Born into a farming family in Gascony in 1948, Pierre Koffmann joined a local catering college, Reffye, at 15. His first job was in the Michelin-starred Aubette in Strasbourg. He moved to the Grand Palace Hotel, Juan-les-Pins, near St Tropez, then spent time at several Swiss restaurants. He worked his way around the French regions while doing national service in the Navy. After a short spell back in Switzerland, he decided to move to England.
In 1970 Pierre was hired by Albert and Michel Roux, who had not long opened Le Gavroche in Mayfair. Two years later, aged only 24, he married Annie and together they opened the Waterside Inn at Bray for the Roux Brothers. Within two years it had won two Michelin stars.
He opened his own restaurant in 1977, La Tante Claire in Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, and again won a Michelin star in his first year (a second came in 1980). In 1993 he won his third Michelin star, and Egon Ronay acclaimed him "the best chef in the country".
In July 1998, Pierre sold his premises and moved La Tante Claire into the Berkeley Hotel, Knightsbridge.
THE MAN with the restaurant guide was one of the first customers to arrive. He sat alone, reading it. The waiters eyed him with curiosity; could this be a Michelin guide inspector?
Pierre Koffmann, the distinguished owner and (three-starred) chef of La Tante Claire had bought some spankingly fresh oursins, spiny sea urchins, from the market that very morning. Not enough for a course on their own, he decided to present them as an amuse-bouche, a little appetiser, and devised a souffle using the intensely tasty, orange roe at its heart.
He painstakingly cut out the central spines and filled the space with a souffle mixture which was swiftly baked. A fine sight it made when served to the mystery customer, puffing up from its spiky, crustaceous home.
It was only later when they saw the same man hurrying to the lavatory, complaining that he didn't feel too well, that they realised something was amiss. Not only had he consumed the souffle, he'd eaten most of the spines too. He did not return to his table; indeed, he was never seen again.
"They were cooked a bit, so they may perhaps have been a bit crunchy," the chef muses thoughtfully, scratching his neat beard. An unusual response to Pierre Koffmann's idea of haute cuisine, though not unique by all accounts.
A Japanese customer once ate the whole of a decorative seaweed base on which he'd served some oysters. "I liked the oysters," he told the waiter happily, "but please convey my special thanks to the chef for the outstanding quality of his seaweed."
As a restaurateur, Pierre Koffmann is 21 today; it is 21 years since he opened La Tante Claire in Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, the eaterie he so brilliantly nurtured to three Michelin stars. But his celebratory key to the door opens up an all-new, custom-built restaurant, tucked into the ground floor of the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge.
Pierre would still be at La Tante Claire, had not an ambitious ex-chef of his by the name of Gordon Ramsay come along and made him an offer he couldn't refuse: he sold it. Quick as a flash, the Savoy group (which owns the Connaught, Claridge's and the Savoy) moved in: "How would you like us to build you a new one?"
It was a masterly stroke. The Berk-eley gets the kudos of a three-star chef (one of only four in the UK). In return, Pierre gets a brand-new restaurant with no financial restraints and no strings attached. "When I leave I will just hand back the keys," he smiles.
Pierre Koffmann may not be the best-known chef in the country (though Egon Ronay, the fastidious restaurant critic, rates him the best in Britain). He has chosen to adopt a low profile, but no year passes without some new accolade coming his way.
Last month, for example, the Restaurateurs' Restaurant Awards singled out La Tante Claire for the best French cooking in Britain; the Zagat Survey of London restaurants nominated Pierre's food as the capital's best; and the Harden Guide to London restaurants praised his cooking as "perfectly executed haute cuisine".
We are talking in the Berkeley Hotel prior to opening, a rare interview, as he seeks no publicity. Unlike many big-name chefs, he does not make himself available for promotional tours to Tokyo and Bangkok or Disneyland and Epcot. Rare trips to Twickenham or Cardiff Arms Park mark the limits of his travels as he feels a longer break further away might interrupt his rhythm at the stove.
For Pierre feels chiefly that he has nothing to prove beyond what he achieves in his work. He is a thoughtful cook, and his kitchen is like a laboratory. In the morning, it's like no other kitchen - as quiet as the reading room of the British Library. His brigade of 15 chefs are occupied with their "prep": cleaning and filleting fish, picking over and slicing vegetables, examining the meats.
While there is no argument that Pierre Koffmann is one of the great practitioners of haute cuisine, there is a profound contradiction in his nature. His head may be that of a three- star chef, but his heart is that of a peasant: he has never forgotten that he is a country boy from Tarbes, a small town in the Haute Pyrenees in Gascony, in south-west France.
Pierre attributes his love of food to the influence of one person, his grandmother Camille Cadeillan. He has written movingly about his childhood in his two books, Memories of Gascony and La Tante Claire (the latter won the Glenfiddich Book of the Year award).
Although at the peak of his career (he turned 50 this year) Pierre Koffmann still finds it amazing that he didn't become a peasant working the land, as his entire family had done before him.
But at 15 he went off to Reffye, the local catering school, and the die was cast. It was a strict education based on the works of Auguste Escoffier, and it led to a first job at the renowned Aubette in Strasbourg. Those were the tough old days when chefs were hard nuts, sipping their lives away with cooking wine. "By the time they retired, many of them were macerated old wrecks," he recalls.
Pierre then worked his way around provincial France, moving to Provence and after that, through national service in the Navy, to Brest in Brittany and Cap Brun near Marseilles.
And so it was that he acquired first-hand knowledge of France's regional dishes; choucroute garni, frog soup and foie gras in Alsace; palourdes farcies (stuffed clams), scallops and bacon and Breton lamb in Brittany; in Marseilles, bouillabaisse and cous-cous (the latter to keep on the right side of his superiors, the petty officers). It was in Marseilles that he also established a clandestine sideline selling pancakes, fritters and fruit tarts.
Pierre left the navy to cook for a health spa in Switzerland (where the bizarre regime involved feeding clients their favourite food until they were so sick of it that they couldn't eat at all). This rather unpleasant attitude towards food was not to Pierre's taste, and he left promptly. Given his lifelong passion for rugby, he felt the call of Twickenham.
He easily got a job with the Roux brothers, Albert and Michel, who had just opened Le Gavroche. They had also just bought an old pub in Bray, near Maidenhead and converted it into the Waterside Inn, and they invited Pierre to run it with his new wife, Annie.
For a mere 24-year-old, this was an extraordinary challenge, "but they were the best two years of my life". Pierre won a Michelin star the first year, and incredibly, his second the next.
He had hoped to capitalise on the high point of this learning curve by opening his own restaurant (which the Roux brothers offered to back), in his home town, Tarbes in France. But a miserable year followed in which the dream faded clean away.
Pierre ended up playing the peasant after all, earning money with pickaxe and shovel, digging ditches. He returned to London in search of better fortune, and was lucky enough to find the site of a restaurant, Le Sans Souci, which became La Tante Claire. He bought the lease for pounds 40,000.
It opened in the autumn of 1977 and he has never looked back. Again, he was crowned with a Michelin star in his first year, and a second in 1980. In 1993 he won a third, only the third chef in this country to do so.
He has created many dishes (half of his new menu has been created specially for his Berkeley Hotel launch) but one will always bear his signature: Pieds de Cochon Farcis aux Morilles, pig's trotter stuffed with morels.
This is a dish where peasant farmer meets gourmet master, the humblest part of the beast poetically transformed into a sublime delight. The trotter, braised for three hours, is skilfully deboned, then stuffed with sweetbreads and diced chicken; steamed, it is then served with an unctuous sauce of the reduced cooking liquor.
And yes, of course you eat it all. Including the bone on the end of the trotter? Um, no.
Here, then, are some more of Pierre's trademark recipes.
1kg/2lb 4oz mixed Mediterranean fish (rascasse, red mullet, weaver fish, grondin, conger eel), scaled, cleaned and rinsed under cold running water to remove all traces of blood
8 garlic cloves, chopped
100g/312oz leeks, chopped and washed
100g/312oz carrots, sliced thinly
100g/312oz celery, sliced thinly
100g/312oz fennel, sliced thinly
500g/1lb 2oz tomatoes, quartered
2 star anise, crushed
6 basil leaves, snipped
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
a good pinch of saffron threads
150ml/5fl oz extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon tomato puree
150ml/18fl oz dry white wine
3 litres/5 pints fish stock
200g/7oz potatoes, cut into 2cm/1in chunks
3 tablespoons aniseed aperitif (Pernod or Ricard)
salt and freshly ground pepper
One day in advance, cut all the fish into chunks, including the heads. Place in a container with the chopped garlic, all the vegetables, the star anise, basil, thyme, parsley, bayleaves and saffron. Mix thoroughly with your hands. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.
Remove all the fish pieces from the marinade and season with salt and pepper. Heat 100ml (4fl oz) olive oil in a deep frying pan and when it is very hot, add the fish. Cook for about five minutes until golden on all sides. Add the tomato puree and stir well. Deglaze with the white wine, bring to the boil and transfer to a large saucepan.
Heat the remaining oil until very hot, add all the vegetables and saute until soft and golden. Add to the saucepan with the fish. Pour in the stock, bring to the boil and add the potatoes. Simmer uncovered for an hour, skimming regularly. Add the aperitif and simmer for another 30 minutes. Season.
Discard the larger fish bones and liquidise the contents of the saucepan in batches in a blender. Pass the soup through a fine mesh conical sieve, pushing hard with a small ladle to extract as much liquid as possible. Reheat before serving with small fried croutons and saffron mayonnaise (recipe below).
VEGETABLE SOUP WITH PRESERVED GOOSE
20g/34oz goose fat
5 garlic cloves, chopped
1kg/2lb 4oz potatoes
20-25 cabbage leaves
1 turnip, chopped
1 preserved goose wing or leg
salt and freshly ground pepper
In a large saucepan, bring 3 litres (512 pints) of salted water to the boil. Add the goose fat and garlic. Cut up any very large potatoes and add the potatoes to the pan.
Continue to boil while preparing the cabbage: cut out the central core, wash the leaves, and lay them on top of each other in a thick pile. Roll them up very tightly, as if you were rolling a newspaper for posting, and shred the cabbage as finely as possible with a sharp knife. Put the shredded cabbage and chopped turnip into the saucepan and cook for about 40 minutes. Add the preserved goose and continue to cook until the potatoes have disintegrated and the soup is thick enough for a wooden spoon to stand up in it. Season to taste.
Serve either as a single complete dish, or serve the thick vegetable soup first and the preserved goose as a second course. In this case, add some whole potatoes and extra goose to the soup about 20 minutes before the end of the cooking time.
DUCK FOIE GRAS WITH GRAPES
4 slices of duck foie gras, 1cm/12in thick (about 100g/4oz each)
salt and freshly ground pepper
4 slices of toasted French bread
300ml/112pt sweet jurancon wine
20 large grapes, peeled
Season the foie gras. Heat a non-stick frying pan and cook it for one minute on each side, or until the foie gras feels slightly soft when you press it with your finger. Do not add any fat; it has more than enough of its own.
Place a slice of foie gras on each slice of toast. Pour off the fat from the pan, add the wine and reduce by half. Beat in the butter and add the grapes. Pour the sauce and grapes around the foie gras and serve.
CREAMED SALT COD
500g/1lb 2oz salt cod, soaked overnight in running water
250ml/9fl oz milk
1 sprig of thyme
150g/5oz duck fat or oil
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
500g/1lb 2oz potatoes, boiled and mashed
freshly ground pepper
Put the soaked cod in a saucepan and add the milk, thyme, bayleaf and 250ml (9fl oz) of water. Bring to the boil, take the pan off the heat and leave the fish to cool in the cooking liquid. Strain off the liquid and reserve it. Flake the cod.
Heat the fat or oil in a saucepan. When it is sizzling, add a little of the cod and stir well with a wooden spoon. Add a little more cod, stir well and repeat until you have used it all. Make sure the fat stays very hot and that the fish absorbs it all. Stir in the garlic and parsley and mix well.
Mix the fish into the mashed potato; the mixture should be very creamy. If it is not, add some of the cooking stock. Check the seasoning; the pepper should be very pronounced, but you will almost certainly not need to add any more salt. Serve in a deep dish.
GIBLET STEW WITH MACARONI
4 chicken necks, halved
8 chicken wings, cut at the joint
4 chicken gizzards
4 chicken hearts
50g/2oz duck fat
200g/7oz carrots, very thinly sliced
100g/4oz onions, very thinly sliced
200ml/7fl oz dry white wine
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 bouquet garni
salt and freshly ground pepper
Heat the fat in a frying pan until it is sizzling. Add the chicken necks, wings, gizzards and hearts, and seal until golden all over. Transfer the meat to a saucepan or flameproof casserole.
Fry the carrots in the same fat until golden, then add the onions and sweat for 10 minutes. Pour in the wine and boil for three minutes. Put the vegetables on the meat, pour on enough hot water to cover the vegetables and bring to the boil. Add the garlic and bouquet garni and season. Cover the pan and cook gently for 20 minutes, then add the macaroni and cook for another 10 to 15 minutes. Season and serve.
2 egg yolks, at room temperature
125ml/412fl oz extra virgin olive oil
a pinch of saffron threads, steeped in 20ml/34fl oz boiling water
salt and freshly ground pepper
Put the egg yolks in a small ceramic or stainless steel bowl. Mix in the saffron with its steeping water, salt and pepper. Whisk in the olive oil, one drop at a time at first, then in a thin trickle, beating constantly until the mayonnaise is thick and glossy. Cover with clingfilm and refrigerate until needed.
BAKED STUFFED CABBAGE
1 large savoy cabbage
1kg/2lb 4oz hand and belly of pork
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 garlic cloves, chopped
100ml/4fl oz dry white wine
salt and freshly ground pepper
home-made tomato sauce
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6. Cut the cabbage stalk to free the leaves and blanch them in boiling water for two minutes. Refresh and drain.
Mince the pork on a medium blade. Add the egg yolks, parsley, garlic, wine, and season to taste. Mix thoroughly.
Line the bottom and sides of a 20cm (8in) cake tin with cabbage leaves. Put in a quarter of the stuffing, then a layer of cabbage and repeat, until you have used all the stuffing. Cover with cabbage leaves. Place in a bain-marie and bake in the over for an hour and a half.
Unmould the cabbage "cake" on a serving dish, and pour the tomato sauce round the edge. Serve.
CARAMELISED APPLE PIE
Pierre Koffmann makes his own flaky pastry, but here we give his recipe using shop-bought filo pastry.
450g/1lb packet of filo pastry
6 eating apples
100g/4oz lard or clarified butter, melted
50ml/2fl oz armagnac
Leave the pastry to rest at room temperature for three to six hours, until soft but not sticky. While it rests, peel, core and slice the apples. In a saucepan, melt 50g (2oz) of lard or butter and cook the apples very lightly with 75g (3oz) sugar and the armagnac. Drain and cool.
Preheat the oven to 425F/220C/Gas 7. Stretch half the filo pastry and leave it to dry a little. Then, with a pastry brush or plant mister, sprinkle some of the melted fat like rain all over the stretched pastry. Dust with 40g (112oz) sugar and trim the thick part of the pastry from the edges.
Butter a 25cm (10in) flat tin and dust with 20g (34oz) sugar. Cut three circles out of the pastry, keeping the finest for the top layer. Put one in the flan tin, add on another and top with the third pastry circle. Arrange the apples on top.
Clean up any pieces of pastry and sugar from the table cloth, then put on the second piece of filo and stretch it in the same way as the first. Cut it into 15cm (6in) triangles and crinkle them up to form small mounds, like crumpled chiffon scarves. Pile these little mounds on the apples, sprinkle with more butter and the remaining sugar and bake for about 20 minutes, until the top is golden and the sugar has caramelised. Serve warm.
This croustade is also delicious made with pears, cooked quinces or prunes. !
PIERRE KOFFMANN'S TEN FAVOURITE DISHES
Most of them are French country specialities inspired by childhood memories, especially of the cooking of his grandmother.
1 Quenelles de Brochet. The only restaurant dish among Pierre's favourites, this is a mousseline of pike and cream, poached and served with a lobster sauce. The best was sampled at the Michelin-starred Hotellerie Beau Rivage in Condrieu, south of Lyon, where it's a regional speciality. It was served as a big sausage (6in long, 3in thick) fluffed up like a souffle. But what made it unique was the intensity of the lobster sauce.
2 Bouillabaisse. The Mediterranean fish stew created by fishermen. The best was tasted at a restaurant in Cap d'Antibes, served in a huge copper pot for four. The stock is made first, using small but tasty rock fish and crabs, then whole fish are cooked in it. The waiter comes to the table to fillet the fish for you.
3 Brandade de Morue. A classic Koffmann family dish: a creamy puree made with dried salt cod, mashed potato, garlic, and milk (see recipe overleaf).
4 Giblet stew. It sounds better in French, "Ragout d'Abattis de Volaille". Gran'mere Camille used to simmer the chicken's head, neck, wing tips and feet to make a stew, cooking macaroni in it before serving.
5 Cabbage. So many different types of cabbage, so many favourite dishes: raw in salad with a vinaigrette; pickled , served in Alsace as choucroute with tender cuts of simmered cured pork; in thick country soups, "garbures" and "potees"; and baked stuffed cabbage (see recipe overleaf).
6 Cassoulet. The rich, filling winter dish of casseroled beans from Toulouse, with its various garnishes - "confit" of duck, goose, lamb or partridge.
7 Snails. Freshly-gathered, cooked in stock, finished with red wine, garlic, parsley, and breadcrumbs; the sauce must not be too runny. Another family dish.
8 Civet de Lievre, a real countryman's dish: the rich intense flavour of hare casseroled in red wine.
9 Foie gras. Gran'mere's way, which is only possible with the best duck's liver (cooked this way, most liver sold today would shrivel up and cook to nothing in the pan).
Put the liver in an iron frying pan with a little fat, cover it and gently cook for one hour, or more. Lift off the lid, add a glass of white wine, a handful of tart white grapes, and chopped shallots, and leave to simmer a little longer before adding a few fine breadcrumbs to thicken the sauce.
10 Croustade aux pommes. A sweet tart of caramelised apples in a fine pastry rolled out on a floured cloth (oddly, this pastry is called pastis in Gascony). It is similar to filo pastry, and produces a frilly topping of crispy pastry ribbons (see picture above).
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