A returning star to the firmament of the London restaurant scene, Bruno Loubet has been welcomed back with open arms – like saying hello again to a long lost friend.
The earthy, hearty, gutsy cooking style remains as does a surprise or two. Perhaps a few grey hairs are now in evidence but little else has changed after a near decade’s absence (in Australia).
Bruno Loubet (left) found time to speak to Simon Carter and Daniel Darwood of fine-dining-guide at his new home, The Zetter Hotel, in Clerkenwell, London. Interview took place in March 2010.
Tell us some background about yourself?
I am forty eight years old and I started at fourteen so that’s thirty four years in the industry! I started at Catering College in Bordeaux until the age of seventeen. I did my national service in the navy and ended up staying an extra six months, so eighteen months in total, and was an officer and head chef cooking for the admiral.
I left the navy and applied to about thirty different kitchens all over Europe that had two or three Michelin Stars. The only one that offered me a job was Pierre Koffman at La Tante Claire in London. I enjoyed the experience but it was very tough and I only stayed there a relatively short time. I was about twenty one years old when I started working in a small restaurant called Gastronome One in Fulham.
The fashion in London at the time was nouvelle cuisine but I was doing something different – more rustic south western French food. Having said that, the top end of the market was maybe classic French – Nico Ladenis, The Roux brothers, Raymond Blanc, Pierre Koffman then perhaps most others were doing nouvelle cuisine.
At Gastronome One I was cooking braised beef with prune or salad of confit duck gizzard which at the time was different or unique (but now is more common place) and Drew Smith at the Good Food Guide was kind enough or brave enough to rate the food 16/20 and make me the Young Chef of The Year.
One day, I happened to have a long four hour chat with Raymond Blanc. I had just had a baby girl and was 23 and needed a stable position with a good salary. So, I decided to take up Raymond’s offer to join the kitchens at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons.
At that time John Burton-Race was cooking at Le Petit Blanc and aiming for Michelin stars. Raymond (Blanc) decided that more casual dining would be better at that restaurant, so John moved on to set up L’Ortolan, and after spending a year in the kitchens at Le Manoir, I took over at Le Petit Blanc.
I cooked there for the best part of three years and we were full lunch and dinner; some days we would have double the demand for the number of covers available.
Then Raymond invited me to go back to Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons but at the same time I was approached by the Four Seasons Hotel at Hyde Park. I had the opportunity to cook what I wanted to cook and have carte blanche in a top London Hotel.
Within a year we received the first Michelin Star and won a number of awards over the following four years. It was a really exciting time for me personally, it was like a chef in an independent restaurant giving a 100% to do new and exciting food. In comparison the London Hotel restaurant scene was quite static and you could argue formulaic.
The restaurant was fully booked lunch and dinner two weeks ahead and this went on for five years. There came a time when perhaps I was a bit of a ‘hungry boy’ – hungry for my second Michelin star. I felt that at Inn on the Park (The Four Seasons), we were very close but not quite getting or giving enough to move over that barrier to the second star – always on the cusp but not quite making that extra step.
I had the fire in my belly to do something different but maybe, in hindsight, could have stepped back at this time and talked more to the management at The Four Seasons. In the end, I opened Bistrot Bruno in Soho.
Bistrot Bruno gained critical acclaim and was always very busy, so my business partner and I (Pierre Condou) decided to open L’Odeon. The first year at L’Odeon was crazy – we were doing £70,000 a week and £3.5m in the first year.
At the same time, I was into yet another year of working eighty plus hours a week! I look back and realise that it was a fantastic opportunity for a young man to have a business like that, however, the levels of stress, pressure and work hours were just too much. At the end of that first year I broke – burnt out.
I was in a situation where I just had to walk away – I was signed up to a five year contract where my shares in the restaurant materialised at the end of those five years. But I simply could not to do it! Exhausted! So I walked away from everything, walked away with nothing!
I had spent a significant part of my life giving 150% in the kitchen, giving all the time, working so hard and then suddenly – financially – I had nothing. I spent a year doing bits and pieces of consultancy. It was during this period that I met Oliver Peyton and sometime later opened Isola restaurant.
I had done French Bistrot and fine dining and done well with them so I thought, why not try something different?
I worked for Oliver for two to two and a half years before realising that with my wife and three children, we had the opportunity to sell our flat in London and buy a house with a swimming pool and a small business in Brisbane, Australia.
Like getting a clean slate, a fresh start – pressing the ‘reset’ button – in a beautiful new environment and really a step up in quality of life compared to London. The business side of things went very well in Brisbane, the restaurant was recognised with chef awards and the family were happy. After eight years we started to miss Europe, to miss London and we felt that we were getting to an age where if we were going to come back we’d better do it soon or not at all!
So we had a plan to come back to the UK for five or six years and then decide what we want to do – live in UK or maybe between UK and Australia. At first I came back to assess the situation, with the idea of opening a country pub where I could cook whatever I wanted to cook. However, I realised that I had been quite comfortable in Australia and taking the financial risk of setting up a pub and taking maybe two years to get established and so on was not what I wanted.
At the same time I was approached by and talking to Mark Sainsbury and Michael Benyon of The Zetter. I was very impressed with them and decided to make the move and work at The Zetter Hotel in Clerkenwell, London. I have a four year contract here but plan to stay a minimum of five years.
Who knows maybe I will one day own a pub in the country – hire a chef and just potter around!
The start at the Zetter has been very good – people seem to appreciate hearty, gutsy food. We have been busy and the reviews have been good so far.
What lessons have you learned from the ups and downs of your career?
Have good people around you and people you can trust. These would be the people who work with you in every respect from the kitchen, through front of house to business partners! Also, you are only as good as the worst guy in your kitchen! So treat people well, develop talent around you and build loyalty, trust and respect among good people. In this way, business works much better!
Also having good people around you helps you to develop perspective, to open your eyes and look around you – to steer the ship! At L’Odeon, for example, I went in every day and gave all of myself in the kitchen, it was like I was at war with the world, day in day out. In the end that “kills” you – you have to be able to step back, to trust and rely on the people around you and keep a sensible perspective.
I would say that I’ve also tried to learn not to take everything on myself, so personally, so hard and to have a better perspective in this respect, too
You’ve not been tempted by the prospect of being an office based ‘Executive Chef’?
I still love working in the kitchen. I’m forty eight years old but it’s still my passion. Why work in an office doing administration when you can pay a secretary £20,000 a year to do that (and they would do it better than me!). My talent is in the kitchen and that is where I want to spend my time. I am a working chef and believe I still lead by example in that regard.
What are the front of house and kitchen brigade sizes?
At the moment there are eleven in the kitchen and we need perhaps another two chefs. There are also a couple of separate chefs who come in for breakfasts. Front of house is aimed at the warm, friendly Bistrot style of service as opposed to the stiffer fine dining style.
Who do you most admire in the industry?
I have become very good friends with Raymond Blanc. He is a good man who I respect and admire and he has inspired many people in this industry.
Which dish that you’ve created is most memorable to you?
I once created a garnish of new potatoes with a lime pickle. For a French chef to put together their own blend of spices and not reach for the curry powder was quite something and that dish was very well received at Bistrot Bruno many years ago.
How would you describe your gastronomy?
I like to cook what I like to eat – basically what I would like to eat should I eat out myself. Maybe I like one or two surprises – classical combinations and some dishes that make the customer think a little.
Twenty or so years ago I was doing Scallops with black pudding, or vegetable tatins (Endive or Celeriac glazed with truffle or shallots with chicken livers) even something simple like parmesan crisp. Nowadays maybe these things are either classics or commonplace but I am proud they were something I was doing many many years ago.
I also believe that you only ask yourself two questions with food – “does it work” and “would I like to eat it.” There are ingredients from all around the world that may combine beautifully and Australia is great place to develop that attitude. Here, at The Zetter, I decided to stay in a straight line from where I was in London eight years ago so people would feel comfortable with the food.
Who knows, maybe some time down the road I will get more adventurous here and take a loyal band of customers on a journey with me!
Over a one hour interview, Bruno Loubet displayed a disarming charm, ample charisma and a level of openness and honesty that the interviewer found compelling. A great story told by a great chef who is a humble man.
See Bistrot Bruno Restaurant Review