Pierre Koffmann is one of the greatest chefs to have ever stood at a pass in London. Earlier this year, he appeared on stage at Borough Market for Pierre Koffmann: In Conversation, an in-depth exploration of his life and work. These are some of the highlights
Interview: Richard Vines
It’s hard to think of another chef from the past 50 years who has been more influential than Pierre. Some have had louder voices—I’m thinking of two of his proteges, Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay—but they too pay tribute to Pierre. There is a lot of respect for him among chefs, and some fear too. He was known as ‘the bear’, and that wasn’t because of Paddington or Rupert: he was pretty tough. His first restaurant, La Tante Claire, was legendary; Koffmann’s at The Berkeley Hotel continued in the same vein—and he is still cooking today.
Why are you still cooking? Do you need the money?
I don’t say no to the money, but the main thing is I enjoy cooking. If you don’t enjoy cooking, don’t do it. It is a passion. It is a demanding job, like a lot of jobs, but I love it. And what else could I do? I find it boring just being at home, so I go to work every day.
You could do TV. You’re actually quite good...
Maybe when I was younger. I have actually done very little. I left that to some of my guys: Gordon, Marco, they are doing quite well in front of the camera. I find it much more interesting to be cooking.
You started cooking in the sixties in southwest France...
Yes, in 1963 I started at the cookery school in my home town of Tarbes. I was not the best student, I have to say. I went there because I was hopeless at school. I had to do something; I was 14 and I had to choose a job. In that small town there was an arsenal, a railway, a post office, and a cookery school. To work in the arsenal you had to be a grown-up man, and I was not ready to be a man. That is one reason I went to the cookery school. The other was that I am greedy and I enjoy eating food.
How was regional food in France at the time?
It was very regional at the time. In the southwest, everything was duck, dried beans and a lot of fruit. Fish wasn’t part of our menu. Only on Fridays, because we come from Catholic people—every Friday was salted cod, salted cod, salted cod. My mum, she had 20 recipes for salted cod—with beans, with tomato, with potato. I love it, I’ve got to say.
How did your cooking career begin?
At the end of cookery school, I got a little report, and the headmistress said “Pierre will never do anything in catering.” After that, I moved around France. At the time, if you wanted to learn how to do fish, you had to go to Brittany, if you wanted to do Provencal food you had to go to Marseilles, if you wanted to do sauerkraut you had to go to Strasbourg. It was interesting and you got to meet different people.
You came to England in 1970...
Yes, but not for the food—the food here was rubbish in 1970. Avocado cocktails and grilled grapefruit: fantastic. The food was very, very poor. But I like rugby, so I came to see England against France at Twickenham, then stayed.
You went to work at Le Gavroche. What kind of restaurant was it then?
I went by pure luck; I didn’t know it was at the time the top restaurant. They had some good dishes, but they had others, like smoked trout with horseradish sauce, which you don’t expect from a top restaurant. It was good, very good. They looked after the customer.
I stayed for just over a year, then I went to a place the Roux brothers opened in the City called Brasserie Benoit. Then they bought The Waterside Inn in 1974. I was 22 and they asked me to be the head chef there. I got to do what I wanted at The Waterside Inn, so it was a bit more gastronomic. We never used smoked trout! I was there from 1972 to 1977 and we went from one star to three stars, so I was quite pleased.
How was working with the Roux brothers?
It was a good experience. They are very nice people and they love their customers. They do very, very well.
When you opened your own restaurant, La Tante Claire, did you steal their dishes?
Nooooo. I said I wouldn’t have a single dish from the Roux brothers, even though I’d been there for seven years. That’s when I decided to do the pig’s trotter, to be different. I’m remembered for the pig’s trotter—I’ve done many, many dishes, but everyone knows me for those trotters.
What was London like at the time?
Raymond Blanc was just starting, he was a brilliant young chef. But really it was 10 years later that we had a real explosion, with Marco and Gordon. Nico Ladenis, he was brilliant, a self-made chef. Then the food started to be as good as anywhere else in the world.
So many of your chefs went on to become successful...
I didn’t make those chefs, they made themselves. They were working very hard; I was just there to help them. A donkey cannot become a racing horse. Those guys were racing horses. I should thank them: they were working so hard.
What was Marco like?
Charming. In the beginning we had a little problem, but after that he was perfect. When we had a break, waiting for the customers, we took a bag of trotters and we used to race to see who was the fastest at deboning them. I’ve got to stay, with modesty, I was the best. It’s a question of practice. The more you do, the better you become.
If I see Gordon shouting on the TV, where did he learn that from?
I don’t know where from. A little bit from me, but I never used those ‘f’ words like a machine gun.
In 2003, you closed La Tante Claire and retired. How was that?
I don’t know why I closed it. When you are young you have a stupid dream that you will put a sign on your door: “Gone fishing.” I did it. I went travelling, which was fantastic. When I came back to London, I was in bed until 9:30, having a cappuccino, thinking about where to go for lunch, then afterwards having a siesta. That was okay, but I didn’t really enjoy it in the end.
After a year, I decided to work again. It was proposed that I do a pop-up restaurant on the roof of Selfridges. I thought it would be for a week, but it lasted eight weeks—I lost 12kg in weight. It was fun. A few people asked me to work with them after that. I went with The Berkeley, because they said: “We need you for three years only.” That was six years ago.
How was it going back into the kitchen again?
Like I never left it. The same thing. The kitchen never changes. But everything else does—food changes very fast. In London, the tastes of the people have changed. In the 1970s, the best food would have been French, then there was Italian, Indian and Chinese. Now you have food from every country in the world. It is completely different, but it is nice. You have ingredients coming from all over the world now. In the 1970s, if you wanted to buy foie gras, good chicken, pigeon, duck, you had to go to France, now you can have those things any day.
How does London compare with Paris?
In Paris it is more traditional, because in France we have our own traditions, like the Italians and the Spanish. Here in England, you had nothing, and when you have nothing you can do anything. You have chefs coming from Ethiopia with their own ingredients, regional food from Spain, America, Mexico, Argentina, Cuba. This is the best place in the world for wine: in France they drink French, in Italy they drink Italian, here you have a huge market from all over the world. You are very lucky.
Where do you like to eat?
I like everything. In central London the rents are crazy, so all the young chefs open in east London—small places that don’t cost too much money. They can concentrate on the food. I love Chick ’n’ Sours in Haggerston; Cricket in Brixton, the guy is brilliant. For Chinese, we go to A Wong and New Fortune Cookie. Clove Club is beautiful. I enjoy to go to Lyle’s. Such a lot of places.
You had three Michelin stars at La Tante Claire. How important was that to you?
I think it is important for a chef. The first year I had one star, the second I had two stars, after that I was a little bit stupid and said: “Next year I’ll have three stars.” But it took me five years to get a third. It is only important for the chef though. As a customer, it is up to you to say what is the best restaurant. It is not about the stars, it is your own taste.
How has your cooking changed between La Tante Claire and now?
We still make the same quality food. All the fish is still wild fish. We use the same butcher. When you taste the food, for me it is the same.
Is it the kind of food you like to eat personally?
Of course. If you cook food, you have to enjoy eating it. How can you cook something you don’t like? If you don’t like it, can you send it out to the customer?
How do you see your future?
I will carry on cooking for as long as I can. For as long as my legs can walk.