to feed me. I was brought up on Greek food," he recalls.
At the age of 19 he got a job as a kitchen porter. "I was fascinated by the adrenalin [in the kitchen]," he says. Fired up, he applied for jobs in the top kitchens, eventually ending up with Marco Pierre White at Harvey's. "I wasn't ready for it, though. Marco was so dynamic, but I just couldn't do it. I ended up doing a runner. I wrote him a letter to explain things, and he actually replied - he said you need guts to survive this industry. It didn't put me off though, it opened my eyes.
"I think most young chefs live in a dream. They see the books and the bright lights, but they have no conception of what it really takes."
Recipes by Anthony Demetre