This article was also published in the Financial Times.
The name Pierre Koffmann has been synonymous with the finest French food in England for the past 35 years. In 1972 he cooked alongside Michel Roux at The Waterside Inn in Bray, Berkshire, before opening his own restaurant, La Tante Claire, in 1977 in Chelsea with his late wife Annie.
For many, La Tante Claire in that initial location – it moved in 1998 into The Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge before closing in 2002 – was the most romantic restaurant in town to which customers would flock for Koffmann's signature dish, a stuffed pig's trotter with morel mushrooms. In an era when excellent restaurants were far less common than they are today, La Tante Claire, run to Koffman's notoriously exacting standards, was a beacon.
Although he has not been cooking professionally for the past five years Koffmann, now 59, has left a lasting impression and not just for those lucky enough to have a copy of either of his two cookbooks, La Tante Claire and Memories of Gascony, now both sadly out of print. Koffmann remains one of those old-fashioned chefs who believes that his role is to teach as much as to impart pleasure and as a result there are numerous chefs who have worked under him who still revere him. Tom Kitchin, chef/proprietor of the excellent Kitchin's in Leith, Scotland, still rings him two or three times a week for advice and still calls him 'Chef'. And when Koffmann was out for dinner recently with his new partner, Claire Harrison, their meal was interrupted briefly by a customer who wanted to thank him for all the wonderful meals he had eaten at his restaurant. Most distinctively, perhaps, Koffmann has shunned all forms of publicity.
When Koffman closed his kitchen doors in 2002 he seemed to disappear from sight completely. There were rumours that he was looking for a site for a brasserie where his gutsy, less expensive cooking could flourish but nothing seemed to materialise. When I asked a close friend for any news his reply was undoubtedly perceptive but definitely downbeat. "What you have to understand is that Pierre is a Gascon. As long as there are a few potatoes, some onions and some ham in his larder he will always consider himself well-off. Money on its own is simply not a strong enough incentive."
Then at the beginning of this year I heard a rumour that Koffman was back. Twenty five years ago Robert Wilson, a dapper Scot, and his wife Robyn, an extremely fashion-conscious New Zealander, gave up their journalistic careers and bought the initial piece of what has become their Bleeding Heart empire, a restaurant, wine bar and bistro on the borders of Farringdon and Chancery Lane to which they subsequently added The Don, in the shadow of the Bank of England. These restaurants have in common a distinct historic heritage with roots back to the 17th and 18th centuries respectively; an obvious reflection of their owners' enthusiasm for wine (the Wilsons also own Trinity Hill winery in New Zealand); and a punctilious but friendly style of service. As Robyn explained, "We were customers long before we became restaurateurs so we think we know how people want to be served. And, just as importantly, in a city like London where there is now so much good food on offer, what makes a meal memorable is as much how it is served as what it tastes like."
The Wilsons' friendship with Koffmann began, like so many others, through admiration for what he cooked. And perhaps their offer to him a year ago that he come in to oversee the kitchens of their two restaurants would have come to nought had Koffman not gone with a friend four years ago to see Claire Harrison, a 'potato specialist', at work.
Harrison is the daughter of a Midlands' potato merchant who has made a career for herself advising chefs, restaurateurs and retailers on the tuber's charms. Ebullient and charming in her own right with happy memories of her first visit to the original La Tante Claire, she obviously made a striking impression on Koffmann because they are now living together in what she described as a 'rather chaotic household' with their various five children.
Happily for the Wilsons and their customers, Harrison, who is as protective of Koffmann as he is shy himself, was there to encourage him to accept their offer. And she immediately noticed the difference in him on his return to the stoves. "He was very nervous on the first day but when he came back that night I could see he was a different person," she told me. "He was really alive and since then he has come back every day with a different story."
Koffmann began working four days a week at The Bleeding Heart but has now transferred his attention to The Don and what started as a potentially risky move for all concerned now seems to be paying dividends. Certainly, the Wilsons risked putting both their Head Chefs' noses out of joint by hiring Koffmann but instead he has revealed a side of the chef's profession that was new to them.
"Pierre's huge benefit to both our restaurants is that he works miracles with the gross profit on the food. He wastes absolutely nothing," Robyn explained with a broad smile. "One of the first things he did was to hire an in-house butcher, a very capable Pole, and every bit of every duck and every pig now goes somewhere. He is unquestionably a great chef but he is also a real, old-fashioned housewife."
This influence was certainly obvious in a couple of the special dishes of the day on The Bleeding Heart menu recently, a starter of compote of salmon with a cauliflower cream followed by a confit of Suffolk blackface lamb with a pumpkin purée. Although they may have lacked the intensity of flavour that would have been achieved had Koffmann been there in the kitchen, a subsequent meal at The Don when he was there showed that the maestro has not lost his touch.
It was a meal that would have brought a smile, or perhaps a tear, to anyone with happy memories of La Tante Claire. A first course of snails sautéed with tomatoes, led into langoustines enfolded in pasta, then the classic hare à la royale and finally a tarte Tatin with quinces. Each dish not only tasted of the careful but precise transformation of its main ingredients but was also served with the minimum of garnishes for which there was, so obviously, no need.
Equally characteristically, Koffmann slipped away from the kitchen without a word [Jun 2008 - he has now slipped away for good] but happily I was able to speak to Matt Burns, The Don's Head Chef, who had worked for Koffman twenty years ago alongside Eric Chavot, now the chef at the two star Michelin restaurant in The Capital Hotel. Burns was disarmingly frank. "I must say that when I first heard Pierre was coming back it was quite scary but it hasn't been because he has definitely mellowed. Above all it has been a huge boost for the brigade. We have all learnt so much from him already."
The Bleeding Heart, www.thebleedingheart.co.uk
The Don, www.thedonrestaurant.com