Turn on the television and the chances are you will see a chef posing for the cameras. "Slap it in the pan and it'll taste luuvely," they shout as they create a dish that you would never find in their restaurants. Cooking, it seems, is all glitz and glamour, seasoned with a dash of sado-masochism. Such thoughts make Michel Bourdin, maÃ®tre chef des cuisines at the Connaught, quiver momentarily with horror.
"When I first started cooking," he says firmly, "chefs were known for their achievement in their cuisine. Now they are known for what they do in the media."
In his cosy office in the bowels of the Connaught, the walls are covered with photographs of his culinary icons, award-winning pupils and various members of the royal family visiting his kitchens.
He is not what I expected. A dark, stocky man, immaculately dressed in chef's whites, he exudes a stern authority: a believer in the old values of master chef and apprentice pupil. He settles down behind a large, solid oak desk. I wriggle in my chair to try to catch sight of him behind the piles of paperwork and a large pink lamp. I could almost be in France.
Twenty-five years ago yesterday, he arrived with a glittering reputation from Maxim's in Paris to become the Connaught's fifth maÃ®tre chef des cuisines. Within a few years, he had changed British restaurants forever, yet few households know his name.
In 1975, London proliferated with establishments serving a curious mixture of classic French and English dishes. All, including the Connaught, were suffering from a staffing crisis. Michel Bourdin's new kitchen contained 18 different nationalities who communicated in Franglais. "You have to remember that it was only two decades since rationing had ended," he explains.
"There was a severe lack of skilled labour and no career structure here. People never stayed longer than six months in a kitchen."
Following the advice of his mentor, Louis Vaudable, owner of Maxim's, he began what he terms "not a revolution, but an evolution" of the Connaught's food. "In France," he says, "a restaurant was always judged on three things: its soup, pÃ¢tÃ© de maison and tarte aux pommes." This is something he says modern critics have forgotten.
He cautiously began to replace some of the Connaught's dishes with his own interpretations. The old pÃ¢tÃ© parfait - made by "reconditioning" some tinned pÃ¢tÃ© with a little butter, sautÃ©ed goose liver and alcohol - was one of the first to go. "PÃ¢tÃ© is a way to express yourself," he enthuses, before describing one of his many elegant creations - pÃ¢tÃ© de turbot froid au homard, sauce pudeur. I feel hungry despite it only being 10am.
Gradually, Michel Bourdin worked his way through the menu, all the time carefully respecting its balance of what he terms "hotel classics," British specialities and his own introductions.
He sourced ingredients from the best British producers he could find and he lavished loving attention on everything from carre d'Agneau du Kent "forestiÃ¿re" to bread and butter pudding. Critics, like Craig Claibourne of The New York Times, suddenly discovered that, contrary to popular belief, British food was utterly delicious.
However, Michel Bourdin's primary concern was staffing. As many a young chef has found to his cost, it doesn't matter how brilliant you are, you cannot survive without a good team. He turned to his hero Auguste Escoffier for inspiration. Here was a Frenchman who had come to London and created superb food in two great hotels - The Savoy and then the Carlton Ritz.
"Eighteen-eighty to 1914 and 1920 to 1935 was the 'Belle Epoque' for gastronomy," he says. It was during this time that Escoffier created Franco-British haute cuisine. He codified how to cook and how to run a kitchen. Something he could only have done in England.
Michel Bourdin duly divided his kitchen into sections, each with a formal hierarchy. Chefs could then progress according to their needs and abilities from one section, for example, the Cold Larder, to another, such as Butchery. Dozens of now famous chefs passed through his kitchen. Some, like Christian Delteil (chef and part-owner of Bank), came because they wanted to experience a large kitchen. Others, like Herbert Berger, head chef at the Michelin-starred 1, Lombard Street wished to develop their knowledge.
"I was only 24 years old but I had already won my first Michelin star at Keat's in Hampstead," Berger recalls. "I realised I could learn a lot from Michel Bourdin. His standards, professionalism, techniques and knowledge are amazing." Many, like David Adlard, owner of Adlard's in Norwich, gained plaudits and Michelin stars as soon as they left to cook independently.
Keen to extend culinary training further, Michel Bourdin developed reciprocal arrangements with other leading chefs like the Roux Brothers and Anton Mosimann. Young chefs could then move from one kitchen to another without interrupting their development.
In 1980 he and Albert Roux founded the AcademiÃ© Culinaire de France (UK) - now the Academy of Culinary Arts - with 25 other British chefs. It was designed to foster talent in young British chefs.
Within six years of his arrival at the Connaught, Michel Bourdin began to see a network of classically trained chefs working in Britain. They, too, aspired to the highest culinary standards. By 1987 The Good Food Guide was rejoicing in "The British Revival" which was, in part, due to his work.
Today, Bourdin fears that much of the profession is neglecting to learn a basic foundation of knowledge in haute cuisine. Yet despite his many awards, Michel Bourdin is surprisingly modest.
"I am not trying to re-invent the wheel with my cooking," he says. "I am just trying to cook to the best of my ability." One meal at the Connaught will convince anyone that he has succeeded.Reuse content