Three years ago, Eric Chavot shocked the restaurant world with the sudden news that he was quitting the Capital hotel in the throes of recession to do, well, nothing very much. Announcing his departure, the two-Michelin-starred chef declared himself ready "to do something different with my life". â¨The usually-so-ebullient Frenchman wasn't "sure he wanted to do this any more", he told Caterer and Hotelkeeper at the time, adding, â¨"I have no idea what I am going to do or where I am going to go".
And so, in the time-honoured tradition of those in existential crisis, Monsieur Chavot decided to go travelling - in his case, around the UK to visit his Michelin-starred mates at their restaurants up and down the country.
So, three years later, when I meet him as he is getting ready to launch his comeback project, Brasserie Chavot, I have to ask: how was the holiday?
He laughs a knowing laugh: "I made it to Cheltenham. For five days." Yes, five days in the kitchen at Le Champignon Sauvage with David Everitt-Matthias, old friend and fellow two-Michelin-starred chef, was the closest Chavot got to getting away from it all.
"It was nice," he says. "I thought 'I'm moving on', 'I'm in charge', I'll take three, four months to unwind but then, sod that, I ended up doing two months in 'the tent'".
"The tent", for those not in the know, refers to Pierre Koffmann's wildly successful pop-up restaurant atop Selfridges' roof, where Chavot and other former Koffmann protégés - including Tom Aikens and Bruno Loubet - were reunited for the single biggest hit of the inaugural London Restaurant Festival in October 2009. "Le Tent" proved to be a turning point for Chavot. His one-night stint turned to 10 days, then two months as the pop-up extended its stay. Selfridges' owners, the Westons, were so impressed, they invited Chavot to work at their club in Florida for two seasons (see opposite).
Relaxed Chavot may not have had his gap year as such, but he does seems to have found himself. It is a very happy, surprisingly relaxed chef I meet at the Brasserie Chavot site (the former Gallery restaurant) adjacent to the Westbury Hotel â¨in Mayfair, just a week before the January opening.
"I've been floating on a pink cloud for the past six months," Chavot beams. "It's like I'm playing Monopoly. I've landed on Mayfair and, guess what? It has a hotel on it."
Chavot's arrangement suits him perfectly. "I've got my own door. Big smile. They're supporting me financially. Big smile." The brasserie and the hotel are joined behind the scenes, but Chavot has been charged with running the 70- to 85-cover brasserie as an independent restaurant with his own team (20 in the kitchen plus three breakfast chefs) and budget. He'll be serving the kind of contemporary yet classic French food he likes to cook and eat at a projected average spend of around £35 at lunch and £55 at dinner, with a focus on quality, not on netting Michelin stars.
"When I was introduced to the owners, I said, 'With respect, if you're looking for a Michelin-starred chef, you've already got Alyn [Williams, chef at the Westbury's fine-dining restaurant].' I was looking for a brasserie or bistro. I'm not saying I'm not doing Michelin or I'm going for Michelin. There's no such thing. Michelin, for me, has always been about quality."
From the outside, Brasserie Chavot certainly doesn't resemble a hotel restaurant, thanks to its discreet entrance and signage, but it will be pressed into breakfast service (for Westbury guests only).
Pushed to the limit Chavot will not, however, be responsible for room service or afternoon teas, as he was at the Capital. "We pushed the Capital to the limit. We regained the second star within a year and kept it for nine years. In your head, you're thinking 'do you want to go for the third star?' We had to do what we had to do seven days a week - breakfast, lunch, dinner, afternoon tea, private room… I didn't just concentrate on the Michelin star and leave the rest. The kitchen was so small; people thought it was the bar kitchen. Was I going loopy? Yes. I was making sure the breakfast was as good as your lunch and everything else. We pushed and pushed and pushed, doing everything in house - the bread, the jam, the chocolates. We embraced it. When I took the job, I took the job. But you compare yourself to places like Tom Aikens, Gordon Ramsay, five days lunch and dinner only. It's a different ball game.
"All the time, I'd seen the careers of Phil (Howard) and Gordon (Ramsay) - they were moving on, successful. Why not me? Because it wasn't mine."
There were other challenges to contend with, too. On the personal side, Chavot's father had passed away that spring; and, on the business side, the Capital was undergoing changes following former managing director Joseph Levin's departure from the family business. These gave him the "kick up the backside" he needed to move on, but he was wary of starting again elsewhere.
He knew he would have to find the right partners, having previously had his fingers burned. "You either do it alone or you do it with someone. Look at David from Le Champignon Sauvage. He did it from scratch from day one. It takes guts. Others, like Phil at the Square, are brilliant themselves as chefs but have great partners behind them. I didn't have the right people behind me. My fault as much as theirs at Interlude. The same at Chavot. I was young, I was 27."
Even before the Westbury offer materialised, there were a couple of other enticing projects to consider. Chavot did an interview and cook-off at the Shard, then the old Oriel site on Sloane Square (now Chris Corbin and Jeremy King's Colbert) was tantalisingly within reach. "Ah, darling," he says with a sigh, sounding more French than ever. "We came that close. You can't stop getting excited. I came out of Sloane Square tube station every day for four-and-a-half years when I was at La Tante Claire. I've seen that corner work. It's a no-brainer."
But Chavot isn't one to dwell on what might have been. "Your life span is 75 summers. I'm 45; I've got 30 left. I'm from the south-west. I've got sunshine, I've got energy. I start every day at 6am with a stupid smile on my face at the moment. I've never felt so alive, so happy."
Eric Chavot on Brasserie Chavot
The menu at Brasserie Chavot is an extension of my childhood. I'll serve the kind of food I want to find in a brasserie, food I feel comfortable with. That's what I find at Bruno's [Bistro Bruno Loubet] and the Green Man and French Horn.
My mum is an excellent cook. She made puff pastry, pÁ¢té, all the bread. We never had the same meal twice. What she can do with leftovers will just blow your mind. I'm going to try to make a choucroute as good as my mum's.
How it will compare with my food at the Capital? Nothing will change in terms of the basic product but I will tune the food down. The food will be more relaxed. You're not going to get 25 items on the plate. There will be fewer steps. I'll do a beautiful steak tartare - I've got the one. I probably won't do my crab tian but I will do a crab mayonnaise. Am I going to do my lobster with coconut broth? I don't think so, not any more. I've tried to balance the menu: it's not a manly, meaty menu or all light seafood. I'm kind of "surf and turf"; I always will be.
If I look at Alyn's food here now [Alyn Williams at the Westbury]: wow. I wish I was that clever. I can't change the way I cook; I can't change technically what I do. Of course, we'll use all the best kit we can get on the market - Pacojet, waterbaths, etc. I've got a brand-new kitchen - even though the old one was barely a year old. I cannot say thank-you enough. It's too small here to have one big kitchen, so we'll have a hot kitchen, a prep kitchen and we'll do seafood, charcuterie, oysters, ceviche, salad at the bar at the front.
There's not a minute when I'm not thinking about the logistics of the room. To cope with the numbers [the dining room seats 70-85; Chavot anticipates a turn and a half at dinner], two-thirds of service will concentrate on mise-en-place; one-third on last-minute, quick finish with 20 in the kitchen plus three breakfast chefs. We can't use gas so the only way I could have some flame was with a Josper. That was my big treat.
â- Sardines grillées Á l'escabèche â¨(marinated grilled sardines)
â- Gigot de lapin avec boudin noir et pommes (rabbit with black pudding and apple)
â- Rôti de chevreuil, racines de legumes et jus de réglisse (roast venison with roasted root vegetables and a liquorice jus)
â- GÁ¢teau Basque, crème glacée aux cerises (Basque cake with sour cherry ripple ice-cream)
â- Espresso et Baileys mousse au â¨chocolat avec mousse Anglaise â¨(espresso and Baileys chocolate mousse with an Anglaise foam)
Eric Chavot's CV
1967 â¨Born in Arcachon, south-west France
1982-1984 â¨Apprenticed at L'Amphytrion â¨in Cazaux
1985-1986 â¨Commis de cuisine at Boucanier, Le Patio, A Deux Pas de La Mer â¨in Arcachon
1986 â¨Moved to London
1986-1987 â¨Sous chef at Whites Hotel â¨in Bayswater Road
1987-1989 â¨Worked with Pierre Koffmann â¨at La Tante Claire
1989-1990 â¨Worked with Raymond Blanc â¨at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons
1990-1991 â¨Worked with Marco Pierre White â¨at Harvey's
1993-1994 â¨Head chef at Chez Nico, â¨90 Park Lane
1994 â¨Head chef at Marco Pierre White's The Restaurant at the Hyde Park Hotel
1995 â¨Opened Interlude de Chavot in Charlotte Street with the aid of Marco Pierre White. Gained a Michelin star within a year
1997-1999 â¨Opened Chavot on Fulham Road. Held a Michelin star for two years
1999-2009 â¨Head chef at the Capital. Held two Michelin stars for nine years
2010-2012 â¨Working for the Weston family (owners of Selfridges) at the Windsor Club in Florida
RECIPE: SARDINE ESCABECHE
Ingredients (Serves four)
12 fresh sardines
200g carrots, sliced
200g onion, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
6 sprigs of thyme, picked
5g coriander seed â¨(blitz with spice grinder)
100ml cider vinegar
100ml hot water
120ml olive oil
One small pinch saffron (infuse in the hot water)
Salt, pepper and sugar
5g Espelette pepper â¨(smoked paprika)
Extra virgin olive oil to finish
Basil and cress to garnish
To prepare the sardines, with a small knife, scale and wash sardines and cut off heads and remove guts. Butterfly sardines, opening on the belly side. Once open, remove bones cutting spine with scissors and keeping the tail attached. Mix 50g plain flour with 5g espelette pepper and season with salt and pepper.
For the escabeche, peel and thinly cut carrots into rings. Peel and cut onion in half and finely slice. Peel the garlic and finely slice. Crush the coriander seeds with a rolling pin. Warm half of the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed casserole dish. Temper coriander seed gently in the oil, add carrot and a little water and season with salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar and cover with a lid. Sweat for three to four minutes, add onion, a bit more seasoning, cover for another three to four minutes, add garlic and sweat for a further two minutes. Add the vinegar, bring to the boil and reduce by half. Add remaining water and olive oil, add thyme, check seasoning, set aside in a Gastronorm tray to cool down.
Note: the cooking time is a guideline; it may vary depending of the size of the carrot and onion. Once cooked, the escabeche should retain a little bite.
To dress, season the sardine with salt and pepper on both sides. Sprinkle the flour mix on to a tray and place the sardine skin down in to the mix. Remove the sardine from the flour mix and dust off with your hand to leave a light covering on the skin. Put some vegetable oil in a non-stick pan. Once hot, add the sardines skin-side down. Cook until the skin is nice and golden basting with the oil. Remove from pan and place on tray skin side up to allow the residual heat to finish the cooking and give a good squeeze of lemon juice and a splash of olive oil. Serve the warm escabeche topped with the sardines sprinkled with coriander and basil cress.