"It's very nice for young chefs to win Michelin stars, but it's not always a route to success. It's nothing more than a piece of paper and sometimes Michelin restaurants fail."
That is the view of Pierre Koffmann who addressed a full room of students at Westminster Kingsway College yesterday afternoon to celebrate his 50 years as a chef.
The Q&A session with Koffmann and his protege, chef Ben Murphy (previously of The Woodford, in London) and a former student of Westminster Kingsway College, addressed various subjects, with Koffmann in a mischievous mood.
When asked what he looked for in a chef, Koffmann responded: "Someone that is hard working with a good character and someone with passion - passion is the most important. They have to work hard and it's not easy if you want to be a good chef - although I have got easier to work for!"
He went on to explain how he had often been told by his teachers that he could do better and how at the age of 14 was told "you could do better somewhere else", and how he went on to cookery school until the age of 17.
"I worked in Strasbourg first as a chef and various other places in France then came to the UK in 1970, with a plan to stay for six months. When I arrived at the age of 17 it was all prawn cocktails and avocado and all those things, nothing very interesting," he recalled.
Koffmann spoke of an abundance of successful chefs coming from the UK and how the cuisine and culture of hospitality had changed. He applauded the raft of food styles available in the UK including Japanese and Peruvian, but insisted that chefs "should always learn classic French techniques at the beginning".
Questioned on modern equipment in the kitchen, Koffmann replied: "I think most of it is essential; we could not do the same process as a blender does, for example. But as for the bags [sous vide] I'm not for it and Ben knows that.
"Young chefs should be banned from using these bags until they have learnt the basics. They should learn how to cook a piece of meat the traditional way without these bags! When you have more experience you can experiment. It's the same as chefs who use timers; don't do that, touch the meat with your finger, learn how the texture changes."
Murphy was asked if he'd found the transition from college to Koffmann's difficult. "I did a lot of work experience whilst at college, but you have to have a completely different mindset for a professional kitchen. It's full time, and you can't watch the clock. It's not healthy," he said.
And would Murphy advise young chefs to go into a restaurant like Koffmann's after leaving college; was it good to go in at the deep end?
"Yes absolutely," said Murphy. "I don't think I could have gone in any deeper! Getting sent to the south of France when I didn't speak a word of French, it was the best way to learn a language. Working in France meant that I was completely out of my comfort zone."
Koffmann offered some tips to the students: "As a young chef you have to move a lot, change countries, learn languages, travel as much as you can before you fall in love and meet your wife or husband and have kids."
As for advice on starting your own restaurant, he explained that he had never had any problems starting out.
"When you are young you are slightly stupid! A little crazy and you don't think about problems. My restaurant was successful, I had customers and I had some money. You've got to be adventurous and take chances, buy a small place, don't pay too much rent, perhaps avoid Mayfair or Chelsea to begin with. The restaurant Anglo in Farringdon [London] is a good example - good food and good value for money."
And with regards to Michelin stars, do chefs stop taking risks once they've achieved one? Koffmann believes it depends on the capacity of the cooking, if chefs have time to practise something new every day, then restaurants will develop and menus will evolve. But do we as an industry put too much emphasis on stars and guides?
"Perhaps, but for young chefs, of course, to be part of that red book is a dream," he said.
Koffmann's eponymous restaurant closes its doors on 31 December 2016. His visit to Westminster Kingsway College was part of his celebrations as a chef of 50 years and coincides with his first new book in 25 years: Classic Koffmann, 50 years a chef.
Questions were asked by Jose Souto, chef lecturer in Culinary arts at Westminster Kingsway College and the student audience.
Menuwatch: the Woodford >>