Éric Chavot, regarded as one of the finest chefs of his generation, swore off central London recently. He wanted to spend more time with his wife and his "crazy" cocker spaniel puppy, and leave behind the crack-of-dawn-commute. But when he was asked to head up Bob Bob Cité - the offshoot of London's Bob Bob Ricard at the bottom of the Leadenhall building - he couldn't resist but return.
Since opening in 2008, Bob Bob Ricard has earned a reputation for being ostentatious and fun (it has a 'press for champagne button'), serving a menu of English and Russian food. We caught up with Chavot to find out more about his plans at Bob Bob Cité, and to pick his brains on the latest food trends.
Please tell us about your plans for Bob Bob Ricard and Bob Bob Cité and what excites you about it
Working directly with Leonid Shutov (the owner) is really exciting. His vision, creativity, passion, thoroughness and attention to detail are exceptional. In my own mind I had pretty much decided not to return to central London. Christine, ma femme [my wife], is taking a career break after breast cancer, a crazy working cocker spaniel puppy joined our family, and I just wanted to be based nearer home, nearer them and not commuting at the crack of dawn and late evening for two hours.
Anyway, a few days after one of our first meetings, during which Leonid and I looked over the kitchen plans for Bob Bob Cité, he emailed me a list of his thoughts and queries regarding bratt pans, blast chillers, combis, self-venting hoods. I was staggered at the detail of his research and responses to my comments on the design. Ma femme said, "you just cannot miss this opportunity to work with him" and she was right. I’ve no doubt he knows where every nut and bolt is going at Bob Bob Cité. The immediate challenge for me at Bob Bob Ricard is to restructure ‘a la Chavot’ the kitchen team, the organisation, and the work ethic, so the team can consistently achieve my standard of cooking for the impressive number of guests they serve, day in, day out, week to week. Across the board in every aspect of the back-of-house, I want to raise standards. That will apply equally at Bob Bob Cité, and of course the challenges of achieving that are very different compared to an established operation.
The restaurant Bob Bob Cité will be as ‘deliciously daft’ and as glamorous as Bob Bob Ricard. The design is beautiful. The menu will be Bob Bob with my twist: snail dumplings, brioche stuffing for the chicken. I won’t reveal too much and spoil the surprise though. It’s about creating a dining experience that is a joy and fun. I also want to share all this knowledge and experience crammed in my head with these kids who are passionate about developing into the chefs of the future, so the kitchens will be centres of excellence, of skill and of learning. Application forms at the ready!
How do we need to change food culture in the UK?
For many reasons we need to greatly reduce our reliance on ready meals, processed convenience ‘foods’, home deliveries or take-aways, and to stop TV dinners, period. There seems to be a national obsession with TV cookery programmes and miles of shelf space in bookstores jam-packed with cookery books, yet we’re cooking less and less at home. It would be fantastic if the norm became proper family home-cooked meals prepared and enjoyed together around the table (and without the smartphones).
When I was growing up in France I loved the focus on family meals. They made me passionate about cooking, and gave us precious time with papa between the end of his work day and us being sent off to bed. With the many commitments families now juggle - including jobs, careers, child care, studies and parental care - cooking at home can seem one challenge too many, but it needn't be. Take a look at Jamie Oliver's 5 Ingredients book. The recipes are inexpensive, quick, uncomplicated and really tasty. Aside from the greater nutritional value of proper home-cooked meals, they should be an opportunity for as much of the family as possible to catch up, enjoy one another’s company, put the world to right, have a laugh, create together, be together.
If you look at some of the recent TV adverts (‘Living Well’, ‘Food Love Stories’) I think this is the message: make good nutritious food a central part of your family life.
What is the most memorable experience you have had in the kitchen?
Tough question - there have been many great experiences. I think these two tie for the accolade of the most memorable, one very good, the other extremely bad. In 2007 I was cooking for a week on a tall ship. She was beautiful, gleaming wood, huge billowing white sails. The trip was from St Malo to Bilbao down the Bay of Biscay, which I didn’t know is infamous for les tempêtes de mer [sea storms]. For days we were battered by raging winds and enormous waves. Any equipment and ingredients which wasn’t battened down was flung up and down, left and right. It was like being in a washing machine on the spin cycle. The multi-mix became redundant as whirlpools developed in soups and sauces. It was a nightmare.
On the flip side, two years ago I had an opportunity to cook dinner in a make-shift kitchen on the Bushveld of Sabi Sabi, an amazingly beautiful game reserve in South Africa. It was incredible cooking in such a magical setting. During the evening there were zebra grazing in the grass, monkeys swinging in the trees, herds of elephants ambling past us. Thankfully a lion didn’t show up uninvited at the BBQ. It was unforgettable. A dream.
Have you had any near-death experiences in the kitchen?
Seriously, I once knocked myself unconscious walking out of a freezer and was accidentally stabbed in the leg by my long-suffering head chef, Richard Hondier. At time my years as a trainee chef in Arcachon were a little dangerous. A chef threw a knife at me in a Gallic fit of rage (fortunately it whizzed past my right ear into the wall), a gas oven exploded and during a storm the kitchen roof collapsed when a very large branch broke off an oak tree on the terrace. Four lives remaining!
What is your guilty pleasure food?
A crispy bacon sandwich with lashings of homemade ranch dressing between thick slices of fresh bread, and a tub of Haagen Dazs Strawberry Cheesecake ice cream (all to myself).
What do you think of the ‘clean eating’ movement where foods are deemed wholly ‘good’ or ‘bad’?
I don’t think it’s that simple, ‘good’ vs ‘bad’. There’s a middle ground. Yes there are products that are so highly processed, packed with artificial colourants, flavourings, preservatives, and refined sugar, that they shouldn’t even be called food. Aside from those, I think in general moderation is the crucial thing. Whole milk, cream and salt would all be classified as 'bad' but eaten in moderation as part of a balanced diet I think they have a part on the plate. For three months ma femme put me on an eating regime of no sugar, no biscuits, pastry, pasta, potatoes, no citrus, dried or tropical fruits, and no bread or wine.The first five days were horrible. After that I felt amazing, shed several kilos and was just bursting with energy.
Now I enjoy that core diet of greens, fish, meat, whole grains supplemented with a moderated amount of the naughty foods like the Strawberry Cheesecake ice cream and Hobnob biscuits.
What do you think of the rise of veganism? Do you think you could ever go vegan?
Although I can go for days without eating meat or fish, I love cheese and diary too much to become a vegan. I respect and totally appreciate why people choose not to eat fish and animal products. There have been, and unfortunately will undoubtedly continue to be, concerns around animal welfare, animal fats, bacteria, sustainability and tracing from origin to the plate. How an animal is raised and what it is fed is tremendously important to me, both at home and at Bob Bob.
When I first met ma femme she had been a lacto-vegetarian for 30 years and was scared to eat meat again because of concerns at the time over animal welfare and mad cow disease. Since then she has started eating some meat again, knowing that the providence of what we buy is so important to me (and of course, the vegetarian's Achilles heel, my mouth-watering crispy bacon sandwiches won her over). Also I think everyone, vegans especially, need to look critically at the quality and freshness of the fruit and vegetables they are buying. So often I leave a supermarket empty handed: the broccoli yellowed, the salad wilted. What nutritional value is left? There is no comparison in quality (or price) with the same produce on the stalls in the farmers' market, or better still, the vegetables ma femme grows in patio pots throughout the summer.
What is going to be the next big food trend and why?
I think several current trends will continue and become very major. Health (vegetarianism, nutritional value, balance). Sustainability (origin, environmental impact, animal welfare) and waste (cooking with the "nasty bits", nose-to-tail eating, the creative use of previously discarded vegetable stems and trims). There is increasing awareness and scientific proof of the positive effects of eating well. We can’t expect to be in great shape, mentally or physical, when we’re consuming chemicals and foods with little if any nutritional value. When was a processed-convenience food last hailed as a “superfood”? Never. And we can’t keep on over-harvesting and over-fishing and clearing forests and discarding ugly fruit and or veg and tons of bananas because they are too long or too curved for the supermarkets. It’s madness.
What is your least favourite food trend and why?
“Fad” trends, period. Those that seem to vanish as quickly as they arrived. There is this seemingly unquenchable thirst for something new, the next “in thing”. In 2014 edible insects were apparently going to be a trend. In 2015 it was millet, kaniwa and goats meat. The following year, baobab and savoury yoghurts. Give me well-made authentic food, cooked with skill, care and passion. It’s timeless.
How do you make the perfect scrambled eggs?
Lightly whisk three large free-range eggs, 60 grams of diced chilled butter, a pinch of Maldon salt and cracked black pepper. Heat a thick-bottomed pan on a low flame, pour in the mix and keep stirring slowly. When the egg is almost cooked remove the pan from the heat (the egg will keep cooking through the heat of the pan). Keep stirring, adding a table spoon of double cream or crème fraiche (it stops the cooking). Serve immediately on thick-cut, toasted and buttered granary bread.
How do you cook the perfect steak?
Heat a thick-bottomed cast-iron skillet. Take a rib eye steak, minimum two inches thick. Just before cooking make sure it’s at room temperature (not chilled straight from the fridge) and season it with salt and cracked pepper.
Melt a table spoon of duck fat in the hot skillet (high flame / mark six on induction). Sear each side for two minutes and then place the steak on a plate. Put a large knob of unsalted butter on the steak and invert the skillet over it, completely covering the steak. Let it rest for four minutes before serving. It's beautiful rare to medium-rare.
What would you serve your dinner guests if you were going on Come Dine with Me?
Assuming none of the guests suffer a food allergy, the menu would be something along the lines of…. garlic snails, daube de boeuf provençale with creamy mash, and for dessert a pistachio soufflé with ice cream
What food do you avoid eating at all costs?
Definitely junk and highly processed. It doesn’t go into the shopping basket if there are too many ingredients listed on the packaging or any I can’t pronounce (which seems to be quite a lot).
What is the most irritating thing a diner can do in your restaurant?
Reach for the salt and pepper before tasting the food and then complain the dish is too salty.
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