Claude Bosi is a very happy man. He is now sole owner of two-Michelin-starred restaurant Hibiscus, having bought out his business partners. The newly designed dining room is buzzing and the customers purring contentedly over his lighter style of cooking.
It's been a turbulent and exciting process, but right from the beginning, Bosi had a clear vision of what he wanted for 2014 and beyond: a lively, successful restaurant heading, hopefully, towards three Michelin stars, but with a modern freshness that puts paid to the old-fashioned ideas of luxury.
He's keen to stress that he owes a great deal to the three investors who helped him (and his ex-wife Claire) relocate Hibiscus from Ludlow to London in 2007.
"It was a big learning curve for me," he says. "Before, I was just a chef who owned a restaurant. They taught me so much: all about marketing and how to run a business. It wasn't easy and I'm very grateful."
Did they want to be bought out? "When we started together a few years ago, I said to them, you know, one day I will want to buy my restaurant back.
They knew this would happen. We came to an agreement." Are they still around? Are they still friends?" "They were never especially friends," he
says. "They were professional partners, though I was closest to Michael Patton, who was with the Clapham House Group. He had the best understanding of the restaurant business, but it was very good working with all three of them. While they knew a great deal about money, they let me do what I wanted with Hibiscus. I was very lucky to find them.
As a chef, you always want your own place. The best backers will allow you to feel you own the place, even if you have just a small percentage.
"It's important to say," he emphasises, "I wouldn't be here without them. They taught me how to be a restaurateur, not just a chef."
For the next stage of Hibiscus, Bosi has eliminated any outside interests that might interfere or be a distraction. He still consults on menus for the two gastropubs, the Fox & Grapes on Wimbledon Common (2011 Catey Menu of the Year) and the Malt House in Fulham, but he's no longer involved with the day-to-day running.
He has also cut back on the extensive foreign travel that had taken him to inspirational places in Asia (including Japan), which radically reshaped his philosophy of food. "In Japan I learned to be confident with a more minimalist approach," he says, "to value, for instance, the simplicity of the
perfect piece of melon. I got there and I thought 'wow'. They've got the produce, they respect the produce, they serve it to you with a minimum
of fuss. I came back home and started cooking food that made me happy - not food the way everyone said it should be done.
"When I arrived in London in 2007, my cooking was complicated and perhaps I was trying too hard. Some critics complained there was too much on the plate. But I was very young - just 23 when I got my first Michelin star and 27 when I opened Hibiscus. The customers in Ludlow expected more flamboyant food than what's popular in the capital. It's taken a while for my style to evolve, but I'm very comfortable with what we're doing now."
Fortunately, there's no overt reference to Japanese minimalism on the plate. Bosi's food is still a joyous and elegant celebration of the French culinary tradition, but now with a confident clarity about flavour and presentation.
The traditional Á la carte menu has been replaced by a much looser, more interactive selection, which allows customers to choose dishes from 10 ingredients, such as langoustines, Herefordshire snails, spring onion, Anjou squab or Cornish John Dory, while for dessert there is chocolate, mango,
apricot, raspberry or artisan cheese.
It all sounds very simple, but the execution is typical of Bosi's deft, imaginative touch. Barely cooked, squeaky-fresh langoustine is served with sauce vierge, enlivened by red summer fruit; Somerset goat kid comes with razor clams and sea beet; and there's apricot soufflé with roasted almond ice-cream or his signature chocolate tarte with Indonesian basil ice-cream.
There's an abbreviated lunch menu with three starters, three mains and a couple of puddings and cheese, as well as an attractively priced option at £49.50 for three courses, half a bottle of wine, coffee and petits fours. If time is short, there is a single plat du jour at £19.50, or £24.50 with a glass of wine and coffee. It's a sensible acceptance that eating habits have changed, and restaurants - whatever their reputation - need to respond.
Hibiscus opened in London almost a year before the fall of Lehman Brothers and Bosi has noticed a significant change among his customers.
They've become more demanding - possibly because business expenses have been cut - and they're spending their own money.
"That's what's good about working in the countryside," says Bosi. "You learn how to look after your customers because many are regulars. You can't be casual or take them for granted. That's why we offer unexpected treats - to give better value, a better experience."
By this he means the delicious goodies that arrive unannounced: tiny cornets of foie gras, spicy cashew nuts and melt-in-the-mouth gougères. There's freshly made bread (glutenfree, if you wish) and fluffy butter, pre-dessert, and dairy-free ice-cream. It all feels very thoughtful and generous.
This flexibility and easy manner has translated into the restaurant. Out go dark walls, subdued lighting and heavy table linen sweeping down to thick carpets; instead, there are cool cream walls and polished oak floors accented with blue chairs, simple tablecloths and fresh flowers. The room is
lit with a sparkling crystal chandelier and large, modern works by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky hang on the wall - intriguing
but not intrusive.
Before the refurbishment, Bosi had become increasingly unhappy with the dining room, which he saw as stuffy and out of date.
"I try to eat in my restaurant every month or two," he says. "When you eat in the restaurant you see so much more than you see at the pass - I sit by myself in a corner and look at the room, the service. And I thought to myself, I absolutely hate it, I don't want to be here. The atmosphere was all wrong, it was very serious, and I thought, this is not me, this is not what I want. And I changed it.
"When I first opened in London, we created a restaurant that we thought Michelin would like, but I finally came round to thinking I want a restaurant that I like, not a restaurant that suits someone else."
So does he think Michelin would really want all that stuff? Surely it's a chef's fantasy? "Of course it is!" he responds. "Michelin never say they want this or that. I was concerned that the restaurant was just not me. With our new look, some people have said it's too light, that Michelin will not like it. And I say, forget it. If they don't like it, they don't like it. This is the way forward."
The new regime extends to the front-of-house team, who have learned to be more relaxed and friendly without compromising their high standards.
Bosi insisted on no ties, to the horror (originally) of his super-smooth restaurant manager Laurent Gilis, whose background is Le Gavroche and the Square. "The day I took his tie off, it was like taking a broom out of his bum," says Bosi, cheerfully.
Certainly, among Gilis and his team there is no hint of that daunting hushed temple- of-gastronomy mood that used to be inevitable in a high-profile restaurant. The customers have changed too - they are more at ease. They may be in suits or shirtsleeves, jeans or haute couture, and range from deal-makers and captains of industry to gourmet tourists, romantic couples or friends just having a good time.
"We have a lot of men at lunchtime," says Bosi, "but a surprising amount of women in the evenings. They feel very comfortable here. They seem to love getting dressed up and exploring the tasting menu."
Flights of fancy
One of the stand-out aspects of service is the relatively new head sommelier Bastien Ferreri, who was previously at Murano. "He's very knowledgeable and passionate about wine, but also respectful of the food," says Bosi.
There are tasting flights for the different permutations of the menu and a couple of sommelier's lunch wines, which may include a 2012 Ericina Tonnara from Sicily, a clean, fresh, intense white, or a 2012 Craig Hawkins Zinfandel from South Africa, an elegant, juicy red.
"Bastien likes to surprise the customer," says Bosi, "and will suggest interesting new labels and even controversial biodynamic wines. But he's very sensitive to the customers' tastes, and if someone wants a good white Burgundy or a red Bordeaux, he has it for them."
This new freedom is different from Bosi's native France. Does he have plans to return? "The French are arrogant and not very adventurous - especially in the countryside," he says. "They know what they like and that's it. In Paris they're more sophisticated, but the prices there - especially with the controlled working week - are crazy compared to here."
His friends in Paris simply can't believe the low prices he can charge for certain dishes, especially at lunchtime, but he's convinced that by offering value for money, those same customers will come back for the tasting menu.
"And also," he says, "regular customers create a buzz in the restaurant. They know the staff, it's fun, and that communicates to the other diners - the ones who may have come for a special one-off visit and want to feel at ease."
Bosi still loves and respects French cooking and the impact it has all over the world. One French institution he admires is the hotel and restaurant group Relais & ChÁ¢teaux, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Bosi is one of its Grands Chefs, a select group that includes Michel Roux Jr and Andrew Fairlie in the UK, Michel Guérard, Guy Martin and Hélène Darroze in France and Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park in New York.
"Being part of Relais puts us in the context of a very exclusive brand," says Bosi, "and they are brilliant at marketing. Everyone knows the Relais & ChÁ¢teaux plaque outside our door. It stands for quality and tradition and though Relais is quite a small group, it is legendary in Europe and the USA and attracts a very loyal, sophisticated clientele."
Hibiscus today is very different from the restaurant of 2007 - in fact, it almost feels like a different century. And Bosi himself has changed. He's laid back and very amusing with an almost British sense of irony. But he's never complacent, hence the new ultramodern development kitchen, which is the brain' of the operation as well as a chef's table and a venue for personalised masterclasses.
Bosi confides that he will often do a stage in a restaurant or take a cooking course when he's on holiday. "I love it," he says. "You learn so much from watching and doing rather than just reading about it. I've had fantastic experiences in Thailand and Japan, and one day I plan to team up with Alex Atala in Brazil to learn more about the techniques and flavours that he's found in the Amazon."
Right now, his focus is Hibiscus and he is cheerfully open about his ambition to gain three Michelin stars, keep five AA rosettes and stay on top of his game with the guides, the critics and the public. He has also just acquired the 10-bedroom Town House hotel in Ludlow with his brother Cedric and, on the home front, a new baby son has just arrived. "I can't remember when I was as happy as I am now," he says.
Scallops with strawberry sauce vierge
4 extra large scallops
For the vierge base
300g datterini tomatoes
200g green strawberries
300g red strawberries
For the sauce vierge
50g tomato juice (from the blended tomatoes)
50g green strawberry juice (from the blended green strawberries)
70g olive oil
2 banana shallots, sliced
30g ripe strawberries, sliced
100g rock salt
80g red strawberry juice (from the blended red strawberries)
10g brunoise shallots
30g diced strawberries
5g chopped chervil
Open the scallops. Rinse the roes and then salt them for 20 minutes. Wash them again, then dry the roes in a dehydrator for four hours.
Leave to cool. Slice the scallops in half or into three pieces, leaving them quite thick. Set them aside.
For the vierge base Blitz the raw datterini tomatoes in a blender to a fine purée. Add to a centrifuge bottle and centrifuge for 30 minutes. When finished, pass the clear juice through a fine sieve and discard the pulp. Using the same process, repeat with the red and green strawberries.
For the sauce vierge
Combine the tomato and green strawberry juices, olive oil, sliced shallot and sliced strawberries in a non-metal container and leave somewhere warm to infuse for two hours. Season with salt and add the chervil stalks. When infused, pass through a chinois and mix in the red strawberry juice. Warm the sauce gently for two minutes, making sure it does not boil. In a separate container, combine the brunoise shallot, the diced strawberries and the
chopped chervil. Pour over the gently warmed sauce and mix well.
Put the sliced scallops on the plate, making sure they are flat and don't overlap. Flash the plates under a hot grill for around 20 seconds until just hot. Do not cook the scallops all the way through. Dress the scallops with the sauce vierge and grate over the dried roe with a microplane to finish.