As one of a select band of Michelin Two Star chefs, Claude Bosi (left) is firmly in the elite group of most celebrated chefs in Britain. Claude found time to speak to Simon Carter about his past, present and future. Interview took place, July 23rd 2009 at Hibiscus Restaurant, Mayfair, London.
Tell us some background about yourself
My background is fairly simple, I left school at 16. I wasn’t great at school but always just good enough to get to the next level – but without ever pushing too hard. When I was 16 my school principal contacted my parents to ask what I would like to do for a career. I said I wanted to be a chef, and that was it.
My parents owned a bistro in Lyon and my father warned me that it would be tough – very hard work, but I said OK, it was what I wanted. I spent a summer working in a brasserie where the chef/patron was well connected. He found me a position at the Michelin Two Star, Leon de Lyon, where I served my apprenticeship.
At that time, when you worked in a Michelin starred kitchen, you didn’t decide where you were going for your next job, the chef used his connections and told you where you should work. After three years the chef Jean Paul Lacombe placed me at Michel Rostang restaurant in Paris for a year. I didn’t enjoy Paris too much and moved back to Lyon to work at La Pyramide for one year.
I then spent six months at a five star hotel in the Caribbean – it was relatively low pressured. Following this I returned to Paris and worked at the two Michelin starred, Le Chiberta, and stayed for just over a year. I then joined Alain Passard at L’Arpege in 1994 when it had two Michelin stars, and during my time it gained its third. I joined Alain Ducasse in 1997 and stayed until later that year.
In 1997 I decided that I wanted to work in England. I said to the recruitment agency that I would like to work in the countryside, as London didn’t appeal to me at that time and I also wanted to improve my English. Eventually they came back to me with a sous chef position at the Overton Grange in Ludlow, and I decided that I would take the job.
A few months later, the owner told me that the head chef was leaving, and he asked would I be interested in taking the position. He said he wanted three AA rosettes. I said that he would have to show me what that is because I had no idea (smiling), he showed me and I said OK let’s go for it! I started in February and before the end of the year we got the third rosette, so my job was safe! (smiling). I carried on and in January 1999 we got the first Michelin Star. I was 24 and I never believed that I could achieve a Michelin Star, so everyone was delighted.
Then, after a while, I decided it was maybe time to do my own thing. We looked around in Warwickshire but we couldn’t afford anything, then we looked in Oxfordshire but couldn’t afford anything there either (smiling). In the end we found a place in Ludlow, that had been the Oaks restaurant. I bought it for £40,000. We opened Hibiscus in May 2000 and got the first Michelin Star the next January and then the second star two or three years later.
You had a very loyal following in Ludlow is London the same or different?
We still have a loyal following in London, including many people who come down from Ludlow. In fact, we had a couple come in to the restaurant at the weekend and the wife is coming back today for lunch, so that is nice.
I think if you make sure that you always give the best that you can and don’t take people for granted then people will come back. I think it’s true of any business that you need a loyal following. I learnt in the countryside that if you don’t have you regulars, then when the economy is tough you really suffer. If I hadn’t had my regulars I would never have done seven years in Ludlow.
How would you describe your gastronomy?
My cooking has evolved as I have matured. When you are young you want to do everything and experiment constantly, but over time you develop a more relaxed signature and feel comfortable in what you are doing.
My style, I would say, is to respect the produce. My cooking has become less elaborate and complex than in years gone by. Most importantly I’m relaxed and enjoying my cooking very much – cooking the things I love.
If I had to describe my cookery style, I would call it, “French with a Twist”. I don’t like using the term “modern,” or “modern French”. To me it has negative connotations – we don’t go in for foams or jellies here, it is purely about respecting the ingredients. A chef’s food is very personal – I will go on my travels and eat at other chef’s restaurants and enjoy what they are doing but for me, you cook what you love to cook, and the customers will enjoy themselves and hopefully return.
How have you managed your suppliers since the move to London?
I would say, at the moment that 85% of our produce comes from mainland Britain. It is true that you build up strong relationships with your suppliers and this takes time. I’m still using things like the butcher, the guy who smokes the fish and the flour for the bread from my days in Ludlow. The way I like to work is to trust a supplier. They do what they do to the best of their ability, and then I will work with what they have to offer, rather than tell them what I am looking for. Everyone has their own job and is professional in what they do and so this is the best way to work.
How do you construct dishes?
I do have a taste memory – after twenty one years of cooking you are bound to be able, to some extent, to combine tastes in your head. I like to follow the seasons very closely. You will rarely find me at a table with a piece of paper writing down dishes and/or drawing pictures.
I get most of my inspiration during service when I am working with my head chef Marcus. I may say to him that later we’ll try this with that and see if we can create something new. The inspiration tends to come from the heart.
Do you trial dishes on the set lunch menu for the a la carte or do they go straight to the a la carte?
We tend to experiment with flavours a little more on the set lunch. Most of the lunch clientele during the week is corporate, and I suspect that this market can be more open to experimental combinations. I think in most Michelin restaurants the chefs enjoy being more adventurous, and less “safe”, and a little more daring on the set lunch than the a la carte. At the same time though, we like to strike a balance. We don’t want any customers to feel scared of the menu, so we always make sure that we have dishes to suit all tastes.
We like to think that the set lunch menu is a great way for people to try Hibiscus, and then to come back again for the a la carte or to try the weekend tasting menu.
How long is the typical creative process?
It can be a day, a week, a season or up to two years for one dish. We follow the seasons, so if we haven’t perfected a dish within a couple of months it will have to wait until the following year before we put it on the menu again
What is the size of the brigade?
Ten to twelve in the kitchen and eight to ten in front of house. My head chef, Marcus, has been with me for four years (since Ludlow). It is a very good and strong team front and back of house. The important thing is for the team to realise that it is the customer who is paying us to do the work that we love doing, and therefore the customer is the most important person in the building.
The ages in the kitchen are between 24 and 28 (except for me, I am the old one) and between 23 and 26 in the front of house. We have a great range of ages, a blend of youth, enthusiasm and some polished experience. We are also one team and there must be no conflict between the kitchen and the front of house.
The better the team work, the smaller the brigade you need. It is really important to space service well as it makes life easier for the kitchen and front of house. If one person makes a mistake, the next person steps in to help. We have to work like that for the benefit of our customers.
What are the essential qualities of being a successful chef/patron?
I think one of the most essential qualities is to respect every customer who walks through the door, and not to take any for granted. The customer must be your number one priority.
How often does the menu change at Hibiscus?
The lunch menu changes every two weeks. In terms of the a la carte, we may change one dish every two or three weeks. To a strike a balance with consistency we have our signature dishes and best sellers that stay on the menu.
The set lunch menu is currently £25 for three courses, or £33.50 for three courses with wine. At the moment we are open from Tuesday to Friday for lunch and Tuesday to Saturday for dinner, but from the 15th November until Christmas we will also be open Saturday lunch, and also Monday lunch and dinner.
There appears to be a trend towards tasting menus in the market, do you notice this at Hibiscus?
Oh yes, in fact on Friday night and Saturday night at Hibiscus we only serve the tasting menus. The choice is four, six or eight courses – you don’t know what you are going to eat. You are given a list of produce and we create dishes from that list. Naturally we respect the customer’s preference and they can choose the produce they particularly like. This has been very popular at weekends, particularly for those people who have maybe heard of your restaurant but don’t get a chance to come too often.
We started doing this because, 85% of customers order the tasting menus. It didn’t make sense to run both menus at the same time, when the tasting menu was so popular.
We will always offer a set of wines by the glass to have with the menu, but for those wine fanatics that want to come and drink a fantastic bottle of wine they can let me know and we will produce something to complement and match that wine. So we are flexible with our customers.
What would you say are your best sellers?
Scallops are always popular, as is Veal and Jellied Eel. I have a tripe and cuttlefish dish on the menu that comes from my Lyon days, which is also selling very well.
What are your proudest professional achievements?
Achieving two Michelin Stars in one of the major cities in the world has been one of my greatest professional achievements! After going back to one star when I moved Hibiscus from Ludlow to London from two, there was extra pressure to work really hard and get everything right. When we got those two stars back it was an amazing feeling. Yes, definitely better the second time around.
I would love one day to have three stars. We are in a tough market and I need to stick to what I do, keep enjoying it and build up a solid customer base. If it comes it comes. It would be a huge honour to represent the restaurant industry in London with three Michelin Stars. There is only one Michelin three star restaurant in London today, and a good few chefs that are pushing forward, so it will be interesting to see what happens.