Pierre Koffmann

Pierre Koffmann

Pierre Koffmann

Pierre Koffmann has achieved superlative success in his long career, holding three Michelin stars at his groundbreaking La Tante Claire for 15 years and setting the standards for French cuisine in Britain. Still at the stove, he cooks the Gascon dishes of his childhood – at once humble and luxurious, with incredible depth of flavour.

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.’

Cooking the best food in Britain while he was chef-patron of La Tante Claire, Pierre Koffmann set new standards, using simple, classic ingredients to create extraordinary dishes. One of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, and one that has well and truly stood the test of time, was his Pig’s trotters stuffed with chicken mousseline, sweetbreads and morel mushrooms – superb depth of flavour, decadently rich and meaty. This dish encapsulates perfectly Pierre Koffmann’s style – luxurious creations from humble ingredients, using every part of the animal when other chefs were throwing away things like sweetbreads and other offal. That is the case as well of his Braised beef cheeks in red wine (daube de boeuf), another renowned speciality that reinvented a cheap, undervalued cut of meat for a high-end audience – meltingly soft strands of meat, smoky bacon and browned onions in an intense, deep gravy.

In 1998, following the death of his wife Annie, La Tante Claire moved to The Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge where it stayed until Pierre Koffmann retired in 2003. After decades at the peak of culinary achievement he decided to relax – fishing, golf, travel and mushroom picking now taking priority.

A spell consulting for various restaurants and retailers followed, but in 2009 he was back. Persuaded to run a pop-up La Tante Claire on the roof at Selfridges, one week turned into two months and by the time they finally shut up shop he’d served 3200 servings of his famous stuffed pig’s trotters to a wildly appreciative audience.

This taste of the kitchen had reminded Pierre Koffmann of the life he once loved, and in 2010 he returned to The Berkeley Hotel to open Koffmann’s with his new partner (now wife) Claire Harrison. No longer chasing Michelin stars, he is instead cooking the Gascon food of his childhood, the kind of food he likes to eat, though his emblematic dishes are still in evidence. His Pistachio soufflé with pistachio ice cream, for example – delicately textured, perfectly executed, beautifully balanced. Also his Oeuf à la neige – a classic French sweet with lightly poached meringue, crème Anglaise and dark, golden caramel. And, of course, the pig’s trotters and beef cheeks too.

The Good Food Guide says of his latest venture: ‘Some formality may have gone, but the food is as forthright as ever – well aged, supremely crafted and packed with potency.’ Tom Parker Bowles is also lavish in his praise: ‘Koffmann and his brigade are cooking up some of the finest French food ever to pass my lips. Nothing overly elaborate; no incongruous smears or ill-thought-out towers. Just food to bring a tear to the eye.’

Pierre Koffmann says of his return: ‘I still do it at 65 for only one reason – because I enjoy it. I might be a bit mad, but I enjoy it. Coming in in the morning and spending the day with young chefs … One of the reasons I came back to cook was to pass on some of my knowledge to the young chefs … If I still wake up in the morning at 7 o’clock to come to work, it’s because I hope, during the day, they will learn something and they will finish a bit more clever than when they started.’ In discussion with Jancis Robinson, his wife Claire said of his return: ‘He was really alive and since then he has come back every day with a different story.’ Asked to describe his finest culinary moment he said: ‘Coming back to work after retirement – I love being in the kitchen.’