The legendary Pierre Koffmann has returned to the stove once more, this time at the eponymous Koffmann’s, housed in The Berkeley Hotel, Knightsbridge, London. In a glittering career that has spanned six decades, Pierre has thrilled and delighted an army of fine-dining followers. Add to this, a new band of younger admirers who are venturing into his latest eaterie.
Pierre Koffmann found time to speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide about his past, present and future, interview took place in the bar of Koffmann’s during October.
Tell us some background about yourself?
I was born in Tarbes in South West France but it was in the summer holidays, as a boy, that I spent time with my maternal grandparents in a Farmhouse called the Oratoire in Saint Puy. It was there that I had my introduction to- and early experiences of- cooking.
As far back as 1963 (smiling) I went to cooking school in Tarbes and studied there for three years. It was quite a good school, you got to look at everything from front-of-house through to the kitchen. At the start of the second year you had to choose your specialism so I decided to be a chef.
After leaving in 1966 I moved around the country (France) as in the 1960s it was important to appreciate all the different regions of cooking. While this still exists today, to a certain extent much of the regional differences in cooking in France have disappeared. Paris never appealed to me but many of the other regions – Pyrenees, Alsace, Provence and so on. Then I went to Switzerland, to Lausanne and while I was there one of my main hobbies was playing rugby.
At that time, the old Twickenham was considered the temple of rugby and I had an ambition to see England play France at the old ground. My idea was to spend six months working in a kitchen in London, see the rugby and then move on to America or Australia. Forty years on and I’m still here! (Laughing). You could do this as a chef – work anywhere – so I thought, why not?
In 1970 I arrived at Le Gavroche. There was a magazine in France called L’Hotellerie where you could find hundreds of jobs listed. I really enjoyed my time at Gavroche and especially liked the philosophy that the customer was king and everything was done to please the customer! The food was quite rich, it used a lot of cream.
After a few months I was sous chef and soon after they gave me the head chef position at a new restaurant they had opened called Brasserie Benoit (which was near Oldbury).
In 1972 they opened the Waterside Inn and invited me to be head chef at the restaurant. It was a great honour. There were four or five chefs in the kitchen at the time, now there are twenty-four. I was 24 years old and head chef at what was to become an iconic British/French restaurant. We achieved two Michelin Stars while I was Head Chef.
In 1977 I bought La Tante Claire and we went from one to three stars.
Gordon Ramsay approached me in 1998 and offered to buy the restaurant. At the time my wife had just passed away and I jokingly said to Gordon that should he meet the price I wanted then he could have the site. A week went by and he came back and said OK. So I moved to The Berkeley Hotel and kept the same name of the restaurant until 2003.
So at the age of 55 I retired! I had had a dream when I was young to retire at 45 so I invested for many years in a policy that would allow me to achieve that goal. When the time came, I thought 45 is too young, let’s go on to 50, then at 50 to 55.
At 55, I decided it was time to take advantage of the policy and retire. I travelled the world for a year. I found that while I had some hobbies – the odd game of golf or fishing – that in general I had a routine of waking after 9am, having a cappuccino, eating lunch, having an afternoon siesta then going out for dinner. This was OK for a while but soon became boring, especially as most of my friends were still active.
I did some consulting for a while. This was good financially but not particularly fulfilling. The head chefs were maybe a little scared while the younger chefs enthusiastic to learn new techniques and new dishes. You spend two weeks consulting, you show the chef the correct way to go about things, you check another two weeks later but find they are doing everything the same as before I arrived. This is why it was not so fulfilling. It’s easy to understand that it is hard to ask a head chef to change.
I was approached to do the Selfridges Restaurant on The Roof for a week as part of the London Restaurant Festival. I thought about it for 15 seconds and said yes! I was lucky in that some former chefs or friends were free – Eric Chavot and Bruno Loubet for example.
It was a fantastic experience but very very hard, there were only 3 days of mise en place and 240 covers day in day out. A week went to two weeks, then they ask for a month, then two months and then we had to stop. When you ask a chef if they can help you, it is possible for a day, maybe a week, hard for two and impossible for a month. So with a few exceptions the kitchen was turning over staff and new people were trained up constantly. Very hard.
During the time at ‘The Roof’ we deboned 3,200 pig’s trotter! They used to come in boxes of 500 at a time. We used to cook every day 80 trotters. I lost 12Kg in weight over the two months working 7 days a week, so it kept me fit (laughing).
After Restaurant on the Roof ended, I had some fantastic offers from wealthy people who had maybe been customers from the old La Tante Claire who said they would back me to open my own restaurant but at my age that wasn’t the right move forward. The deal here was the best one for me – I look after the kitchen and they look after everything else. So no paperwork for a start! (Smiling). I hope this works well for the next three to five years.
What would you say makes a strong kitchen?
A strong, motivated chef, who loves food, loves cooking and respects the customer. Then it has to be a strong, structured brigade where all are clear on what is expected of them and what they must achieve. As it is the customer who must leave satisfied then team work between kitchen and front-of-house is important. This is what I liked so much about Le Gavroche back in the 1970s.
What is your cooking Philosophy?
You have to enjoy what you are cooking – you have to love to eat the food you cook. Should you cook what you enjoy you will cook it well. My grandmother lived on a farm and she was a very good cook – when a hare was shot she would prepare it with red wine, with three heads of garlic and twelve onions.
Somewhere between my tongue and my brain is my grandmother’s ability to taste. Sometimes I put this dish on at this restaurant and it’s a great pleasure preparing that dish.
You must also develop your taste memory. Sometimes you may be sitting down relaxing and you start to think about cooking. New creations come about by understanding in your mind what combinations of ingredients will work well together. This comes with experience.
Do you enjoy the success of your former chefs?
Oh yes very much. The ones that put themselves into their cooking, who work hard, have drive, passion and ability will be successful chefs. There are always those who come purely to enhance their CV and learn your recipes. Those I don’t dislike but maybe I have a weaker long term relationship.
I am in touch with a number of my former chef’s – for example Tom Kitchin, Tom Aikens, Raphael Duntoye (currently of La Petite Maison) and so on and I am always delighted when any of them do well.
Have you been pleasantly surprised by your reception in coming back to the stove?
Very much so. When I was asked about The Restaurant on the Roof one of my first thoughts was ‘but all my customers are now dead’ (laughing) but I was so pleasantly surprised to find younger people coming to the restaurant and that has continued on at The Berkeley.
I have found coming back to the kitchen invigorating as well as helping me keep a youthful mentality. The oldest chef is 33 years old and most are 18 to 25. I was working long days for 7 days a week until we recruited a full time head chef. If you love what you are doing you don’t look at the clock but I know some of the youngsters have been impressed with my energy levels.
What is your proudest professional achievement?
Well opening my own restaurant in La Tante Claire was something that any chef as a young boy growing up in France hopes to do some day.
I very much enjoy reflecting in the achievements of former chefs. Tom Kitchin in Edinburgh, won best restaurant in the Observer Food Monthly Awards last night and I am absolutely delighted for his success. We speak often and I feel like a father figure to him, which makes me very proud. Raphael (Duntoye) too, he turned up at my kitchen one day and asked if he could learn to cook. He was an engineer but had the true passion, enthusiasm and intelligence to become a brilliant chef – he stayed for five years and I really like his food at La Petite Maison in Mayfair.
And so it was time to leave, Pierre had been utterly charming, with a glint in the eye and a natural warmth. No doubt Koffmann’s will be a success and provide Pierre with the ideal outlet for his extraordinary creativity, vigour and hospitality.