Pierre Koffmann made his official return to the London restaurant scene this month, with the opening of Koffmann's at the Berkeley hotel. Here the iconic chef talks to Kerstin Kühn about his comeback and shares three recipes
When Pierre Koffmann returned to the London dining scene with his pop-up restaurant at department store Selfridges last autumn, few were surprised at his roaring success. After being scheduled for just 10 days, the Restaurant on the Roof ran for nearly two months following overwhelming demand for his pig's trotters and pistachio soufflés. But one person who was taken aback by the success was the chef himself. "I was very surprised," Koffmann says. "I thought I'd see a few of my old customers from La Tante Claire - those who are still alive - but I was really surprised at how many young people came to eat there. Three-quarters of the customers were under 40. Perhaps they didn't know what to expect."
It's this self-deprecating demeanour that epitomises Koffmann. With a reputation for shyness and an aversion to the celebrity status claimed by many of his contemporaries, he has remained true to his roots. At heart he's a cook, and one who's happiest behind the stove. And now, with the launch of his new eponymous restaurant, he's back in the kitchen where he belongs.
But let's rewind, briefly, to where it all began. Born in Gascony in south-west France, Koffmann moved to the UK in the 1960s and, after working with the Roux brothers at Le Gavroche and the Waterside Inn, he opened La Tante Claire in 1977. He ran the restaurant for 25 years, achieving Michelin's top accolade of three stars and inspiring and training countless young chefs, among them Marco Pierre White, Eric Chavot and Gordon Ramsay.
The latter proved fateful to Koffmann when he bought the original La Tante Claire premises on Chelsea's Royal Hospital Road in 1998, prompting the French chef to leave after more than 20 years and relocate to the Berkeley hotel. The move cost Koffmann his third star, which he lost in 1999 and never regained. Finally, in 2002, La Tante Claire closed its doors to be replaced by yet another Ramsay venture, Pétrus.
It's ironic that, in what Koffmann describes as the last move of his career, he has not only returned to the Berkeley but also claimed Boxwood Café, a site vacated by Ramsay. "Returning to the Berkeley is a homecoming in a certain way," he says. "A lot of the staff were here when I ran La Tante Claire so it's nice to see familiar faces." What about the Ramsay connection? "That's life. It just happened like that."
At the new restaurant, Koffmann oversees a kitchen brigade of 24 chefs together with head chef Clive Dixon, who will join the restaurant next month from Heston Blumenthal's Hind's Head pub in Bray, where he was head chef since February 2008. Previously Dixon held a Michelin star for four years in the late 1990s when he was head chef at Gloucestershire hotel Lords of the Manor in Upper Slaughter. Front of house is being managed by Eric Garnier, the former co-owner of French restaurant Racine, whose other previous roles included restaurant manager of Quaglino's. He oversees an army of 45 waiters looking after guests in the 120-seat restaurant, while head sommelier Mark Botes is in charge of the 160-bin wine list which, naturally, puts emphasis on French wines.
The dining room itself features both banquette and table seating in subtle earthy colours, a window to the kitchen, a central open wine cellar and a series of large, specially commissioned food photographs. There are two private dining rooms: the Camille Room for up to 12 people and Pierre's Table for four.
It's a large restaurant open seven days a week, and with Koffmann famously closing La Tante Claire whenever he was away, refusing to let anyone take the reins in his kitchen; will he be as chained to his stove this time? "At the beginning I will be here every day but eventually I'll have to let go a little bit. I don't want to die at the stove," he laughs.
The food at Koffmann's is the refined country cooking of Gascony that he's so well known for, but it does represent a move away from the haute cuisine that won him Michelin stars. "The cooking is different from La Tante Claire. That was Michelin food and I don't want to do that any more," he explains. "I've been there and it was very nice, but that's it for me; now I want to cook the kind of food I want to eat." That means hearty, robust and gutsy flavours with main ingredients such as rabbit, beef cheeks and cod, a menu of cheaper cuts and seasonal British produce, although old favourites such as scallops with squid ink, braised pig's trotter with morels, and pistachio soufflé are also still there.
The menu changes daily and is priced at £40 for three courses; a set lunchtime menu offers two courses for £18 and three for £22.50. There is also a special dish of the day as well as a focus on sharing dishes - roast chicken, côte de boeuf, and whole braised John Dory - which are carved at the table. "The taste will be there of course - I only know one way to cook - and the style of the food is exactly the same as before, except that the ingredients will be cheaper," Koffmann says. "I want this to be the kind of restaurant you come to two or three times a week. It's a big dining room and we have to fill it, so we can't charge extortionate prices."
One could argue that there's currently a revival of less formal, classic French bistros in the capital: US mega-chef Daniel Boulud's Bar Boulud is just around the corner, and London also has Bruno Loubet's Bistrot Bruno Loubet, Joël Antunès's Brasserie Joël and Anthony Demetre and Will Smith's forthcoming bistro Les Deux Salons. "Food is so fashionable - it's like everything and goes in circles," muses Koffmann. "So maybe we have come back to the style of French bistro and brasserie food: restaurants where you don't have to dress up, where you're relaxed and just enjoy your meal. It's certainly what I like."
koffmann's fact sheet
Opened 15 July
Chef patron Pierre Koffmann
Head chef Clive Dixon
Restaurant manager Eric Garnier
Head sommelier Mark Botes
Capacity 120, including two private dining rooms seating 12 and four
Address Wilton Place, London SW1X 7RL
Telephone 020 7235 1010
What's on the menu
Soupe de poissons, £10
Foie gras en conserve, baguette, £14
Planche de charcuterie, £12/£23
Coquilles St Jacques à l'encre, £16/£28
Côte de boeuf for two, £48
Sole meunière, £34
Pied de cochon aux morilles, £34
Foie de veau Lyonnaise, £27
Lapin rôti au jus d'agrumes, £27
Soufflé aux pistaches et sa glace, £12
Croustade aux pommes, £9
Black velvet glace, £12
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