It’s just over a year since Pierre Koffmann, 63, came out of retirement to open a restaurant at the Berkeley Hotel in London. Koffmann, who once held three Michelin stars at La Tante Claire, tells Bloomberg’s chief food critic Richard Vines about his childhood in Tarbes, southwest France, and how he went on to become a chef.
“I don’t have a first memory of a meal but in France every family ate well at that time, 50 years ago,” Koffmann says. “We were working class and not wealthy, so my mother had to make the best of what she could get. It wasn’t fillet steak on the table. If she had a chicken, she would keep the wings, the feet, the neck, the head, everything, and make a stew. It was brilliant. It was quite liquid -- no flour at all -- and in it she would cook pasta. It was one of the best dishes I’ve ever had. So it’s not a memory of a single meal but of many meals. Food was very important.
“My mother and grandmother were both good cooks but my mother was better because she was living in a town. It was only a small place of 40,000 people but in a town you have a fishmonger and everything you want. If you live in a village of 1,000 people, the only fish you would usually eat was salted cod on a Friday because on Fridays you had to eat fish.
“If my grandfather went fishing, he’d take a clear glass bottle, break off the end and tie it up with a piece of string. Inside, he’d put some bread. The fish would see the food and swim inside and be unable to escape. They were only tiny fish but you could deep fry them without any work at all.
“My grandmother had a big open fire, an open chimney, so there was a lot of roasting: chicken and rabbit on a spit and my granddad was in charge of turning the spit. Poor guy: My grandmother was on his back, like any couple. So you have that visual image of the chickens and, then the smells were important, they’re still very important. Saint-Puy was a tiny village and if you were on top of the hill in winter -- because everybody burned wood to heat their homes -- there was a beautiful smell. I’ve never found that smell anywhere else.
“My father was a mechanic at Citroen and my mother worked for the town council. My grandparents were both farmers on my mother’s side. Every time I had a holiday, I went to stay with them. If my mother wanted to make my dad happy, she knew what to make. He loved cauliflower, cooked but cold, with mayonnaise. That was one of his favorite dishes. I don’t know why because it’s not gastronomic. He also liked herring. In France, we marinate smoked herring in onions and carrots and eat it with warm potato salad. Those were his favorite dishes.
“I wasn’t very good at school and when I reached the age of 14, they asked me to leave,” says Koffmann. “I tried for jobs at the French railway, the post office. I went to cookery school not because I enjoyed food but because it was still school. If you went to work for the French railway, you were a man. You had to work like a man. But at school you got your holidays. It was stupid of me because I didn’t realize that during your holidays, you had to go and get some work experience in a kitchen.
“I really enjoyed it. I was happy, I was in my element. When you are that age, you are still a kid. I’m still a kid now. Mentally, you are a kid all your life. I always enjoy it. From school, I went to work in Strasbourg.
“At that time food was different from the southwest to the east, Strasbourg, to the north, to Brittany, completely different food. Now, it’s not so different, there’s a lot of similarity. Then, if you wanted to be a good chef, you had to go to Provence, Savoie, Strasbourg, to the France of gastronomy. So I went to Strasbourg and after that I went to the French Riviera and then I found a job in Switzerland, in Lausanne.”
“I came to England just because I wanted to see England play France at rugby. I said I’m going to go to England to see the game and I stayed for six months working at Le Gavroche. The plan was to spend six months in England and I wanted to move to America. And now, 41 years later, I’m still here.”
Koffmann’s, Berkeley Hotel, 1 Wilton Place, London, SW1X 7RL. Information: +44-20-7235-1010; http://bit.ly/khbncX.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)