Piquet, the name of Allan Pickett's new London restaurant, references his Gallic-influenced style of cooking but is also an old-fashioned French card game. With the support of restaurateur Andre Blais, he has been dealt a good hand. So what are their plans for the new venture? Hannah Thompson finds out
Piquet may be an old-fashioned parlour game, but this restaurant is no house of cards.
At the time of The Caterer's visit, the two-storey, 98-cover Fitzrovia site is thronging with activity, as staff stream in and out, tweaking décor, polishing lamps, nudging place settings, testing dishes and playing with light levels just days before the restaurant is set to open its doors on 23 September.
But Pickett is impassively calm, yet gently bubbling with excitement. "It's been a dream come true," he says. "I got to a point in my life when I thought, I could do this for myself. We're finally there now."
The move from established restaurant company to solo venture could have felt like a major risk for some chefs, but Pickett isn't fazed. With years of experience at D&D London under his belt, he is more than comfortable heading up a busy kitchen and happy to train his team to operate efficiently and confidently. His joy at having the freedom to get involved in all aspects of the business is obvious.
"You can work at different restaurants, do your thing and manage them well," he says, "But do you have the individuality and flexibility to change the menu or the website, when you want to? Probably not. I've got a lot to prove, but here it's a family environment, and I know the story behind everything - the menu cover, the branding on the water bottlesâ¦ and I just wanted to see what it would take to actually open a restaurant."
Much of his quiet confidence, he says, comes from his days working with the Galvin brothers, who showed him that working with the customer, rather than seeing them as "other", is key to offering a good experience. This might include openly apologising to a customer that they may have to wait a bit longer because a dish was not quite right the first time and offering them an extra plate while they wait. Something as simple as having a wide open kitchen, such as that at Piquet, can also be part of this approach.
Indeed, the dining room here is almost bisected by the pass, through which diners can see most of the kitchen.
"It's about breaking down all the barriers," Pickett says. "I love that side of it, when people can see you, rather than having the waiters disappearing into the kitchen and the food just coming out. Yes, you do have to be careful about acoustics and things such as swearing, but there is a very definite look, such as having everyone in white jackets and aprons, and a specific type of pass lighting, that I really like."
Allan Pickett and Andre Blais
Speaking of the food, the regularly changing menu will focus on lunch and dinner at first, with a typical dish being a lamb shoulder with pommes cocotte, thyme and olives; or Kentish Littlebourne snails on toast. There will also be talking-point touches, such as a roast meat carving trolley, and the option for diners to request two or three half-portions of dishes for those who like a bit of everything.
This is central to Pickett's easy-going manner, and this carries over to his version of a tasting menu - the Market Menu - which will be served in the yet-to-be-finished Fir Room upstairs.
An intimate six-cover space, it will welcome private diners who will be treated to dishes using less-seen produce and techniques not always able to be used in the rest of the restaurant, a great cut of meat, say, or a brilliant crop of rhubarb that will not quite stretch to the entire dining room.
Wine comes courtesy of experienced restaurant manager Alain Morice, another calm and organised presence on the floor, who makes sure everyone is keeping busy and productive. He explains the wine list in a collected, self-assured manner.
"It's what wine aficionados would probably call a 'small list'," Morice tells me. "There will be 20 whites, 20 reds, a few sparkling, a few sweet. Wine is seasonal, just like food. It's about choosing great wines at a fair price, and keeping it interesting."
Whether from France or the rest of the world, organic or biodynamic, each bottle has been chosen for its quality. Pickett is also happy to remain flexible on wine flights, especially for the tasting menu. "I like having that freedom," he says. "I'll come to Morice and say, 'I've got some great seabass, what wine do we want?' It's about offering that flexibility and working together."
Pickett freely admits that he has not built Piquet alone. Ever-present is Blais, founder of smokehouse chain Bodean's, whose relaxed manner belies a maverick personality, no-nonsense attitude and a deep understanding of the London restaurant scene. He has helped to steer Pickett through every step of the process, advising on everything from finding a good site, budgets, price points, till systems and reservation policies (the upstairs space is reserved for walk-ins).
Although it is - after a fashion - his name above the door, Pickett would go so far as to say the restaurant could not have happened without Blais' involvement.
"I know that I can text Andre any time, and we'd respond to each other," he says. "That confidence comes from him. Seeing what Andre has done, and the level of support that I've hadâ¦ the rabbits that have been pulled out of hatsâ¦ I'd never have been able to do this without Andre. Never, never."
It's a hint of the deep respect the chef has for family, when he adds: "I'd love to be at the level of Sat Bains and Daniel Clifford, who have worked for years to get where they areâ¦but ultimately I would just love to be known for using great produce from Kent, where I'm from. Until about two months ago, my brother, sister and mum used to live a road apart, so I could drive down in one day and see everyone. Without the support of my wife [Chloe], my kids and my family, I couldn't have done this at all."
Andre himself is matter-of-fact about the challenges that come with opening a restaurant. "I didn't have that mentoring myself, so I made all the mistakes before, good and bad," he says. "That's what I've been trying to offer Allan. You can't put too much pressure on; you just have to let the food do the talking. I think this is a partnership made in heaven, and I know the food is bloody damn good."
It's clear that Blais' unwavering belief has provided the propulsion needed to turn this place from an idea into reality. And yet, this collaboration is the result of a chance meeting over a Josper oven.
One Friday afternoon, Blais visited Plateau in Canary Wharf to have a quick look at the grill, in a research trip that would end with Pickett cooking steak and "a wonderful sea bass that won me over". He thoroughly impressed Blais with his quiet confidence, friendliness and open manner.
The pair hit it off, and realised that between their restaurant and cookery skills, something good could happen.
"It was a real rush-hour time for the restaurant," explains Blais, "But he wasn't bothered. For a chef to take the time to entertain a couple of strangersâ¦ that showed me his confidence."
This playful approach is also represented in the restaurant's unusual name - a brainwave of Blais' after Pickett was adamant he didn't want a 'Restaurant Allan Pickett'-style title.
And although Piquet does happen to be a French card game, the site feels distinctly more British than anything else, with classic décor and subtle colours, deep wooden panelling, hunting lodge-esque stag-shaped coat hooks, solid flagstones and wooden planks.
And the environment was in no way an afterthought. Created by designer Quentin Reynolds from Reyco, who also worked with the chef during his summer restaurant residency at the Sanderson hotel, the room has been "a real labour of love", says Pickett.
The materials have been chosen not just for looks, but also because they represent craftsmanship and traditional skills. Take the wooden floor, for example, which is made from reclaimed materials and has been sanded, beautifully laid and polished to a burnished sheen. The dining chairs are mid-century 'Ben chairs' that have been stripped and reupholstered in a rich mustard colour. Sumptuous, deep-blue wallpaper is the backdrop to orange lampshades that add splashes of warm light. Specially-commissioned pieces from London artist Dameon Priestly will follow.
"I just want people to be wowed," says Pickett. "I want them to ask questions. Everything has a history. Every single detail has been examined to make sure it fits in."
The site's soundtrack has also been carefully designed; Blais explains that the restuarant will play tracks reminiscent of his own background growing up on the outskirts of Detroit (his roots are French-Canadian, but he actually spent much of his childhood just across the border), with influences taken from rock and roll, classical and - most importantly to Blais - relaxed, Verve Records-style jazz.
"I used to play saxophone, and I wanted jazz that doesn't drive you beserk," says Blais. For this pair, the food is one thing, but atmosphere is everything.
And while it all seems very calm and considered, there are still touches of playfulness from father-of-four Pickett. Small amounts of fallen apples, rhubarb, bay leaves, or wild blackberries might come courtesy of his mum's allotment and her local foraging habit, while the open kitchen hosts a colourful collection of ceramic ducks, their beaks proudly raised in a meek little line above the pass. Shiny in the bright lights, they are certain to put a smile on the face of anyone ordering the deliciously smooth duck rillettes, which are served in their own duck dish alongside crisp slices of sourdough toast and tangy gherkins.
"It's funny," says Pickett. "A few years ago I went to have my tarot cards read, and she said, 'The only thing you need is to get all your ducks in a row'. It's spooky that she said that."
Sounds about right. Almost imperceptibly, Pickett has managed to establish himself quite literally among some of the city's greatest chefs - Jason Atherton has Berners Tavern just streets away, for example - and has taken to it like a duck to water, pedalling excitedly under the surface, but a picture of serenity on top.
Indeed, it seems apt that "the ducks in a row" line came from a tarot reader because, as far as Pickett's concerned, this restaurant has finally got him playing all of his cards right.
On the menu
Typical Á la carte menu
- £16.50 for two courses, £19.50 for three.
- Duck rillettes served with pickles; braised lamb shoulder, baby artichokes and olives; and chocolate and passion fruit custard
Typical carving trolley
- Loin of Dingley Dell pork, Bramley apple sauce; roast sirloin of aged Devon beef, Yorkshire pudding; and saddle of lamb stuffed with spinach and wild mushrooms
- £45 per person, £75 per person with wine.
- Five courses selected by the chef
Piquet by numbers
Opening date 23 October 2015
Cost About £1m
Kitchen brigade Six, with potential for more
Front of house 14, with room to grow
Lunch set menu price £16.50 for two courses, £19.50 for three
House glass of wine £4.50
- Born on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent
- Married to Chloe; they have four boys
- 1997 Senior sous chef, Michelin-starred Orrery restaurant, D&D London, Marylebone
- 2000 Head chef, the Bluebird Club
- 2001 Head chef, Michelin-starred L'Escargot, Soho
- 2003 Head chef, 3-AA-rosette Aurora at the Great Eastern hotel
- 2006 Head chef, Orrery
- 2007 Head chef, Galvin Bistrot de Luxe
- 2008 Head chef, the Aviator hotel, Farnborough
- 2010 Head chef, Plateau, D&D London, Canary Wharf
- 2015 Resident chef, the Sanderson hotel, Fitzrovia
- 2015 Head chef, Piquet, Fitzrovia
- Grew up on the outskirts of Detroit, USA
- Helped launched the first site of Belgian-style moules-frites restaurant Belgo, now owned by Casual Dining Group, with his brother Denis Blais and Andre Plisnier in 1992
- Opened barbecue smokehouse Bodean's in London's Soho in 2002. The chain now has six sites across London: Soho, Balham, Clapham, Tower Hill, Fulham and the recently opened City Road site near Old Street