This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Bruno Loubet is back in London and cooking - the only thing he knows how to do precisely, he confesses - at Bistrot Bruno in the Zetter Hotel in Smithfield, close to the City.
The numbers, as well as the food, are already impressive. 'We're serving about 180 customers a day two months after we've opened,' Loubet explained when we met for a late lunch. 'But this does mean that last week I worked 135 hours, three times more than the rest of my brigade. Many things may have changed in London's restaurants since I left for Australia in 2002, but good cooks are still as difficult to find.'
Certainly, on the three occasions I have eaten here, Loubet has been conspicuous behind the kitchen counter. On the first two he was running the show, on the third he was towards the back coaxing the last of the ingredients from a Magimix with the concentration of a chef who first began in the kitchen when he was 14, 35 years ago. Loubet modestly describes himself as 'an old grafter'.
This experience is also obvious in the food. The dishes I have enjoyed there have varied from a guinea fowl boudin to a chicken and egg broth served in a tureen for two; trout Grenobloise; pollack with a pistou sauce; crepes Suzettes served in a copper pan; and a millefeuilles of apples and quinces. But what all of them shared was Loubet's ability to take some of the simplest ingredients and cook them to their limit, thereby extracting the maximum flavour.
Loubet's simple mantra is that the best cooking in the world is good simple cooking. But the Bistrot's other attractions include an enterprising and clearly legible wine list written by Ioannis Zafeiropoulos, a young and enthusiastic Greek wine waiter, while the restaurant is managed, professionally but without any sense of ceremony, by the experienced Australian Michael Benyan.
But just as fascinating as the food and the team who deliver it is the story behind why Loubet is here at all. Loubet, it transpired, only acceded to his French wife's desire to return from their eight-year stint in sunny Brisbane, Australia, on condition that he were to be allowed to open a country pub with ample room for his long-held ambition to rear his own pigs, chicken and geese. Ironically, the only animals close to him now at Bistrot Loubet are those on sale at the nearby Smithfield wholesale meat market.
It was clear to both Loubets that if they were to return to Europe with two of their three daughters (the have left one in the hospitality industry in Brisbane), it had to be to England, where he had first established his culinary reputation at the Inn on the Park, the initial Bistrot Bruno in Soho (now Arbutus) and L'Odeon in the 1990s. It was a subsequent ill-judged foray into an Italian restaurant that led to his sudden departure from England to Queensland.
'I was completely burnt-out,' Loubet explained 'and I felt I just had to get away.' He was referring not just to the macho culture that then prevailed in a lot of London's kitchens with numerous chefs not only competing against one another to see could stay at their stoves the longest but also who could most successfully cope with the substances needed to keep them standing or partying.
Success at the St Emilion and Baguette restaurants in Brisbane, as well as writing a cookery column, provided Loubet with the antidote. Life was good, Loubet confessed, but the attraction of England, and that country pub, was ultimately even stronger. Last summer Loubet was back cooking in a friend's country pub and looking for one of his own. Then he received a phone call from Guillaume Rochette.
Rochette is another Frenchman who has made London his home, in his case as a hospitality recruitment specialist, and he knew that Benyan and his partner, Mark Sainsbury, were looking for a new chef. Loubet's initial response was negative but then he reluctantly agreed to meet them, only to be impressed by their frankness and their approach to restaurants, exemplified by their highly successful Spanish restaurant Moro in nearby Clerkenwell.
Loubet was then asked to write a menu for the kind of bistrot he would like to run and this so obviously excited Sainsbury that he asked Loubet to come and cook dinner for him at his home. 'Last August I went along to Mark's house,' he explained, 'with a couple of large ice boxes and cooked an eight-course meal for him and his friends. They were delighted and the idea to recreate Bistrot Bruno was born.'
The restaurant is now a three-way partnership, with Loubet in charge of a kitchen that presents him with enough immediate challenges: the kitchen is not that big; the dining room is curved, which means the food has to travel quite a distance; and for the first time he is responsible, as a chef in a hotel, for the breakfast menu.
He says he knows he will overcome the challenges in time, and they are the main reason he has opened with a menu that gradually will become more adventurous. The only constraint he feels he is under at the moment is the pressure to get things right and to be happy. The most important lesson he has learnt over his career at the stoves, he added, was never to forget the reason for your success.
As and when opportunities present themselves, there may be three or four Bistrot Brunos. But never more, he added. 'My food is too personal'.
Bistrot Bruno Loubet at The Zetter Hotel
020 7324 4455