Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Lost Interviews, No. 3: Michel Roux

Another lost interview from 2008...

Michel Roux is one of the godfathers of the modern British food scene. Along with his older brother, Albert Roux, the Frenchman is credited with transforming the culinary landscape in London, first with Le Gavroche and later with The Waterside Inn, in Bray. On the eve of his appearance at the Jumeirah Festival of Taste, he spoke to James Brennan about Dubai’s restaurants, Britain’s knife culture and the cult of the celebrity chef. 

You became the first restaurant owner in Britain to gain three Michelin stars, how important is Michelin to chefs?

Well the Michelin is not only a guide but the most well established, and longest established guide in the world. It used to be just Europe, but now it’s covering America in two parts, Japan and Hong Kong soon. The three-star Michelin winners are a bunch of a few people who are the creatives, the leaders and the best places to eat in the world - without any doubt. So it is important because it’s wonderful to be recognised as one of the best. The best? Certainly not, but amongst the best. 

Do you think Michelin will come to Dubai?

I don’t know. I can’t speak on behalf of Michelin. I will say one thing, and I know this by experience, that each time I come to Dubai - and I’ve been at least three or four times - I see a tremendous evolution. Certainly it is one of the cities in the world now where there is no fear of not standing up on what I cal excellencies. There is a choice of every kind of food, from ethnic food to classic French and Italian. You have the top name chefs cooking there. The front of house, the service, is immaculate in most of the places. And they certainly have reached the top cities of the world. Would Michelin go to Dubai? I don’t know, I’m not Michelin, but if Dubai can carry on the way they have been progressing over the last five years, I would say there is a great possibility that this can happen.

How does it compare to London or Paris at the moment?

I wouldn’t make any comparison of that, because it is still newly established. You’ve got places in London and Paris who have been at the top for thirty years or more. It’s not a fair comparison. I’ll just say I’ve got no problem with eating very good or excellent food in Dubai, and I know quite a few places - I’m not saying hundreds - but tens and tens of places where you can have superb food. 

You helped to revolutionise the food scene in England, but you recently announced that you were leaving London for Switzerland, why is that?

Simply because I’m 67, and I decided three years ago. The press were late to pick that up. I bought a place in Switzerland which I love because it’s in the mountains. I love the peacefulness, the calmness and the safety of Switzerland. I’m not attracted anymore by a big city - especially in the UK - where you’ve got dodgy young people, hooligans and dangerous people. When you see that 20 young people have been killed in London by knives in one year, it’s frightening. I can’t take the train at night after 11 o’clock or midnight to go to the country from London. So what is the pleasure of living in a country like that? I prefer to go to the mountains, I prefer to go to Geneva and enjoy my life peacefully. When I came to the UK 40 years ago, it was a country I respected and loved. Now I’ve got to look over my shoulder, and I don’t feel like I should have to do that - not at my age.   

Dubai is safe, you could always move there and start another food revolution...

(Laughs) I know that, but I’ve come to the point as well that I like to give my service to prestigious places in the world, I do like as well to give demonstrations, master classes and give lectures in colleges to help young people to develop further. But I don’t want too much heavy burdens. I’ve got no wish of starting and building a restaurant. Doing a consultancy, guiding people, providing my advice - yes, I will. 

Tell me about the Roux Scholarship.

It was started 26 years ago to help people to further their education, and be able - if they win the scholarship - to have an open door in any three-star Michelin (restaurant) of their choice in Europe. And that is unique - all paid for, for three months, by the Roux Scholarship. We give them a crash course in language. So the current one is with Santamaria - who is at the Atlantis, at the moment - he learnt Spanish and a bit of Catalan as well, to be able to grasp and understand the language. 

Who is the best chef that you ever trained?

Very difficult to say, I’d say, most probably Pierre Koffman (of La Tante Claire, now Koffmann's London). He was certainly one of the best chefs we ever trained. There have been quite a few others, but if I’m going to single out one then it would be Pierre Koffman. 

What is the best advice you can give to a young chef?

To learn as much as they can. Not to look at what they earn today, because what they earn today is not what matters. What’s important is what you learn - what you acquire, knowledge and experience, which will give you the possibility of reaching the highest position later on in your life. And not to try to be someone else but be yourself, because there is nothing worse than people trying to do something when they don’t feel at ease in their own skin. You must learn at least a good ten years before you can say you’re a sous chef, a good fifteen years before you say you’re a chef - a proper chef.    

What do you think about today’s cult of the celebrity chef?

Not very much. But it is the media who have created that, and they are very thirsty, those kind of guys. They make cheap programmes, if you look at it. And the BBC, who used to be one of the best television (stations) in the world forty years ago up to at least twenty years ago, giving some very good programmes, entertaining, educational shows, drama, was an example for the world. It’s garbage now. Twenty or thirty percent of programmes on the BBC, I switch on then switch off immediately. And quite a few of them are on food matters - at seven, eight or nine in the evening. Who wants that? You should be cooking or eating with your family. Not eating packets of food, and garbage, watching the television. I’m not against celebrity I would just say it’s gone too far. Too far means there is too many of those young kids, or people or chefs on television who are doing things they either don’t know or they are asked to do to entertain the public. We are not in the business of entertaining. Cooking is for enjoying food, eating, and it’s for the palate. 

Do you think many young people have ambitions to become celebrity chefs instead of good cooks?

They go into it for the wrong reasons surely. They’ve got the example of the young stars, so-called stars, who obviously make millions from their products, and they’re 25-35. So they want to be a cook - and the parents do. They say “be a chef, be a Jamie!” Well, well! And big supermarkets take those people on board because they’ve got the right image. But I think we’ll come back to basics, with what’s happening in the world, by the way. I think people will have to can the beans, and go back to what we called sanity. We’ve gone too far in many, many ways. And that’s one of them, by the way. Enough mockery of our profession. Let’s be serious, let’s think about our clients in our restaurants. Let’s think about what we buy, the products, how we prepared them the best way and how we serve it to our clients. Then we can be proud of our profession again. 

Friday, 1 June 2012

The Lost Interviews, No.2: Ainsley Harriott

Another 'forgotten interview' from 2008...

Ainsley Harriott

The television personality and chef Ainsley Harriott has made a career out of the lighter side of food. As well as helping people to learn how to cook, his shows are all about relaxing and having fun. But his participation in a recent BBC documentary about genealogy forced him to face up to some uncomfortable truths about his family’s past. He spoke to James Brennan about the experience, his career and his critics.  

Tell us about your involvement with the festival of Taste.

I’m coming down there to do several food demonstrations, hang out with the chefs, and get people involved with food a little bit more. I think that’s what food festivals are all about. Just remind them that there are lots of dishes that are accessible. Sometimes these things can be a little bit far-fetched - people think “oh my god, unless I’ve got a certain type of stove, unless I’m making a reduction here and doing this there...” They feel like they can’t do it. My philosophy has always been accessible food - food that people want to cook. And at the same time trying to incorporate a bit of fun into the show. People can relax and have a go. They don’t go into their kitchens feeling tense.

Do you see yourself more as a performer or as a chef?

I think both. I’ve just done the programme Who Do You Think You Are, which traces your family history. On my mother’s side, my grandfather cooked at the White House, he was a fabulous chef. My mum always cooked and always encouraged us to cook, hence me being a chef and my brother being the main cook at home, and my sister is a cookery teacher in her school, so we all felt very comfortable in the kitchen. And yet my dad ended up as this incredible international performer, a pianist that performed all over the world. So I think I combine the two. I like to see myself as a cook with an entertaining slant, which is slightly different from the other guys. 

You uncovered some uncomfortable truths about your family history. How did that experience affect your life?

I think it grounded me more than I was before, and I’m a pretty solid guy. If you look at a tree, it grows and becomes more grand when the roots are embedded. And with a programme like that you discover all about your roots, and what your make up is. Why am I like this caring person? There were teachers, a policeman... My grandfather went out and started the first school in Sierra Leone. There were seven kids and now the same school has 700 kids.

That’s very positive, but there was also the negative side with links to the slave trade...

I don’t think that’s too negative. That’s part of our history. There was something like 300 years of slavery in the Caribbean, so it’s inevitable that when you start researching it you’re going to come up against it. What I didn’t expect was - even though I’d seen pictures of my great grandfather Ebeneezer, he looked like my children - the mixed race look. But I discovered that his father James Gordon Harriott was white. And there was an another generation of Harriotts that came from Scotland in the early 1700s - so I’m Scottish, but I’m not going to be wearing a kilt! And I don’t think you’ve got a sporran big enough for me out there in Dubai (laughs)!

People like Gordon Ramsay are less than complimentary about celebrity chefs like you. What would you say to people like that?

Well, it takes everybody. A lot of people go for the serious angle because, ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the only way of cooking. When you look at people cooking in Britain - and Dubai too - they’re not that adventurous, they need to be encouraged somehow. And not everybody needs to be shouted at. I went through my training at Westminster College, I worked in some nice hotels and restaurants. I didn’t get those breaks because in those days as a black chef because even though I was really well qualified they didn’t want a black guy fronting their restaurant. And I can understand that. It wasn’t a major thing with me because it wasn’t done in a disgraceful way. But that’s the way it was then. Things have changed because I’ve propelled myself into the media world and I’ve been able to get my style of cooking across with my personality. Not with Gordon’s personality or Jamie’s - all of them great chefs in their own right. In terms of what Gordon does, he just likes to do that. I remember him having a go at Gino D’Acampo about something and Gino got very upset. Gordon said he only did it for the cameras. He was aggressive in his tone and it was refreshing at first, but after a while people become uncomfortable with it. But I’m a warm person and I like people to feel comfortable - if they’re comfortable they’re going to relax and cook and feel good.       

Do you think there will be a time when the public has had enough of celebrity chefs?

No, I don’t ever think that will happen. Unlike DIY or gardening - which are other lifestyle things - food is something that we deal with all of our lives. Two or three meals a day for a lot of people. I don’t think we’re ever going to tire of it. 

Monday, 6 February 2012

The Lost Interviews, No. 1: Jean-Christophe Novelli

In a short series of 'forgotten interviews' that never saw the light of day, here's one from 2008...

Jean-Christophe Novelli

Jean-Christophe makes women swoon, men jealous and everybody hungry. But it hasn’t all been sweetness and light for the French chef and TV personality. He went bankrupt in 1999, losing all of his London restaurants. On the bright side, the same year, he was voted “the world’s fifth most alluring man” by Harpers & Queen magazine. James Brennan spoke to him about his financial meltdown his image and his unfortunate spat with Sunday Times food critic Michael Winner. 

Tell me about the Novelli Academy.

When I lost everything about nine years ago, it took me about a year or two to get back on my feet. And I thought to myself, I’ve been in the trade now for 30 years, and I wanted to be more involved with the trade, with food, but in my own way. So I got the kitchen table from the garden, brought it inside the farm and started inviting people. I did it for my family and my friends - they could come into my kitchen and it was fantastic. But I started from the age of 14 and learnt everything I could for myself - so I thought it was time to pass that on. It became very popular, so I had to get another table. The more I taught them, the more I leant, and I enjoyed that. I used to go to work for 14 hours a day, six days a week, and I said I didn’t want to do that any more.

How did you get into such severe financial trouble in the late 1990s?
I grew very quickly. You see, the secret in business is to make sure you’ve got money when you start the business. But I started with 500 quid. Then I became popular and opened seven (restaurants) in one go on my own. The day I left the kitchen it was a big mistake. I was acting like a chef rather than a businessman - with emotion, and making the wrong decision. Nothing was calm, everything was affected. And I couldn’t cope (laughs)! I learnt - if it had been one or two places, then fine. But it was too much. After that I bought a fourteenth century farmhouse and let people come to my kitchen. And I’m just about to sell the format in Los Angeles.   

How badly will the global economic crisis affect restaurants?
It’s tough, very tough. Nobody knows what’s going on. And especially now people are more involved with food, they can cook. Before, a lot of people could hardly cook an omelette! Now they are miles away - with so much more experience. There’s a different way of surviving, and I think it’s going to be hard, but I don’t know anybody who’s not affected. I know people who are thinking of closing on Mondays, all day, and opening on Tuesday for lunch. But I knew something like this would happen - I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m very sensitive because of my mistakes. And when there is terrible weather (in the UK) also, it’s awful.

What did you learn from working with Keith Floyd in the ‘80s?
I learnt to interact with people, actually, to come out of your shell. And not to act too intense with your cooking. I learnt his sense of humour. And don’t forget that before I worked with him I was his friend - before I came to the UK. It was a good relationship - in fact, I’m the only one he never sacked! 

Does your heart-throb image ever get in the way of the food?
Ah, I don’t think it does. If it did, do you think I would be able to work like I did all my life? When I was in Paris, I worked every day doing 200-300 covers at lunchtime. And my dream was to come to Great Britain, and then America one day. And I stuck to my dream. I just came back from Los Angeles and I just finished my TV series, which is coming out next year, in February. It’s going to be massive. And that’s why I’m going to start my cookery school over there, to expand it.

You famously barred the food critic Michael Winner from one of your restaurants. Why was this?
To be criticised is one thing, but it has to be constructive. It has to be fair. I don’t like to waste my time with anybody like this. I’d always had time for him and treated him like a customer, but one day there was a picture of this chap in front of one of my establishments saying how bad it was. How would you feel? Frankly, I couldn’t even be bothered to argue with him. Then he came back years later - ha, ha - and I jumped on him. I’d organised photographers outside, and kindly stopped him. It was not for me, it was for the people he had hurt. He tried to demolish my staff and myself. My new receptionist did not organise things when he walked through the door and he went bananas! My restaurant manager was in tears - in fact, he left. He was one of the best.

What do you think of food critics?
I don’t want to blow my own trumpet, but I have been reviewed by hundreds and hundreds of people, food critics, journalists, the lot. And I’d never been criticised like this in my life. I’ve had far more great reviews by people who I have never even met. Journalists come to my restaurant and they give false names. Matthew Fort (food editor for The Guardian)? I thought he was ex-army. I cook for customers, not food critics. Actually, I spoke too long about it - that’s not good. I’ve wasted my time and your time (laughs).

You have restaurants in the UK and more in the pipeline - any lans to expand in Dubai?
I don’t know because the problem I have is my farm, my academy is doing a lot better than I thought. It’s unbelievable. And think there’s something in people coming to your house, your farm, to you. It’s an extraordinary feeling. I love it. But I don’t know - Frankly I have to be very cautious with my time. I have just bought some land in Spain to get my own olive oil. I I’m looking at getting cooking into rehabilitation, for drug addicts, alcoholics, anorexics. Anyone with a problem. I think cooking is great therapy. 

Image 'borrowed' from  

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Supra nova - the new Georgian cuisine

Fusion cuisine gets a lot of bad press these days. In some restaurants, the very word ‘fusion’ is about as welcome as the words ‘rat droppings’ and ‘AA Gill’. It is a little hackneyed, I suppose. After all, you have to go back to the 1970s - when chefs mixed French with Chinese and came up with twisted classics like bird’s nest bouillon and coq au rice wine (maybe) - to realise fusion cuisine’s potential for pretentiousness and horror.

Nevertheless, most countries go through their fusion phase, melding their traditional wares with ingredients and techniques from whichever foreign cuisine seems to be en vogue at the time - which usually means Japanese (*whisper* I’m convinced the only thing that prevented Nobu from giving his food a Japanese twist rather than a South American one was the fact that it was already Japanese). 

Anyway, now it’s Georgia’s turn. That’s Georgia the country - in Europe - not the American home of Coca Cola and REM, and nowt to do with Ray Charles, either. 

Traditional Georgian food is typified by the ‘supra’ or special feast, which is presided over by a tamada or toast master, and involves a huge table strewn with a multitude of brilliant dishes, from kachapuri breads and shashlik kebabs, to khinkali (heavy dumplings stuffed with ground meat) and nigvziani badrijani (aubergine stuffed with ground walnuts). As feasts go, it’s a real heavyweight.

A traditional supra: note the celebratory hats, and goat skin wine bag.

This is probably the bit where most hardened and cynical restaurant-goers will recoil in terror, recalling such fusion faux pas as ‘tandushi‘ (tandoori sushi, seen in Abu Dhabi) and ‘sashimikraut’, and foreseeing a culinary train full of cheap Taiwanese fireworks crashing into a nuclear power station. But you should keep on reading, because here is a rare example of fusion that really, really works. 

It’s by a talented female chef called Tekuna Gachechiladze, and I was privileged enough to try it at Vong, an Asian restaurant in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. I say privileged, because not only were we dining with one or two distinguished members of the Georgian media and political establishment, but it was also the night that the Georgian football team beat Croatia 1-0 in a Euro 2012 qualifier. Oh, and some of the dishes were being served for the very first time. An historic occasion. The mood was buoyant. 

The amuse bouche - a gazpacho of tkemali (a traditional and rather tart cherry plum sauce) with the sweetness of grape to balance it out - set the tone. It was followed by a triumphant tuna tartare with jonjoli (a kind of Georgian pickled flower with a flavour not unlike capers) and rainbow trout ceviche marinated in orange juice. Podgy king prawns in tarragon sauce came next, followed by the night’s first true revelation - the dolma. 

Shrimp dolma.

Stuffed vine leaves are familiar all over the Middle East, Mediterranean and the Caucasus, but not vine leaves stuffed with shrimp, and served with a raita-style yoghurt sauce with mint and ginger - a combination as devastating as Smith & Wesson. 

Ham-wrapped quail in pomegranate sauce.

This was followed by roasted quail wrapped in cured ham, slathered in a thick pomegranate sauce - a rich, smokey-sweet blast of gamey flavour and moist textures. I sucked on about four of these like Kojak after a lollipop shortage, and then things got even more interesting.

The khinkali arrived at the table like Katie Melua dressed in a kimono. Instead of the bulging, tumescent and hearty dumplings of the traditional Georgian supra table, they had been given a Japanese makeover; a twist on the gyoza dumpling, made lighter, more elegant and refined but no less delicious. The time-honoured Georgian flavours flooded the palate, but they didn’t have to fight their way through inches of dumpling dough to do it.        

Badrijani and foie gras.

Let me assure you, if I’d dispatched as many traditional khinkali as I did the new gyoza-style version, I’d have needed two seats on the plane home. And probably a triple heart bypass. But home couldn’t have been further from my mind when the badrijani with foie gras turned up. I must confess to having one or two misgivings about the samey textures and smokey-sweet flavours of the walnut-stuffed aubergine and foie gras. They were unfounded. The combination worked like a dream - a dream with great lobes of perfection-seared enlarged goose liver in it. The only word I could muster at the time to describe its magnificence was “Waaarg.” It was that good.  

Badrijani and foie gras - again.

I’d been taught a lesson about fusion cuisine. It may be a jaded concept in the trendy restaurants of New York or London, where nobody wants to gatecrash a party right at the end. But in Georgia, fusion is less of a fad and more of a process. Traditional Georgian food in itself is fusion food, after all - were it not for the Mongolians there might not be khinkali at all; and the Ottoman Empire may have something to do with Georgian dolma. Conversely, the rest of the world might have a debt to pay to ancient Georgian viticulture - thought to be over 7000 years old - for inventing wine as we know it. 

Tekuna Gachechiladze plans to open a New Georgian restaurant in Tbilisi and, in the future, New York (personally, I think ‘Supra Nova’ would be a great name for it and I’m not asking for payment, just a shedload of badrijani with foie gras). There she might just mash up those stuffy preconceptions about fusion food and serve them back up with a nice ponzu sauce. But in the Georgian food story, her inspired ideas are merely the latest chapter. Just forgive me for revelling in the prose before I turn over the page. 

Thursday, 21 April 2011

S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants 2011 - Rene Redzepi and Heston Blumental

"I want more children - that's what I really want." Rene Redzepi, April 18th, 2011.

The restaurant world had its napkins flapped by the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants awards 2011, on a balmy April evening in London. El Bulli, which is to shut down in July, was out of the running this time, leaving the way clear for Copenhagen's Noma to triumph for the second year running. I caught up with a very relaxed (if a little broody) Rene Redzepi on the 50 Best stage, minutes after the Noma team had celebrated their win by prancing around in viking helmets and swigging champagne from the disgorged horns. Did he think his restaurant would now get a third Michelin star, and did he have any plans to open a second venue? Meanwhile, Heston Blumenthal saw his restaurant The Fat Duck drop two places, down to fifth place, which prompted him to declare: "Molecular gastronomy is the most misunderstood title in food."