This year, two-Michelin-starred restaurant Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham celebrates 25 years at the top. Amanda Afiya talks to restaurant owners David and Helen Everitt-Matthias about their longevity, and also catches up with some of the restaurant's protégés to find out the secrets of its success
Congratulations on reaching such a threshold. Does it feel like it has been 25 years?
How has Cheltenham changed?
It has become a lot more sophisticated. There's more of a café society so there's a more cosmopolitan feel about it. It used to be very "country" when we first came here.
For a long time now you've had people making the pilgrimage from Europe, but how far and wide is your customer base now?
We're reasonably well known internationally with foodies. The two Michelin stars obviously helps that immensely because I think it's still the guide that the international set use to look for intelligent and awarded restaurants to eat in. We get a fair amount of Japanese custom - so much so that part of our brochure has a Japanese page in - and all over, in fact: America, Malta, France.
You were born in London and grew up there. Do you ever think about a London outpost?
No, it took us about seven years to settle in Cheltenham and to appreciate the surroundings, the lovely green and the forests, and the slightly slower pace of life. Now, I love going to London to eat, to shop, and I could live there, but to be perfectly honest I don't know whether I would want to work there again.
Do you think fine-dining has changed? Do you see a difference in London now?
A lot of London restaurants now are using foraged foods and have their own foragers getting ingredients for them, that has changed immensely. Dining has become more relaxed in London, some of the stiffness and starch that was there in the past has disappeared and has become more international in its service than upper-class English, I would say. Food has got more an international feel about it with techniques coming from all around the world and there's more of a pride about British produce and locally sourcing ingredients, which I think is wonderful.
What have been the highlights for you over the past 25 years?
There have been so many. Getting the second star - I was more excited about that than about getting the first - winning National Chef of the Year, my first book arriving and unpacking the first box and seeing it in black and white after all the hard work, getting a doctorate [an honorary doctorate of philosophy by the University of Gloucestershire] for recognition of input, the Chef Award at the Cateys, voted by my peers, there have been so many.
Tell us about your forthcoming book, Beyond Essence.
We're six years on since the release of Essence so it has shown our progression within those six years of our food becoming slightly finer, simpler in a way but more crafted. For example, in the first book there was a recipe for vanilla rice pudding with salted chicory parfait and bitter chocolate sorbet, which tasted wonderful but was quite unrefined in its presentation. We've put that in again but changed it slightly and it's now a vanilla cheesecake with a salted chicory mousse on the top and a chicory glaze with bitter chocolate. What you've got is something that's very refined in its presentation, very crisp and clean and that's sort of the way some of the desserts are going. It's also showing a little bit of foraging. And also it will be touched on in the introduction that since we've brought in our surprise menu there's a new way of plating for me: smaller, tasting portions, which has allowed me to refine and make some of the food cleaner.
Do you enjoy the book writing?
I love the beginning and I love the end; it's the middle bit that's the bitch, if I can say that. Finishing work and going up at 2am, 3am and thinking "I've got to write something else now", that's hard, but it's very enjoyable at the end of it, seeing your recipes down there and knowing that, however small, it might influence the industry.
Very rewarding, though, once you've written it.
Yes, and I know it's me who has written it. It's very much like the restaurant - I feel if people are coming to eat here they expect me to be here, and if people are buying a book I want them to know it's me who has actually written it.
If you were offered a TV programme to support your books, would you consider it?
I would totally consider a TV programme or TV series if it were educational - and on my days off. I wouldn't intend leaving the restaurant to do it, but I think that would rather limit the flexibility of the producers. It would have to be educational more than anything, none of these long shots of somebody rowing across a lake with beautiful scenery in the background just to pick a mushroom.
You've always helped your chefs move on to their next role. Why don't more people do that?
I think people become selfish. Sometimes I think "It would be lovely to hang on to you for another three years to make my life easy", but it's not in their interests to do that so I tend to try and help them move on when I feel it's time for them and help them find their next job.
It must surely carry a huge amount of weight for you to contact René Redzepi or Magnus Nilsson or Thomas Keller rather than them sending in a CV?
Well the big people like Thomas Keller you don't approach anyway. You talk to their human resources department and get the runaround for weeks on end, and in the end you get frustrated and just go straight to the head chef, and then you get them in the next day. So there's a lesson there sometimes to bypass the proper way of doing things. But the nice thing is that, as our reputation has grown, people in higher-ranked kitchens in and around the world know of us and it makes it easier for people to go and work in those kitchens because they know if they've come from us they are going to be focused on what they are doing.
Bloggers - love them or hate them?
Bloggers are obviously a new and growing trend in the industry. Some are informed and professional; some are amateur cooks and like most people anywhere in the world they have their opinions. There are some wonderful sites that are so educational for the younger chefs. The Critical Couple website, Sped98 (Cumbriafoodie), Elizabeth on Food are some that spring to mind immediately - wonderful, informative sites that I even I look at now and again.
Going back to foraging it's something you have done since a child, so does it amuse you that it has become a bit "emperor's new clothes"?
The industry does set fashion and follows fashion and it has become extremely fashionable to use foraged foods at the moment. Quite a few of the country restaurants have been doing it for a fair while: people like myself, people like Simon Rogan, have been using foraged food for years. So I suppose there is a slight smile seeing it being so fashionable now but people still don't really understand a lot of it - they're just getting it to sprinkle "here" and "there" rather than using the flavours.Throughout my career I've seen things going in and out of fashion. Cuisine grand-mere came in, went out, came in, went out. I suppose that has helped British food grow as a whole, because we do, as a country, take food from other countries and come back and make something our own out of it, and foraging is just another stage in its development.
Who do you rate in Britain?
Phil Howard, Brett Graham, Angela Hartnett. I had a wonderful meal at Tom Kerridge's. Eric Chavot, Tom Aikens, Glynn Purnell, Daniel Clifford, Simon Rogan - they range from classic to some of the most exciting food at the moment.
On the Fine Dining Guide website you said in your early days that you knew how to run a kitchen but didn't necessarily know how to run a restaurant. What advice would you give to young chefs starting out?
You never know everything and you never will know everything in the trade - if you think you do, it's time to leave. It's the most wonderful journey of learning that there is. The thing is to be true to yourself when you open a restaurant, don't chop and change. Don't have one menu on one week and because you're quiet panic and change for another one the following week. Customers need to know where they stand with you.I initially cooked for the guides and then I decide to cook what I liked best, what I enjoyed eating, that's where my confidence grew because I enjoyed cooking it more and because my confidence grew, and then we started to see customers enjoying it, too. There's nothing worse than cooking food that's not "you".
You eat out lots but you've always been very loyal to France, why is that?
I love the French lifestyle that's based around food and relaxed eating out with families. We go to a place called Le Pavé d'Auge in Beuvron-en-Auge in Normandy on New Year's Day and it's this one-Michelin-starred restaurant in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a square surrounded by road and on New Year's Day it's packed. One table may have two or three generations on it and generally we're the only English people there apart from when Clive Dixon (chef-patron of the White Oak in Cookham, see pages 24-25) joins us and it's just lovely. The whole atmosphere, the service, the drinking white or vintage Calvados after the meal, France has long been regarded as the home of gastronomy and that is really the way I see it.
Can you see yourself living in France?
I think it would be lovely to later on in life. I would say France is still at the forefront of our minds to retire to.
What do the next five to 10 years have in store?
For the next five or 10 years, it's heads down working as hard as we can trying to get better.
What's the secret to your longevity?
Being stubborn, and sheer hard work.
You did other things before joining the industry. Has it been a labour of love for you?
Soon after I met David I knew ultimately his passion was to have a restaurant and so wherever he was working I would get a Friday night-Saturday night job to learn the ropes and get an idea of what he was doing. I do enjoy what I do. There's always new little things happening, changes that keep you on your toes.
Which restaurants do you admire?
We went to Murano earlier in the year and both loved it.The front of house staff were lovely, very relaxed and that's always the big thing for me. Obviously the food is important but when you arrive somewhere you want to feel you can relax and that was a really lovely service at Murano.
Your day is peppered with walking the dogs, how important is that to you to get away?
Very important. I get up first thing in the morning and I go out with them so that's my exercise, my bit of fresh air, and it's off the premises because living above it's all too easy just to come down here and not see daylight.
Is there a period in the year that you enjoy the most, such as the Cheltenham Festival?
The race meeting is great. You lose all your lunch trade because people aren't coming to Cheltenham unless they're racing, but the evenings are great. I think they feel they can come here and it's a bit of a haven, it has been a long day at the racecourse and they know that they come here and just relax.
You've always had a great, affordable wine list. How do you keep the prices so low?
We've always thought we make money doing it that way and that's more than enough. I would rather people come and try a bottle of wine that they might not have somewhere else because it's too expensive. I suppose we're a little narrow-minded in that we're still very Francophile on the wine list after 25 years, but that's us, it's our style.
Did you enjoy seeing front of house celebrated in Michel Roux's Service? Truly, to have someone coming to you with no experience at all and put them in a fine-dining environment is really hard. But I thought it was a fantastic showcase for the service industry. Some of them seemed surprised at how much pleasure they could get out of it. Yes it's a lot of hard work, but a lot of pleasure if you give. If you thump around the restaurant with a gloomy face you're not going to get pleasure from your job.
What has been the secret of your success?
I know when I first started I was very naÁ¯ve. During the early years I was listening to customers' comments a lot, especially on the wine side. I've drawn a lot of knowledge from listening and talking to people. I suppose I am far more confident then I ever was.
If someone had said in 1987 that you'd be here in 25 years, what would you have said?
"No, we'll be in France, this is a five-year plan!"
ALUMNI OF LE CHAMPIGNON SAUVAGE
Position Chef-patron, the White Oak, Cookham. Previously Koffmann's; the Hinds Head (Fat Duck Group)
At Le Champignon Sauvage 1989-1990
I have the fondest memories from my time there. David gave me more than an education on kitchen practices alone, but a greater insight into the restaurant world as a business and even started my education on wine. Working for them both makes you part of a family as opposed to feeling like a staff member. It is still amazing that, after 25 years trading in their restaurant, David is still like a child in a toy shop, always buzzing about what to do next and how to improve things.
Position Head of school for hospitality at Kendal College. Previously director of food operations at Northcote, Blackburn; the Arkle, Chester Grosvenor; Soufflé Restaurant, InterContinental Hyde Park
At Le Champignon Sauvage 1990 to 1992
If I said I learnt about art, music, life, desire, determination, creativity, loyalty AND food it would only touch the surface. I have been lucky enough to work alongside some incredible individuals - people with real talent. David belongs to that handful of very special people. Some people you meet change your life, giving your career a shot of espresso, and both David and Helen have had a huge affect on my career and my life. We don't get to see each other often, but the legacy they instilled in me is constant and never-ending improvement.
Position Chef-owner, Les Remparts, Clermont l'Herault, near Montpellier
At Le Champignon Sauvage 1993-1994
David is one of the best chefs I have ever met. When I was there I saw a man dedicated to his craft, always thinking and talking about food. He made me see cooking differently as he was always trying to find different ways of achieving the best dishes, even if it was not the traditional way. His knowledge of classical French cooking made me believe at times he had been French in a previous life.
Position Private chef, London. Previously Per Se, New York; Absolute Taste, London; the Fat Duck, Bray, Berkshire; the French Laundry, Napa Valley
At Le Champignon Sauvage 1999-2002
The thing about David is that he is an amazing mentor. He hired me when I was still a kid. I had very little restaurant experience, but he saw something in me - the same enthusiasm and passion for food that he has. David really laid the foundation for my career. At first it was just he and I, one-on-one. There was no place to hide, no one else to blame for mistakes. Not only did it make me a better chef, but it taught me integrity. If I made a mistake, I would immediately tell David. He would explain where I went wrong and show me how to do it properly. He always pushed me to do better, signing me up for competitions and ultimately arranging for me to go to California to work for Thomas Keller.
Position head chef, Northcote, Blackburn
At Le Champignon Sauvage 2000-2001
Working at Le Champignon Sauvage was a great experience at such a young age. To be able to work with David on a one-to-one basis, whose passion for food is clear for all to see, to learn techniques, flavours and simplicity in dishes - and the drive needed to make a success in the industry - was invaluable.
Position business development chef, chilled desserts, Bakkavor
At Le Champignon Sauvage 2002-2004
There were only three of us in the kitchen when I worked for David and Helen so I learnt a great deal about organising myself. I learnt everything I know about wild food, baking and desserts and this led me to starting my own bakery as well as developing desserts for major retailers, including Waitrose. David never missed a service so the cooking was very consistent. I learnt about working under pressure while remaining calm and respectful to others.
Position Previously head chef, Faviken; executive sous chef, Noma
At Le Champignon Sauvage 2002-2005
David has had a very big influence on me as a chef, as I was quite young when I started. Organisation is a big thing, not only general organisation but small things with mis-en-place so you never lose a second. He helped me to look at flavours and try to get the maximum taste out of humble products, and he was first chef who got me into working with wild and foraged products (back in 2003), which has influenced my career path immensely. It's not often you get to cook side by side with such a skilled and knowledgeable chef.
Position New role within Hibiscus group (to be announced); previously head chef, Hibiscus
At Le Champignon Sauvage 2004-2006
David's a great cook. He really gets you to understand the logic behind his flavour combinations and the reason why you do certain things a certain way. He and Helen's passion for foraging and mushroom picking â¨is inspiring and something that has really rubbed off on me. The way Helen and David look after their staff is absolutely fantastic. Everybody's exceptionally well looked after. â¨I don't think I'd be the chef I am today without my formative years at Le Champignon Sauvage.
Position Senior course tutor, Raymond Blanc Cookery School, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons
At Le Champignon Sauvage 2005 -2008
David taught me many different things - being a chef is not just about cooking. He is very calm and he passes this on. A small busy kitchen needs very good organisation, which David instils in all he works with. Then there is his cooking style. I was introduced to so many new ingredients, techniques and flavour combinations. This was all backed up by Helen, the perfect host. Both care and look after their areas of responsibility like I have never seen before - you can see why they are celebrating 25 years and still going strong!
Position Previously sous chef, In De Wulf, Dranouter, Belgium
At Le Champignon Sauvage 2006-2011
I learnt a lot at Le Champignon Sauvage. â¨First, it was how to work more productively â¨and on my own as well as how to assist â¨others with their work as it was a small team. â¨I also learnt a great deal on foraging - now I forage a lot myself. I also learnt how to use cheaper ingredients and maintain them as much as the pricey ones. He is a very knowledgeable man and a good teacher, and Helen is there too - that's what makes Le Champignon Sauvage.
Position Head chef, Brockencote Hall, Chaddesley Corbett
At Le Champignon Sauvage 2007-2009
My time at Le Champignon Sauvage had a massive impact on my career. Working in a small busy kitchen, I learnt how to work methodically and as a team. I also learnt to get the most out of ingredients and how to maximise their flavour. David is a great mentor and very knowledgeable; without doubt my time at Le Champignon Sauvage has been invaluable.
Position Newly appointed executive chef, Hotel TerraVina, Netley Marsh
At Le Champignon Sauvage 2010- 2012
I learnt an incredible amount, but if I was to name a few things it would be what commitment, dedication and sacrifice really means - they are not just words, they are the main reason why Le Champignon Sauvage is a success and why David has such a legendary status within the industry.