Pierre Koffmann was born in Tarbes in central Gascony, in South West France, in 1948. His mother was an excellent cook, but it was the school holidays he spent with his grandparents – peasant farmers who lived off the land – that left the greatest impression. The couple had a farm in the tiny nearby village of Saint Puy, and he spent many happy weeks there helping his grandfather Marcel harvest and hunt. His grandmother Camille did most of her cooking over an open fire, producing mouth-watering dishes, using every possible part of the animal, from the bounty offered up by the seasons.
It was here that he learned about the rhythms of nature – from hare and pheasant in the autumn, to melons and apricots in the summer. He remembers Camille’s jugged hare with particular affection, saying: ‘every time I cook a hare I try to reproduce what she was doing at the time, but I never did it yet, so I’ll keep on trying for a few more years.’ His appreciation of simplicity and of the very best fresh ingredients used in their entirety stems from these experiences has remained with him throughout his long career.
Unsuccessful academically, he opted for the local cooking school when he was 14 in an effort to put off for a little longer the world of work. Studying there for three years, learning about all aspects of the hospitality industry, he chose the kitchen as his speciality and on graduation started working his way around France – in spite of his final year report that advised he would ‘never do anything in the restaurant business’.
Exploring France in the 1960s, he wanted to experience the distinct dishes and ingredients of France’s regions – the Pyrenees, Alsace, Provence – which were then on the cusp of fading away into a more homogenous, national cuisine. A spell in Lausanne, Switzerland, followed, before he applied for a short-term position in England, motivated by his desire to see England play France at rugby in old Twickenham, then the temple of the sport.
He arrived in England in the early 1970s, a young man of 22, taking up a position at Michel and Albert Roux’s Le Gavroche in London. Within six months he was sous chef and soon after was appointed as head chef of their new Waterside Inn at Bray. He remembers his time there fondly, particularly their philosophy of hospitality. At the Inn he was free to cook the food he wanted, and during his five years there he helped them achieve two Michelin stars.
In 1977 Pierre Koffmann and his first wife Annie opened their own restaurant, La Tante Claire, in Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea. Within six years they had been awarded the maximum three Michelin stars, making him one of only three chefs in the United Kingdom to achieve such an accolade. The number of Britain’s top chefs who have trained under Pierre Koffmann is truly incredible – Tom Aikens, Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White, Marcus Wareing, Bruno Loubet, Tom Kitchin, Jason Atherton, to name but a few. His protégés have now amassed more than 20 Michelin stars between them. Kitchin told The Guardian of his respect for the great chef: ‘The skill of the man is incredible. He can extract flavour from anything.’