Back stage at L'Odeon

Tension mounts as 38 waiters rehearse their menus and 55 chefs perform a frantic kitchen ballet. Michael Bateman reports from Bruno Loubet's big new restaurant
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The Independent Culture
SIX YOUNG women and one young man are sitting cross-legged among the builders' rubble at L'Odeon, London's newest multi-seater restaurant. Marian Scrutton, the general manager, is holding a rehearsal for the new head waiters. The environment isn't ideal. She has to speak up to be heard over the noise of screaming saws and thundering drills; workmen step over trailing cables.

Marian is reading from a 12-page script that she expects the waiters to learn by heart. It lists the ingredients and cooking methods for some 16 starters, 18 main courses and 12 puddings. "It's amazing how many places you go where the waiters don't know what's what," says Marian. "Has it got garlic in it? Does it have nuts? A lot of people are allergic to nuts." With only a few days to go to opening, they are clearly leaving nothing to chance.

"Roast Hereford Duck au Poivre," Marian recites, "Celeriac Confit, Beetroot and Curly Kale, pounds l5 50. Breast of duck rolled in crushed black pepper and roasted (medium rare), sliced and served on a bed of curly kale. Celeriac braised in duck fat and baked beetroot surround. Duck sauce. Garlic, yes. Nuts, no. Style, medium." Dishes are described as light, vegetarian, medium, substantial, robust (the plateau de fruits de mer) or "one for the boys" (chargrilled rib-eye of beef, red wine and garlic mustard sauce).

"Number Five," Marian reads. "Lambs' brains and onion beignets with Caesar Sauce. A real grown-up starter. Ladies Who Lunch won't like it. It's a real Bruno dish."

"What is a real Bruno dish, then?" asks a waitress. "Well, Bruno is basically a gland man," says Marian. This is waiter-speak for all the tasty bits: livers, kidneys, pigs' cheeks, sweetbreads, brains. And Bruno is Bruno Loubet, co-director of L'Odeon - one of London's most acclaimed chefs, a favourite with food critics such as Fay Maschler, Matthew Fort, Jonathan Meades and (especially) Paul Levy: "There is no one in London whose cooking I'd rather eat than Bruno Loubet's," says Levy. He's very much a chefs' chef, too. Rival restaurateur Alastair Little paid him a nice tribute on publication of his new book: "I had to restrain myself from stealing some of these recipes and putting them on my restaurant menu."

L'Odeon is situated in Regent Street, on the old site of British Airways' office, a hundred metres from Piccadilly Circus. Its interior, by the design company Fitch, echoes the grandeur of the old ocean liners - to say nothing of its capacity, for it can seat 270 in the 17 metre-long bar and restaurant. For a decade Langan's was the only big restaurant in London to compare with famous Parisian biggies like La Coupole. Then along came Sir Terence Conran to show what could be done, gutting and rebuilding the sedate Quaglino's in Bury Street, off Piccadilly, to create a gleeful, glittering 420-seater. Now multi-seaters are mushrooming throughout the West End. There's the Atlantic, opened this year with 150 seats; the Criterion, with 170 seats, has reopened under Marco Pierre White. And to top them all, Sir Terence Conran's mega 700-seater, Mezzo, in Wardour Street.

Bruno Loubet has never cooked on this scale before, but many of his staff have experienced the pressures. "I've done the numbers," said one of his chefs. (He has seen the future, and the future is numbers). Is the scene as frantic as it might seem? "Yes," says one of the waitresses, who has defected from Mezzo. "It's exhausting. You go home hating people." Will this be different? She hopes so.

The staff at L'Odeon expect to cook and serve some 600 or more meals for the restaurant and bar each day. Pierre Condou, the proprietor, has recruited 120 to do it. There are 38 waiters and waitresses, plus 10 in the bar, eight in the cocktail bar and eight more in reception. In the kitchen there are 55 staff, including the 13 bosses, called chefs de partie. Many of the chefs have been on the payroll for a month already, without a penny coming back in sales. The chefs de partie can expect pounds 15,000-pounds 20,000 a year, the juniors, known as commis chefs, around pounds 10,000. In the "front of house", waitresses get pounds 7,000 to pounds 10,000, but make more with tips.

They aren't in a position to pay over the odds, says Pierre Condou, but getting staff hasn't been a problem - in no small part due to Bruno Loubet's reputation. At 34, he's spent 20 years around top restaurants, first as a boy in his native south-west France. After catering school in Bordeaux, he went to work in Brussels, then Paris. Following National Service in the French navy (as chef to an admiral), he came to London in 1983.

At his first restaurant as head chef, Gastro-nome One in Chelsea, he was The Good Food Guide's young chef of 1985; he was head chef with Raymond Blanc in Oxford; and then chef at The Four Seasons in Park Lane, where Pierre Condou approached him. "I knew his cooking from Gastronome One. When I had L'Hippocampe, my fish restaurant in Chelsea, Bruno was in the same street. There I tasted the best food I'd had since leaving France."

There are two kitchens at L'Odeon, the prep (preparation kitchen) and the service kitchen, and it is here that Bruno is king, a towering 6ft 3in, lean but not mean. He puts in 16 hours of exercise a week, in the gym or at weekends rowing. Other proprietors might think of using the ample cellar space in the building as extended wine or storage cellars. Not him. He's planning a gym. Staff work under stressful conditions, he says. It could be a way of sustaining motivation.

Morale has surely improved since George Orwell described the squalor, exhaustion and ritual humiliations of kitchen life in his book Down and Out in Paris and London. But a disturbing TV programme called Violence in the Kitchen recently suggested otherwise. It was a shocker which (using hidden cameras) caught some star performers in acts of abuse, bullying and even blows. Could these tales be true?

In some places, yes, says Bruno Loubet. "Young chefs come and tell you what has happened." He has heard of kicks and cuffs and sometimes even savage attacks. "I'm glad this was brought out," he says, believing staff need motivation but bullying is not the answer.

Restaurant work is physically demanding, emotionally draining, and the hours are long. Under a rota system, the working day is divided into shifts. The first starts at 9.30am and runs through to 2.30pm. The second starts at 5.30pm and runs to midnight. Social life is minimal.

Bruno aims to make the kitchen experience as pleasant as possible. He has devised a system that gives him maximum control while allowing a measure of responsibility to each cook. "Panic is the greatest problem in a kitchen," he says. "One guy is doing a spit-roast of chicken, and a dariole of this and a timbale of that, all at the same time. The moment comes when panic sets in, and he starts to cook rubbish."

Usually the head chef and his sous-chefs take up position at The Pass, a dividing shelf where the dishes are passed from kitchen to the waiting staff. But here in L'Odeon the difference is that Bruno and his senior chefs will actually cook at The Pass, finishing off dishes which have been started by the commis chefs, or sent up from the prep kitchen.

Everyone knows that Bruno can cook, but now he has to prove that he can "do the numbers" - and balance a budget. L'Odeon will be buying in pounds 15,000- worth of food a week to start with. The food purchasing manager, Tony Welch, will be looking for food profit margins of 70 per cent with a target of 75 per cent when the restaurant is fully up and running. "If you get cheaper gear," says the stores manager, "it shows on the plate."

Prime, costly ingredients such as sea bass, lobster, rib-eye steaks and so on feature on the menu, but one of Bruno's strengths is that his kind of cooking has rustic roots. He can work magic with low-priced items - mussels with lentils (see recipe below), pork knuckle, rabbit. Today, pigs' trotters are simmering in a tank with vegetables to produce a glutinously tasty liquor, and prime morsels of meat. Bruno's Loubet's favourite fish is not costly turbot or sole but the humble mackerel, one of the cheapest fish from the ocean. In his cooking it is elevated to star status (in the recipe below, for instance, it is kebabed and served on home-made piccalilli with potato cakes).

Time is running out for Bruno. He has only a few days left to teach his 55 cooks how to produce his repertoire. Not so hard, he says. His sous- chefs (deputies) have worked with him before, and so have some of the chefs de partie. He hasn't had to advertise for staff. "They knew we were opening, and they came to me. I interview them myself. It's not always a question of where they have cooked. Someone may have been cutting spinach at the Gavroche for three years but not know very much. I look for people who are intelligent and enthusiastic. I would expect them to be clean and polite. This is important, because you have to work closely with each other for 12 hours a day."

One of his chefs confides that he has been offered posts at nearly twice the salary, but this job offers invaluable experience - and who knows, the folder he's poring over, outlining 46 of Bruno Loubet's L'Odeon recipes, might come in handy, too. As an example, here is the recipe for the dish Marian described to me earlier, written in Chefspeak - a bit terse if you've been brought up on Delia: "Roast Hereford Duck au Poivre, Celeriac Confit, Beetroot and Curly Kale. Breast roasted with peppercorns. Celeriac cooked in duck fat. Beetroot cooked in foil (baked). Curly kale, blanched, tossed in butter. Duck sauce as usual."

The recipes that follow (which, of course, are written for home cooks, not professionals) are from Bruno's new book Bistrot Bruno: Cooking from L'Odeon (Macmillan, pounds 20) and illustrate his original way of mixing and matching flavours (they are not necessarily dishes you will find on his current menu at L'Odeon). There's an unusual first course that combines grilled asparagus with beef and a kind of Parmesan biscuit; Bruno Loubet's favourite mackerel kebabed with a piccalilli sauce and potato cakes; simple and hearty musssels and lentils in a spicy pot; the caramelised chicken thighs that are a favourite of Bruno' staff; and a French apple tart made from two kinds of apples.

GRILLED ASPARAGUS AND PARMESAN CRACKNEL ON BEEF CARPACCIO

In my native south-west of France, green asparagus is very rare. The white asparagus with a pink top is the common one in the area. We used to grow this in the family garden, and one of my favourite pastimes was to look for the crack on the surface of the sandy ground where the pink top of the asparagus would just be appearing. Regional restaurants and bistrots serve this white asparagus with mayonnaise or vinaigrette and with Bayonne ham.

Serves 4

400g/14oz medium spears of green asparagus

120ml/4fl oz olive oil

85g/3oz Parmesan, freshly grated

salt and freshly ground black pepper

300g/10oz beef fillet (tenderloin) or sirloin steak

12 lemon

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

For the sauce:

4 eggs

4 spring onions, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, very finely chopped (optional)

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

100ml/312fl oz olive oil

Trim the asparagus and peel if necessary. Cook in boiling salted water for three minutes or until just tender but still quite firm. Drain and refresh in iced water. When completely cold, drain the asparagus and pat dry on a clean cloth. Set aside.

Add a dash of vinegar to a small pan of simmering salted water, then poach the eggs for the sauce. Drain and refresh in cold water. Drain on paper towels and leave to cool.

Lightly heat a nonstick frying pan that is about 20cm/8 inches in diameter. Brush with a film of olive oil, then sprinkle in a thin, even layer of grated Parmesan. Cook for about two minutes or until the cheese melts and turns golden. Use a palette knife (a metal spatula) to transfer the Parmesan cracknel to paper towels. Repeat, to make eight cracknels in all.

Prepare a charcoal grill.

To finish the sauce, put the poached eggs in a bowl with the remaining ingredients and crush finely with a fork. Season with salt and pepper.

Toss the asparagus in olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Chargrill to mark them on all sides.

Cut the beef into very thin slices. Divide among four flat plates, arranging them in one layer if possible, and cover with cling film (plastic wrap). Pound until the beef is very thin. Remove the film and brush the beef with olive oil. Sprinkle with lemon juice and season with sea salt and pepper. Place a Parmesan cracknel on top of each beef carpaccio, then add the grilled asparagus and sprinkle with basil. Top with the remaining cracknel. Spoon the egg sauce around and serve.

This very elegant starter needs to be assembled at the last minute, but all the components can be prepared in advance.

To test if the asparagus is cooked, cut out a small piece and taste it.

POTATO CAKES

Delicious with mackerel kebabs (see below). They can be prepared in advance and kept in the fridge until you are ready to cook them. Or you can brown them on both sides, leave to cool, cover and refrigerate. About five minutes before serving, arrange them on a baking sheet and heat them under the grill, turning once.

Serves 4

600g/114lb potatoes, such as Desiree or King Edwards

60g/2oz butter

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1 tablespoon chopped, fresh flat-leaf parsley

salt and freshly ground pepper

flour

1 egg yolk

2 tablespoons water

100g/312oz flaked almonds

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Peel the potatoes and cut them into large cubes. Put them in a large saucepan, cover with water and add one teaspoon salt. Bring to the boil, then simmer until the potatoes are soft and cooked but not mushy. Drain in a colander. Spread the potatoes on a baking tray and dry them in an oven set at a very low temperature.

When the potatoes are very dry, work them through a vegetable mill or potato ricer into a bowl. Add half the butter and beat it into the potatoes until melted, then add the garlic and parsley and season with salt and pepper. Leave to cool completely.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the potato mixture to a cylindrical shape. Cut across into four equal portions. Flatten each portion to a disc about 2.5cm/1in thick.

Have three plates ready in front of you, one with flour, one with the egg yolk beaten with water and two pinches of salt, and one with the flaked almonds. Coat each potato cake lightly in flour, shaking off excess, then dip into the egg mixture and, finally, coat with the flaked almonds. Chill for 20-30 minuts to set the coating (or leave in the fridge until needed).

Heat the oil and the remaining butter in a large frying pan. Cook the potato cakes gently until they are golden brown on both sides and piping hot. Serve at once.

MACKEREL KEBAB WITH PICCALILLI, POTATO CAKE AND LETTUCE

Mackerel is widely available all year round. Many people do not realise how good it is, and how nutritious - it certainly doesn't deserve its downmarket reputation. To be honest, it is my favourite fish, and I often have it on my menus.

Serves 4

8 fresh mackerel fillets

salt and freshly ground pepper

olive oil

12 lemon

4 potato cakes (see above)

12 Iceberg lettuce, roughly shredded

lemon dressing

For the piccalilli:

4 tablespoons olive oil

150g/5oz carrots, diced

1 red sweet pepper, seeded and diced

150g/5oz fennel bulb, diced

150g/5oz celery, diced

150g/5oz onions, finely chopped

200g/7oz tiny cauliflower florets

1 bay leaf

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh ginger

1 teaspoon turmeric

12 teaspoon curry powder

100ml/312fl oz white wine

1 teaspoon sugar

200ml/7fl oz water

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar

100g/312oz courgettes, diced

1 tablespoon cornflour, mixed with 3 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon coarse-grain mustard

12 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander

Cut the mackerel fillets into 3cm/114in pieces. Season them with salt and pepper. Thread on to bamboo or metal skewers and brush lightly with oil. Keep in the refrigerator until ready to cook.

To make the piccalilli, heat the oil in a saucepan and add the carrots, red pepper, fennel, celery, onions and cauliflower. Stir with a wooden spoon for a few minutes, then add the bay leaf, garlic, ginger, turmeric, curry powder and white wine. Season with salt and pepper and add the sugar. Pour in the water and vinegar and bring to the boil. Simmer for five minutes, then add the courgettes and cook for two minutes longer.

Gradually stir in the cornflour mixture, adding just enough to thicken the liquid to the right consistency. Stir in the mustard and cook for a final two minutes. Add the chopped coriander, mix well and pour on to a plate. Leave to cool.

Prepare a charcoal fire. Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas 7.

Grill the mackerel kebabs over the hot coals to seal and brown lightly on all sides. Transfer them to a roasting pan and squeeze some lemon juice over them. Finish by cooking in the oven for a few minutes.

To make the lemon dressing (makes 600ml/1 pint): dissolve 3 pinches of sugar and 3 pinches of salt in 100ml/312fl oz water and 100ml/312fl oz lemon juice. Add 100ml/312fl oz olive oil and 100ml/312fl oz vegetable oil and 2 pinches of pepper and mix well. Pour into a bottle and seal. Shake well before using.

Spoon some piccalilli on one side of each plate and place the kebabs on top. Add a potato cake and a bit of lettuce tossed in lemon dressing to each plate and serve immediately.

MUSSELS AND LENTILS IN A SPICY POT

I call this a "pot", because everything is put in together. There is no separate cooking, so it is a very easy dish to make.

Serves 4

200g/7oz carrots

200g/7oz onions

250g/9oz celery

85g/3oz butter

200g/7oz smoked streaky bacon (thick slices), cut into lardons

1 bay leaf

12 -1 fresh hot red chilli pepper, finely chopped

6 green cardamom pods, crushed with the side of a knife

2 teaspoons curry powder

600g/1lb 5oz green lentils

4 garlic cloves, chopped

1.6kg/312lb very fresh mussels

sea salt

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander

Cut the carrots, onions and celery into 1cm/38in pieces. In a thick- based pan, melt the butter and add the bacon, carrots, onions, celery, bay leaf, chilli, crushed cardamom and curry powder. Stir with a wooden spoon until the vegetables are lightly coloured.

Add the lentils and garlic. Pour over enough water to come about 2cm/34in above the level of the ingredients.

Bring to simmering point, then cover and leave to cook gently for about 40 minues.

Prepare the mussels by rubbing them with sea salt and then rinsing them under cold running water. Place them in a basin of cold water and throw away any that rise to the surface: these are dead.

Drain off the water and set the mussels aside in a cool place.

About 10 minutes before the lentils are ready, add the mussels to the pot. Stir, then cover the pot and bring it back to simmering point. Remove from the heat and leave to rest for five minutes.

Add the parsley and coriander. Check the seasoning, and your "pot" is ready to serve.

CARAMELISED CHICKEN THIGHS WITH GARLIC AND GINGER

Being extremely busy in a restaurant, we haven't much time to prepare staff meals. One day I mixed all these ingredients, and served it to the staff. They loved it, and we now have it twice a week! I love to see people licking their fingers eating this. It's the best compliment.

Serves 4

16 chicken thighs

salt and freshly ground pepper

vegetable oil

200g/7oz onions, finely chopped

8 spring onions chopped

For the glaze:

2 tablespoons HP sauce

12 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon tomato ketchup

1 teaspoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon honey

3 tablespoons malt vinegar

2 teaspoons dark soy sauce

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh ginger

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6.

Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper. Put them in a roasting pan with a little bit of oil and bake for about 15 minutes, or until they start to get a nice golden colour.

Heat the honey in the microwave just to melt it a little. It will then be easy to mix with the other ingredients.

Meanwhile, mix together the other incredients for the glaze in a small bowl. Mix in honey.

Pour the glaze over the chicken thighs and add the chopped onions. Mix well, then return to the oven. Bake for a further 10 minutes, stirring well halfway through.

Sprinkle with the spring onions and serve with roasted new potatoes and a mixed salad.

APPLE TART

Serves 6

1kg/214lb cooking apples

50g/123oz butter

14 teaspoons ground cinnamon

50g/123oz sugar

5 Granny Smiths or Cox's apples

melted butter

sifted icing sugar

apricot jam

For the pastry:

200g/7oz plain flour

1 egg

1 tablespoon cold water

a pinch of salt

2 pinches of baking powder

100g/312oz unsalted butter

12 teaspoon vanilla essence

1 egg yolk lightly beaten with 1 teaspoon of water, to glaze

First, make the pastry dough. Sift the flour on to the work surface in a pile and make a well in the centre. Put the remaining pastry ingredients (except the egg glaze) into the well and blend them together with your fingertips. Gradually work in the flour to make a dough that will hold together. Mix and knead the dough by pushing it away from you on the surface with the heel of your hand. When the dough is smooth and will peel easily from the work surface, shape it into a ball, wrap and chill for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, peel and core the cooking apples and chop them coarsely. Melt the butter with the cinnamon in a large heavy saucepan. Add the chopped apples and sugar and stir to mix. Leave to simmer gently until pulped, stirring occasionally, then continue cooking to evaporate excess liquid, leaving a thick apple compote. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6.

Roll out the pastry dough and use to line a 23cm/9in loose-bottomed flan or tart mould. Roll the rolling pin over the top of the mould to cut off excess dough. Press the dough firmly against sides of the mould to make the sides of the pastry case thinner and so they rise about 3mm/18in above the rim. With your fingertips, gently pinch and twist this top edge to flute it. Prick the bottom of the pastry case all over with a fork, then line with greaseproof paper. Fill with baking beans. Chill for 10 minutes.

Bake the pastry case for 10 minutes, then carefully remove paper and beans. Brush the case with the egg glaze and bake for a further five minutes. Remove from the oven and fill with the apple compote, smoothing the surface.

Peel and core the Granny Smiths or Cox's and slice them finely. Arrange neatly over the apple compote, overlapping the slices slightly in concentric rings. Brush the apple slices with melted butter and dust with icing sugar. Return to the oven and bake for 25 minutes.

Glaze the top of the tart with melted and sieved apricot jam; leave to cool in the mould. Serve with creme fraiche or vanilla ice-cream.

! L'Odeon opened last week at 65 Regent Street, London W1 (0171-287 1400)

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