Eating in: Entente cordiale

Three years ago, at the pinnacle of his career, Richard Neat suddenly sold up his London restaurant and left the country. Michael Bateman tracks him down in France, where he has just become the first top British chef to open a restaurant, and finds him playing the French at their own game
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The Independent Culture
WHEN Richard Neat won a second Michelin star for his London restaurant Pied a Terre in 1996, he did a strange thing. Instead of staying to bask in his hard-won glory - he is one of only a handful of British-born chefs to achieve this status - he suddenly sold up and cleared off. He might have passed the ultimate cookery exam (the coveted third Michelin star represents added luxury rather than better food) but Richard Neat was drained and exhausted. And his wife, Sophie, who is French, had had enough of London.

Three years later Richard Neat is back. But not in London. Last month he became the first top British chef to open a French restaurant in France, thus re-importing the food culture the French have been bringing to our islands since Antonin Careme became the Prince Regent's chef in the 18th century.

His restaurant, neatly called Neat, is in Cannes, that very British preserve on the Cote d'Azur. Tucked off the Croisette with its wedding-cake hotels and fringed palms, it is right opposite the Palais des Festivals, where it is well-placed to absorb some of the city's million visitors, including those who turn up for the film festival.

So where has he been for the past three years? In Delhi, it transpires, opening India's first serious French restaurant, Longchamps, in the renowned Taj Hotel. He'd exchanged a tiny London kitchen the size of four telephone kiosks for one the size of a tennis court, working with an infinite staff, an almost infinite budget and colonial living conditions.

But the luxury palled after a while, and he is now submitting to the ultimate challenge: putting his skills on the line before a highly critical French clientele.

"The French are amused and doubtful," says Sophie, who went to university along the coast at Nice. "They tell you everything that's wrong with British food, then they sit down to a meal and they are amazed. They are completely ignorant of what's been happening in Britain."

Richard Neat was brought up in rural Surrey, but he has been a lifelong fan of French culture. Everything about La Republique excites him; "The Champs-Elysees on a hot summer evening, the flags fluttering. Daily rituals such as the buying of the bread, the opening of the shutters. The smell of good coffee and croissants."

So it was no accident that, in order to learn his trade, he apprenticed himself first to Raymond Blanc in Oxford, and then to Joel Robuchon at Jamin in Paris, where he became the great man's saucier. Saucing is the key role in the French kitchen, controlling the quality, balance and intensity of flavour.

When he set up his own restaurant, Pied a Terre, with a very small staff, he continued in the same role. He taught his staff the basics of roasting, grilling and steaming meat and fish, while providing the final note himself.

Of all our fine young chefs (Richard is 33), he may be the only one who can claim he has never annexed a single dish from the menus of others. Much of Richard's creative art lies in his original combinations of tastes and textures: a crispy darne (slice) of turbot on a flap of fried foie gras or seasoned snails buried in a mousse of pounded chicken breast and rolled in powdered dried morels. A deep-fried oyster, crisp on the outside, melting inside. Fresh red mullet is minced and marinated to make a juicy "tartare".

Richard has evolved his own distinctive touches to maximise the flavour of meat and fish. For example, when cooking fish, he says, he likes to get it crisp and sweet by frying it in clarified butter to bring on caramelisation.

His secret for keeping lamb fillet both tender and rare is to steam it. He quickly browns the fillet in a pan and rolls a cabbage leaf round it. He then wraps it tightly in clingfilm and steams it for five minutes, after which he rests it for another four before opening it up and slicing it. There is no shrinkage and no loss of flavour. The meat is completely tender, yet an even pink all through.

The way he keeps breast of duck tender and pink is similar. He wraps it tightly in aluminium foil and bakes it in a hot oven for four minutes, then leaves it to rest for another three. Richard's gourmet touch is to first spread the breast with crushed duck liver.

The following recipes have both been designed by Richard for summer eating.

Turbot and smoked salmon gnocchi

Serves 4

4 fillets of turbot (100g each)

300ml (1/2 pint) milk

25g (1 oz) butter

25g (1 oz) flour

150g (6 ozs) smoked salmon

2 shallots

50 ml (2 fl ozs) dry white wine

1 tbspn cream

125g (4 ozs) butter

2 tbspn chopped chives

salt, pepper, lemon juice

oil and butter for frying

Accompaniment: 12 medium leeks, whites only.

Pre-heat oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.

Make a bechamel sauce. First warm the milk. Melt 25g butter in a pan, stir in the flour, then add the milk, salt and pepper and cook gently for 20 minutes stirring to prevent sticking. Leave to cool.

Whiz the smoked salmon in a blender, then press through a sieve. To make the gnocchi mix equal quantities of smoked salmon puree and bechamel sauce into a smooth paste. Form into small balls.

Boil a large pan of water, and drop them in one by one. Immediately take off the heat. Remove gnocchi with a slotted spoon, and cool rapidly on a bowl of ice. Lay them on a dry teacloth.

Chop the shallots, and fry gently in a teaspoon of butter. Add the wine and bring to the boil, then the cream. Remove from the heat, add 125g cold butter in small pieces. When all the butter has melted, add the chopped chives.

Boil the leeks in salted water. Drain and reserve. Season the turbot slices with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Fry in a little oil on both sides. Then transfer to the oven and cook for four minutes. Briefly fry the gnocchi in a little butter, and transfer to the oven for two minutes.

Place turbot on centre of plate, surrounded by gnocchi, and pour the chive sauce over. Serve with the leeks.

VELOUTE OF ASPARAGUS AND SOLE

Serves 4

450g/1lb Dover sole (cut into 4)

12 sticks thick asparagus

2 tablespoons double cream

1 teaspoon chopped chives

salt, pepper, lemon juice

8 langoustines (optional)

25g/1oz butter

Flatten the sole fillets with the side of a heavy knife until very thin.

Line four metal rings (7cm/3in diameter) with the fillets, and season with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Cook in a steamer for four mins, leave to cool, and refrigerate. Remove asparagus tips and cut the remaining edible base into batons, reserving the trimmings. Cook tips and batons in boiling salted water until tender. Drain, rinse in cold water and refrigerate. Chop the trimmings into small pieces and briefly fry in the butter. Just cover with water, add cream and simmer until asparagus is completely soft. Liquidise, strain, and leave until cold. This is the veloute sauce. Fry langoustines in a little oil until coloured. To assemble, turn out the sole rings, fill with chilled asparagus tips and batons, arranging two langoustines on each. Pour veloute over and top with chopped chives.

MANGO RICE DESSERT

Serves 4

2 ripe mangoes

100g/312oz risotto rice

250ml/9fl oz milk

1 vanilla pod

25g/1oz butter

25g/1oz sugar

50ml/2fl oz double cream

4 limes

1 Granny Smith apple

Cook the risotto rice in a saucepan with the milk, butter, sugar and vanilla pod over a low heat for 30 minutes until rice is soft. Refrigerate. Peel, core and chop the apple. Mix with the zest and juice of the limes and a little sugar to taste. Boil until apple is soft, then liquidise. Sieve and chill. Slice mangoes as finely as possible and line a dome-shaped mould with them. Whip the cream till thick and fold into the cooled rice mixture. Pour into the mango mould, and chill for two hours in the fridge.

To serve, unmould and dress with the lime puree.

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