Since 1987, David and Helen Everitt-Matthias have owned and run Le Champignon Sauvage restaurant in Cheltenham. David works every service in the kitchen with two helpers and Helen the same with the front of house. Just 28 covers are able to enjoy the experience each service. David is a former National Chef of the Year winner and one of the few holders of two michelin stars in the UK. The restaurant frontage is as understated as the subtle and sophisticated creations on the plate – the latter rooted in cuisine terroir but elevated in creative gastronomic style.
Recent winner of the BirminghamPlus.com restaurant of the year, David took some time (over two hours in fact) to talk to fine-dining-guide.com
Interview took place December 2004.
Tell us about your background?
Originally from Wandsworth, I started my cooking career in 1978 and spent five years at The Four Seasons (then called Inn on the Park). There were two different chefs during my time there – Jean Michel Bonnin and a Swiss chef called Eduard Hari. I was lucky enough to stage at Pierre Koffman’s La Tante Claire in Chelsea, which proved inspirational as I first encountered cuisine terroir: The concept of taking a variety of offal and making gastronomic dishes was fascinating. The mixing and matching of luxuries with offal holds true to my philosophy today.
During the 1980s I worked in London in three different restaurants with three different concepts, the last being a restaurant on the Fulham Road. These were all useful learning experiences in all aspects of the business. In 1987 we decided to open our own premises; we’d had the romantic notion of walking our dogs on the beach in the sunshine and so looked at seaside properties. Unfortunately the reality of tastes at that time meant that French fine dining would not work in such locations.
We eventually found this property here in Cheltenham and have remained ever since. I’m a believer in growing and developing your site in the French tradition and while our kitchen is small (many domestic kitchens are bigger) it has served our business well and I’ve never felt unable to achieve what I’ve wanted to achieve.
What impact has your progression in Michelin affected your business?
Well to begin with we found that the local clientele visited on a word of mouth recommendation basis. The first star brought people calling on the basis of pre- organized trips within the region. Since the second star we’ve found that we get calls from France or the States making long term bookings. We’re now booked out 4 to 5 weeks in advance for Saturdays and two to three weeks for Fridays. Weekdays have improved no end with many of them being full as well.
How do you devise your creations?
Some might say that I’m a ‘masculine’ chef; I do always start with flavours and I believe that the real, bold taste of the ingredients should shine through. I’m quite lucky as most dishes are derived from tasting in my head. I’m confident that 90% of the time, if I’d mentally constructed something that I believed would work, it actually does when transformed onto the plate – the finished product comes from the detail of fine tuning
In what ways are you developing your cooking style?
I feel that I must always be developing my cooking, I’m not someone who can be happy standing still and I certainly always avoid complacency. I’m currently looking at new ingredients to add to my repertoire. I’ve done butchery, terroir and experimented with molecular and the more strings you can have to your bow the more you can satisfy your customer. In terms of new ingredients, to give you examples: the snail risotto has ground Elder, which adds an earthy slightly eucalyptus note: Yellow Gorse Flowers, dried over two days, result in ice creams with a subtle banana and coconut flavour: Red Clover
flowers have proven versatile for panacottas and parfaits.
What about sourcing of ingredients?
We pick much of our own wild food,mushrooms from the woods nearby and most of the wild herbs and plants, but on the occasions that I’m not available, we have a trusted person who helps out at relatively short notice. My butcher is a great supplier and I’ve been with him from the start. With Highgrove we now have some reliable vegetable supplies as well as a few trusted gardeners.
We have a few people who shoot our wild game for us, pigeon, rabbit, hare ,wild ducks and venison. Several local fishermen bring in eels and pike and a variety of fresh water fishes.
Your pig’s trotter dish – talks us through the preparation
We braise the trotter first and then we keep it in the jus for 24 hours, take it off the bone and dice it. We sweat some onions and some garlic down, add the trotter and jus and reduce the mixture until it becomes coherent. We have some miniature drainpipe moulds that stand up and put the mixture in there to set for 24 hours then flouring and breadcrumbs. As you would expect, the dish is quite gelatinous.
And tell us about your sweetbreads dish?
We sprinkle with spices such as liquorices, orange powder and mushroom powder and then vacuum pack and cook at 60 degrees for about four hours until they are just able to hold their shape. They are then refrigerated until needed, when we roast them and put the onion crust on (which is an Asian technique).
Are there any new deserts you are working on?
One example is a type of chocolate fondant – a cold one – in the middle it will have caramel served with roasted barley and a malted milk ice cream. I’m so pleased with it, we’ve even bought a new plate especially (laughing).
How do you view the modern fine dining experience?
From a restaurant management point of view it is more about delivering a relaxed atmosphere to the customers that ensures they are not intimidated by the idea of gastronomic dining. You look at places like the Fat Duck and they have shown you can reach the heights of gastronomy while offering customers a relaxed dining environment.
Helen does a great job with our customers, many of whom may be intimidated at the prospect of a “top end” restaurant, they leave happy and relaxed.
What are your favourite foods when eating out?
I love all offal and when I go out its always offal, foie gras, scallops or sweetbreads – these are my favourite things.
Having eaten, drunk, interviewed and gossiped until 2am it was time to leave. The warm, relaxed hospitality of the Everitt-Matthias’ greatly enjoyed.