Eating In: Beef bourgeois

Bruce Poole's hearty French repertoire has just won a prize for best modern British cooking. Whatever you call it, his food is outstanding, decides
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The Independent Culture
CHEF Bruce Poole has collected two major awards in a single month. The first was from Michelin, which gave Chez Bruce, his restaurant in Wandsworth, south London, its first rosette. And at last week's Carlton Food Awards he was voted London's best modern British cook.

Poole will be thrilled and, no doubt, damn glad he's not been named best Pacific Rim cook or best fusion cook, both styles of cooking he has no time for. But he may be bemused too. Could you even apply the description "modern British" to his cooking?

The rules of the French kitchen, honed and polished over several centuries, are more than good enough for Poole. At Chez Bruce he has been building up a hearty bourgeois French repertoire over four years, with dishes such as chateaubriand with sauce bearnaise and frites ("if there is a better dish I'd like to know about it"), coq au vin, pigs' trotters with sauce gribiche (a vinaigrette with chopped gherkins and hard-boiled egg) and calf's tongue with mustard.

An increasing number of Italian ingredients have now begun to creep into his repertoire. For instance, the first item on his menu is an utterly uncompromisingly French onion soup - topped with melting Fontina cheese, which is, of course, Italian.

Whether or not you call this sort of thing "modern British", the Carlton award marks the coming of age of a most unlikely home-grown talent. Poole, now 34, decided to become a cook when he was 24. Everyone in the business would insist that this is far too old to start, and he would probably agree. His two-year apprenticeship was painfully hard and many times, he says, he was on the point of giving up altogether.

He was born in Guildford, the son of a painter who taught art at Wimbledon School of Art, and a designer mother who was herself a first-rate cook. Long childhood summer holidays were spent travelling in Europe - especially the south of France, sampling exotic dishes such as rabbit, frogs' legs and snails.

Poole particularly remembers how much fun eating out in France was. "As long as I can remember, I have loved restaurants. I developed a profound understanding of them - good, bad and indifferent."

He went on to Exeter University to read history, where he holed up in a bedsit with a friend ("he was as bad a cook as I was") and attempted to recreate French dishes from cookery books.

"We wanted to make a bouillabaisse," he recalls, "so we went to the fishmonger and asked for a John Dory. It was extremely smelly. It didn't just smell funny, it was rank. It was high as a kite. We were sniffing it and wondering, hey, perhaps that's what it's meant to be like."

They took the fish back to the shop in the end, but the experience taught him the difference between France and England. "The fishmonger knew it was off," he explains. "But he knew we didn't know, so he flogged it to us anyway. In France, they just wouldn't sell it."

After university, Poole decided on a career in hotel management but became frustrated. Then, while working as assistant manager at Cafe St Pierre in Clerkenwell and inspired by its chef, Antoine Foucher, he decided he wanted to be a chef.

He drew up a list of the 10 London restaurants he most admired, including Le Gavroche, Harvey's (when Marco Pierre White was cooking), L'Arlequin, Clarke's and Kensington Place. But it was Simon Hopkinson at Bibendum who responded, later confessing that he'd been impressed by Poole's handwriting.

Poole gave up his well-paid job - and found himself working twice as hard. "Simon knew it would be difficult for me," he says now, "and explained I'd have to earn my keep. He couldn't afford to employ stragglers. It was harder than I expected. Faced with a mountain of salad leaves, you feel absolutely useless. You know it will take you several hours."

Cooking is not a mysterious thing, he discovered. "It's a skill you acquire with time. There's nothing remotely creative about it, it's the very opposite. At the beginning kitchen work is unbelievably boring."

But he stuck it out and after two years he teamed up with a Bibendum colleague, Philip Howard, who was starting up The Square, an instant success.

While living in Twickenham with his wife, Anna, Poole got to know Le Petit Max at Hampton Wick, a true French bistro-style restaurant, run by the Renzland twins. They hired him to open Chez Max in Fulham's Ifield Road, and his career took off.

Nigel Platts-Martin, owner of The Square, approached him to open the premises of what had been Harvey's, off Wandsworth Common, as Chez Bruce. He has managed to turn it round, packing people in every night to sample a pounds 25 set menu which offers the best value meal south of the river.

His menu is bourgeois French - not modern British - stubbornly, obstinately so.

"Some people," comments Poole, "say my combinations are a bit obvious, boring, too classical. But that's why I do it. I don't care if it's 50 years old or 1,000 years old, or whether a million other chefs are doing it. Each dish has to be the best, it has to be outstanding. It has to be the best in London."

Opposite you will find just such a dish from his menu.

Chez Bruce, 2 Belleville Road, London SW17

(0181 672 0224)


Serves 4

500g/1lb small (5cm/2in) red potatoes

1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped

sprig of fresh thyme

125g/4oz baby onions, peeled

125g/4oz fresh girolle mushrooms

700g/1lb 8oz tail of fillet of beef

34 wineglass robust red wine

2 tablespoons Madeira

1 wineglass reduced veal stock (or chicken stock)

500g/1lb leaf spinach, picked over

butter and duck fat (or sunflower oil), for frying

salt and pepper

Peel, wash and wipe dry the potatoes. Pack flat in a heavy iron oven pan, and cook in duck fat (or sunflower oil) on medium heat on top of stove till golden. Transfer to a very hot oven (400F/200C/Gas Mark 6) for 15 minutes or until soft. Drain fat, add a little butter, half the chopped garlic and thyme, and heat through on top of stove. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, roast off the onions in duck fat in a roasting pan in a very hot oven (400F/200C/Gas Mark 6) (or cook in a covered frying pan, shaking to prevent burning) for 10 to 15 minutes. Pat dry with a paper towel.

In a saucepan, quickly fry the girolles in duck fat. Drain on absorbent paper.

Heat a tablespoon of water and a knob of butter in another saucepan. When boiling, drop in the spinach. Cook for 30 seconds. Press out any liquid through a sieve. Season.

Cut the beef into cubes 4cm (112in) across, allowing four or five per person. Get a saute pan very hot, melt the duck fat and fry the beef for several minutes to brown it. Set the beef aside on a dish, reserving the juices. Deglaze the pan with the wine, cooking down to a spoonful, and then with the Madeira. Add the stock, remaining garlic and thyme, salt and pepper. Cook to a smooth sauce, reducing the volume. Just before serving, return the meat to the sauce and heat through.

Garnish with the onions and girolles, and serve with the cocotte potatoes and spinach