While his name might not be as recognisable as some of today’s TV chefs, in restaurant kitchens up and down the UK Pierre Koffmann is seen as the true godfather of modern day cooking. Initially working at Le Gavroche before moving to The Waterside Inn and then opening his own three-starred restaurant La Tante Claire in 1977, he was responsible for training the likes of Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, Eric Chavot, Marcus Wareing and Tom Kitchin. He’s appearing at this year’s Taste of London festival on the opening night to cook and answer questions about his career so far alongside some of his protégés.
Nowadays Pierre runs Koffmann’s at The Berkeley, a more relaxed restaurant serving classic Gascon cuisine from the chef’s childhood. Being in the midst of the capital’s restaurant scene for over forty years means he has seen first-hand how much it has changed – especially recently.
‘There are so many more restaurants in London now compared to thirty or forty years ago, but in the past five years there’s been a surge of young chefs setting up their own places with very little money,’ he says. ‘I went to a place called Kricket in Brixton the other day and it served very good food – all small plates and casual. It’s nice to see these young chefs starting out without having to spend lots of money to find success. Before, you needed £2 million to make sure your restaurant looked nice, but now customers accept ordinary looking venues as long as the food is good – which is the most important thing. I try to go to restaurants where I know the owner is cooking – in France we call them the chef-patron – because it usually guarantees good food.’
The explosion of street food in London has hardly gone unnoticed – almost every market now has an area dedicated to it and many stalls prove so popular they can open more permanent premises. ‘In England street food used to mean those small stalls selling cockles and vinegar, which was nothing compared to what you could get in places like Spain and Thailand,’ says Pierre. ‘But that’s all changed now – it works because the prices can be quite low as the owners haven’t had to spend lots of money on décor or a building.’
But it takes a certain kind of chef to be able to work in this fast, casual environment. Pierre believes different people are better suited to certain styles of cooking, and he gets all sorts coming to work in his restaurant. ‘Those that run successful small plates or street food-type restaurants are what I call instinctual chefs – they cook simple food very well,’ he explains. ‘But then you have chefs which have been classically trained, who tend to open more ‘formal’ places, although that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re stuffy and traditional. We need every style of restaurant in London because they’re all good and cover different parts of the market.’
Pierre readily admits he’s heading towards the end of his time in the kitchen, but the lure of this new, speedy style of cooking and serving food still proves tempting. ‘Sometimes I think about getting one of those old Citroen vans and trying something but I think I’m getting too old,’ he says. ‘It’d be great to do something new, though. It could be as simple as putting a Josper grill in the back of a van and driving to music festivals, cooking sausages, hot dogs, burgers and other things you can eat with your hands. A chef just needs to find something special that nobody else has done, be able to serve it quickly and consistently and keep costs reasonable. That’s how you can be successful.’