The sorcerer's apprentice
Marco Pierre White has worked his magic again, pairing a once ailing restaurant with a talented young chef. Emily Green reports
Mr Chavot is 27, something close to middle age in catering. The French put their cooks at the stove young: Mr Chavot, who comes from the south- west, near Bordeaux, was apprenticed at the age of 14. Since moving to Britain in 1986, he has worked in the network of French restaurants that make up the most demanding kitchens in Britain: La Tante Claire, Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, Harvey's, Chez Nico and the Restaurant Marco Pierre White.
Mr Chavot slogged during his training, two years at Tante Claire, 18 months at Le Manoir and so on, 14 hours a day, five days a week. By 1994, he was head chef for Nico Ladenis at his Michelin two-star (now three) on Park Lane; last June, he returned to work at Marco Pierre White's two-star (now three).
It must have been apparent to Mr White that the apprentice was ready to run his own restaurant. But it was an accident that brought about this new place: one night, Mr White stopped to fish from the riverbank of a Thameside restaurant in Oxfordshire called the French Horn. Here he encountered a stranger studying the building: "I wouldn't eat there if I were you," said Mr White. Thestranger was the restaurant's owner, Ronnie Emmanuel.
According to Mr Emmanuel, insults turned to banter, and then to reflection. He and his daughter, Elaine, also owned Walsh's, a fish restaurant on Charlotte Street which was failing. Perhaps this fisherman could fix it.
What Mr White proceeded to do was his godfather act: investing in restaurants on behalf of young chefs he has trained. This furthers his school of cooking and ensures the young chefs, after living on a pittance during their training, will own a share of the restaurants where they finally become head chefs. MrWhite has also been generous in his support of young British chefs, notably those behind Aubergine in London, and Miller's Bistro in Harrogate.
In the case of the makeover of Walsh's into Interlude de Chavot, Mr White advised on everything down to the place settings. The result is rather like a French one-star, with glass-paned frontage, wood-plank floors and awning. Remarkably, for a small space, the front dining room has large tables that are generously spaced and well-laid.
A slender, rather solicitous woman, Elaine Emmanuel, greeted at Walsh's, and she continues to do so here. That she seemed confused and somewhat dotty at Walsh's, and rather self-possessed now, may be due to the fact that, this time, the food listed is actually available. She is clearly better at making people comfortable than making excuses.
The menu is short, appealing and keenly priced: two courses for £18, three for £22. We sampled scallops with tomato and shallot chutney, and a leek and haddock soup. Both were good. As main course, pan-fried cod with lentil salad was just right: the fish fresh and moist, the lentil salad a perfect earthy counternote. Brill with a mustard sauce was also excellent, though the artistic knot of long thin noodles did not seem a natural part of the dish. For the most part, puddings are supplied from Mr White's kitchen in the Hyde Park Hotel, though a chocolate souffl made by Mr Chavot was good.
A jaundiced eye might accuse this young Frenchman of replicating too much of Mr White's food elsewhere on the menu: foie gras and chicken liver parfait, ox cheek braised in red wine, the perfect lemon tart. They do not understand what cooks go through to produce such meals, and that doing it perfectly is a hard-earned skill. Nor do they admit that this is classic food, which predates Mr White and the chef who did most to train him, Albert Roux.
Mr Roux was one of the first chefs to earn three Michelin stars for a British restaurant. Last month, at the age of 33, Mr White became the first English-born chef and one of the youngest to be so honoured. Now, as the Rouxs and Whites pass on their knowledge and lend their support, this classic tradition lives, and Britain is filling up with good restaurants.
Interlude de Chavot, 5 Charlotte Street, London W1 (0171-637 0222). Open lunch and dinner Mon-Fri, dinner Sat. Major credit cards.
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