Ones to watch: Elisabeth Passedat

Ones to watch: Elisabeth Passedat

by Pete Dreyer 1 September 2019

After a career spent working with luminaries like Pierre Koffmann, Claude Bosi and Helena Puolakka, Elisabeth Passedat is uncovering her own culinary identity at The Cleveland Arms and putting the Paddington gastropub on the map with her modern French cooking.

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Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs and trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. Although there’s very little he won’t eat, his real passion is health and nutrition, and showing people that healthy food can be delicious too. When he’s not writing or cooking, you’ll probably find him engrossed in a bowl of pho.

If the smiling face above looks familiar, you've probably seen Elisabeth on your TV screen. She appeared on the 2018 series of Masterchef: The Professionals and impressed throughout the competition, only going home after an unfortunate incident with a cherry mousse. Her classical sensibilities stood out among a host of meticulous, faffy, modern British plates – her food had the soothing quality of old-fashioned French cuisine, but with exciting modern touches. A roasted pigeon, for example, came with the smoothest of chicken liver pates and a Madeira sauce, but also with pistachio popcorn biscuits and lingonberries. It even managed to drag a smile out of the usually stony-faced Marcus Wareing.

Those modern touches have been acquired over the course of a career that has taken Elisabeth through some prestigious kitchens; her CV includes Pierre Koffmann at The Berkeley, Claude Bosi at Hibiscus, Helene Darroze at The Connaught and Helena Puolakka at Aster, among others. The foundation of her cooking, though, starts in France (specifically in Paris), where she grew up. ‘My dad is a chef – I didn’t cook at all as a kid because he was always cooking,’ she explains. ‘I was just eating and enjoying! But then he started to teach me the kitchen basics when I finished school – how to prep a chicken, how to make a bechamel, all the French basics – and I realised that I wanted to cook more.’

Elisabeth got her break in the kitchen with Lenôtre, a famous Parisian catering company. ‘They do a lot of competitions,’ she explains, ‘like the Bocuse D’Or and things like that.’ She worked alongside 2013 Bocuse D’Or winner Thibaut Ruggeri and helped him with kitchen prep, before jetting off to London where a friend helped her get a job at Bar Boulud in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

‘I didn’t want to limit myself to the Parisian style,’ she explains. ‘I wanted a change. Bar Boulud was great for that – my background was French but the kitchen was French-American, so it opened my eyes to other ways of doing things.’ This first lesson would form the foundation of Elisabeth’s own approach to food; taking the reliable, comforting, satisfying side of French cookery, but tempering it with lessons learned from other cuisines and cultures.

The Cleveland Arms was refurbished in in 2014 by new owners Maria and John Tamander
Whilst the upstairs houses the pub, the downstairs is a dedicated dining room, complete with open kitchen

Not all of these lessons were easy, though. Elisabeth doesn’t skirt around the more difficult bits of her career – in fact, she speaks with remarkable honesty about them. Case in point is a three-month stint at Helene Darroze at The Connaught – Darroze is a legend in Paris and her two Michelin-starred restaurant in London is equally lauded, but with a great reputation comes great pressure. ‘When I got there, the head chef was new and the whole kitchen had just changed,’ says Elisabeth. ‘I’d only been working in restaurants for one year, and suddenly I was in charge of the meat section at a two-starred restaurant – I had no idea how to cook meat! It was too big for me, I think. I learnt very fast but it was really hard.’

The experience left Elisabeth a little shell-shocked but she found her feet again, first at Avenue in Green Park and then at The Berkeley with legendary French chef Pierre Koffmann. ‘I went to eat at The Berkeley for an anniversary dinner, and I got a bit tipsy,’ she laughs. ‘So I went to the kitchen to ask if they needed any chefs. The sous chef said yes, so I came back, did a trial shift and that was it!’ Elisabeth spent a number of years with Pierre Koffmann, and though she found herself on the end of his wrath on occasion, her time at The Berkeley was one of the most formative periods of her career. ‘I really wanted to go back to my French roots at that time,’ she explains. ‘Not doing dishes for the crowd but cooking food that was just about flavour. Koffmann was really great at that, he just focused on flavour – his food wasn’t very modern at times but the flavour was always exceptional.

‘Pierre was always in the kitchen during the week, and he would have lunch in the restaurant every Sunday with his family,’ she continues. ‘It was the worst time ever; way more stressful than having him in the kitchen! I cooked him a John Dory for lunch one time, and he came into the kitchen and told me it was the worst lunch of his life! He kept telling me for the next three days – that’s why I still remember it now. When you’re traumatised like that, you don’t want to send bad food anymore.’ She shrugs. ‘Pierre is always going to say what he thinks. If something is shit, he will tell you it’s shit. When it’s your name and your business, you need things to be done to a certain standard.’

In between two stints with Pierre, Elisabeth spent three months at Hibiscus with Claude Bosi – an intense experience, she says, but one that gave her a new perspective on French cookery. ‘Working with Claude was amazing – his flavours and combinations were so clever. We used to do a dish of sea bream, coffee, tarragon and morels – things you would never think to put together, but they really worked.’ She returned to The Berkeley after, and worked with Pierre for his last services at the venerable hotel, before joining Helena Puolakka – herself a former sous chef of Pierre’s – at Aster in Victoria. The food at Aster was a drastic departure from Elisabeth’s usual style and heavy on Nordic influences, but she took to it with her usual open-mindedness and Helena made her sous chef shortly after she joined. ‘At the time I didn’t want any responsibility,’ Elisabeth explains. ‘I just wanted to learn more skills, but Helena put me in a position to manage people. I learnt a lot from her, especially from her management style.’

A year later, Helena made Elisabeth head pastry chef at Skylon, but like The Connaught some years before, Elisabeth found herself in a situation that was too big for her. ‘I wasn’t ready to manage pastry for 300 covers,’ she admits. ‘She thought I could manage but I couldn’t – I didn’t have enough confidence in my own pastry skills to manage other people.’ It was another difficult period in her career – perhaps the hardest of all – and one that has left a lasting scar. ‘I felt I let Helena down,’ she continues. ‘I really wanted to do it – I tried to fit into that world and make it work, but I couldn’t.’ She left Skylon with her confidence rocked and took a job at a small cafe in Marylebone in a bid to rediscover her love for cooking.

After years spent working with big restaurant groups and big hotels, The Marylebone Kitchen turned out to be a breath of fresh air. Elisabeth looked after the breakfast and lunch services, and finished at five o’clock in the afternoon for the first time in a decade. ‘It was nice to cook things I really wanted to cook,’ she says, ‘and start developing my own personality in dishes.’ Seven months later, with confidence restored, Helena got in touch about a new opportunity in nearby Paddington, at the newly renovated Cleveland Arms. For Elisabeth, who had always dreamed of working in a more relaxed, gastropub environment, it was love at first sight. ‘As soon as I saw the pub, I knew it was the right place for me.’

Smashed garden peas, poached egg, mint and feta
Elisabeth’s dirty chicken schnitzel and tonkatsu sauce

The Cleveland Arms is bursting with personality. Some of that is thanks to owners Maria and John Tamander, who have overseen the entire refurbishment and redecoration of the old pub – but plenty is also down to Elisabeth, who has stamped her own personality onto the menu. When you’re handling a gastropub in this part of London you have to provide for a pretty diverse clientele – Elisabeth’s menus include properly cooked pub classics, but she’s clearly excited about bringing some French flair to proceedings too. ‘When tourist season dies down a little, we’re going to bring frogs’ legs back onto the menu, and calf’s brains too! Really traditional French cooking.’ The modern twists are still there though. Beautiful pink lamb rump comes with Jersey Royals and umami de mar – a punchy anchovy essence similar to the Italian colatura di alici. There’s Pavlova with summer berries, but the Pavlova is made with aquafaba and the chantilly is swapped for a tonka bean cream. Even the simple things – a beef burger, for example – are done properly. ‘I’ve had so many bad burgers,’ says Elisabeth. ‘It should be simple but there are lots of ways to screw it up. We don’t put a burger on the menu because it’s easy, we do it because when it’s done right it should be really delicious and satisfying.'

Now in her first head chef role, Elisabeth’s singular focus at The Cleveland Arms is happy customers. ‘I don’t want people to come here and not be satisfied,’ she says. ‘I prefer meals where everything is on the plate and you get all the flavour in your mouth – I don’t want to cook because something is trendy, it has to be something you want to eat, otherwise there’s no point.’ It sounds remarkably like something Pierre Koffmann would have said some decades ago. Pierre’s philosophies are perhaps most obvious in Elisabeth’s food now, but she combines all the lessons learned through her career into a style that is very much her own. Some things never change though – Elisabeth’s old bosses dropped in for dinner recently, and the experience is no less stressful than it used to be. ‘Pierre and Helena came to eat together – it was the worst thing ever,’ she laughs. ‘When Pierre is coming to eat I still think of that John Dory. I like Pierre, I really do, but I don’t like when he’s coming to eat!’