FOOD & DRINK / Vive le steak and kidney pie]: Parisians are learning to love British dishes such as boiled beef and carrots, kedgeree and bubble and squeak. And it's all thanks to a Frenchman. Michael Bateman investigates

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The Independent Culture
A RESTAURANT serving fine British food, good lord, has opened in Paris. This is not simply mind-boggling. It is mould-breaking and epoch-making, for at no time in history have the French needed to take a gastronomic cue from us.

It's not even as if this new restaurant makes concessions to French sensibilities; all the icons of British food are celebrated on the menu. Fishcakes, kedgeree, bubble and squeak, boiled beef and carrots, steak and kidney pie, liver and bacon, apple crumble, bread and butter pudding, trifle - dishes so traditional here that we no longer think to make a song and dance about them.

What is truly extraordinary is that the restaurant, opened for only two months, has been an unqualified critical success. French restaurant writers who are usually picky have commented on the fresh food. 'Delicious, tasty and good value for money,' says one. 'They have succeeded in creating authentic dishes to titillate the palate of the most refined gourmet.'

And so they go: 'I supect that Parisians are going to find it an eyeopener.' Another convert comments: 'It must be visited, although it is difficult to drop one's 'froggy' prejudices about what they dare call 'cuisine' on the other side of the Channel.' Another critic is surprised that le fish and chips is not wrapped in newspaper, 'comme Outre-Manche'.

There are elements of the British way of life that the French have some respect for: le weekend, le pull (pullover), le rugby and le Royal Family. But nobody could pretend British cooking has ever been among them.

Indeed, contempt for our food is lodged deep in the French psyche. Prejudices were formed hundreds of years ago; in 1698 a French traveller by the name of Sorbiere wrote in his diary: 'The English are not very dainty and the greatest lords' tables, who do not keep French cooks, are covered only with large dishes of meat. They are strangers to bisques and potage (soup). Their pastry is coarse and ill-baked, their stewed fruits and confectionery-ware cannot be eaten]' More of the same: 'I verily believe there were . . . more legs of mutton than heads of garlic in the market. What barbarous soups then must these poor people eat]'

The popular Gallic view is that not a lot has changed in 300 years. So, surely, anyone opening a British restaurant in Paris will have more money than sense, unless they are doing it as a gimmick.

Pas du tout, not at all. The restaurant, called Berties, is situated in the rather smart Hotel Baltimore, in a prime site in the Avenue Kleber, a few steps from the Arc de Triomphe. There is nothing gimmicky about it, and it has been designed conservatively to evoke the oak-panelled club and country-house hotel, a style also much envied by the French.

Le Royal Family is very much in evidence. Tasteful photographs of those Royals of yesteryear who commanded cross-Channel respect furnish the walls, such as Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, otherwise known as Bertie. Ah, so the name of the restaurant is not a jokey reference to Bertie Wooster.

Bertie (pronounced Bairtee by the French) may refer to Victoria's consort, but it is also the diminutive of London's famous top chef, Albert Roux, who has created it.

The group which owns the Hotel Baltimore had asked for his advice on a restaurant. 'I was discussing it with my sister, Martine, who lives in Paris,' he says. 'She said 'Marks & Spencer is always full, and Parisians love British things, so why not a British restaurant?' 'Is that supposed to be a joke?' I said.'

But the hotel group took the idea very seriously indeed. Yet it does seem extraordinary that Albert Roux, who engineered the first Michelin three-star restaurant in Britain, Le Gavroche, should be invited to open the first British restaurant in Paris. Everything he has done in his 38 years in Britain has been in the name of strict, chauvinistic Gallic principles. With his brother, Michel (and now a son, also Michel), he created a family of restaurants religiously dedicated to haute cuisine.

Albert Roux has trained dozens of chefs in his ways, and they are now busy spreading the French gospel. So doesn't this idea of setting up a British restaurant amount to a U-turn, a kind of culinary Pauline conversion?

Two years ago M Roux exchanged the kitchen range for a food consultant's desk in a sunny first-floor office in the heart of Mayfair. These days the thought of British, or rather English, food gives him not heartburn, but a warm, rosy glow.

'I've always loved English food when it was cooked well,' he insists, his voice still as heavily accented as when he did his TV cookery series as a double-act with his brother Michel.

When English food was cooked well? When would that be? 'When I came to England 38 years ago I was lucky to be in private service in the big houses. There would always be a good English cook in the kitchen. They were cooking from recipes which had been passed down, some of them from the 1700s.

'I remember one who was called Auntie Marje. That woman could cook. Her Lancashire hotpot was something to lick your fingers for. She stewed meat for four or five hours till it was tender. Her dumplings were not bullet hard; she left them in the stew for hours, never boiling, but simmering on the stove.'

But surely this wasn't typical? He smiles. 'No. After six months I made some English friends and they asked me to Christmas dinner. We started with tinned fruit salad, then a dry piece of turkey, with bread sauce, and a piece of sausage. To crown it all there was Christmas pudding and custard with lumps in it. If I don't like something, I eat it very quickly. My English was not that strong and when the lady of the house said: 'You like it?' I said, 'Oh, yes.' And before you could say Jack Robinson she gave me another helping.'

It is easy to scoff at British food, he considers. 'But it took you a long time to recover after the war. When I first came to Britain in the Fifties you still had ration books. I remember being taken to Lyons Corner House in Piccadilly, and my friend had to produce coupons for a pot of tea and biscuits. Germany came off rationing before you did.'

Albert Roux may have been responsible for the spread of classic French cooking, but he points out that Britons choose to eat any style of cooking but their own: Italian, Indian, Chinese, Greek, Japanese. 'You're not cooking English food, and that's a pity. It can be very good. Like Gary Rhodes. I've a tremendous admiration for Gary. I must admit, he planted seeds in my mind.' The standard-bearer for British cooking, Gary Rhodes offers the best of our native dishes at The Greenhouse, his restaurant in Mayfair.

Albert Roux says that restaurant critic Lindsay Bareham introduced him to a Frenchman, Charles Fontaine, who was cooking simple, unfussy things well, English dishes cooked with French brio at the busy Quality Chop House in Farringdon Road, London. And there was the Connaught Hotel, in Mayfair, where a classically trained French chef, Michel Bourdin, serves an English dish of the day: hotpots, fish pie, roasts. Albert Roux recruited a former Connaught chef, Francois Huget, to start up Berties, and sent the chef-elect, Christian Simon, for a week's cooking at the Connaught.

This is not quite the first attempt to take British cooking to Paris. A dozen years ago Egon Ronay had the outrageous cheek to launch his British restaurant guide in the art nouveau setting of Maxim's, a temple to French cooking. It is favoured by the gourmet Club des Cent and the Academie des Gastronomes, whose respective presidents agreed to judge a Ronay lunch cooked by five British cooks. French critics and chefs warmly applauded their efforts.

It was something of an El Alamein, a turning-point in our relations with France. 'It opened their eyes,' said Ronay. 'I don't think they had any idea what was going on here.'

Albert Roux was well aware of the hole he was digging for himself if Berties went badly. 'It had to be the very best,' he said. 'We send the best Loseley cream, real Dover sole, Scottish smoked salmon, Aberdeen Angus steak, Eldon blue boar from Hampshire, British cheeses.' Even so, it seems to have taken an awful lot of French chefs to reinvent our cooking. But just think, when the Channel Tunnel opens, we will be able to hurry to Paris and experience British cooking at its very best. Cooked by Frenchmen, of course.

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