It was 1984 when these two first spent time in a kitchen together; the young, pre-fame Marco (who’d not long moved to London and had been working with the Roux brothers) was taken on by Koffmann at Le Tante Claire. After about nine months, Marco moved on, and the pair haven’t worked a day together since. Until now, that is. News recently broke that Marco and Pierre – who have stayed in touch over the last 34 years – have gone into business together, creating a new restaurant in Bath.
Marco – who many see as the first chef to have reached ‘celebrity’ status, bringing an air of perceived glamour to the catering industry – is still a pretty solid household name. If you’ve not heard of his famous book White Heat, you’ve at least surely seen him brandishing a Knorr stock pot or two on telly.
In ’87 he opened his first joint, Harvey’s, and the Michelin stars and awards soon began rolling in. By 1994, Marco was 33 and the owner of three of those coveted stars: the youngest person with the accolade in Michelin history, and the only British chef at the time to have ever held the triple honor.
It’s quite probable that nothing there is news to you; White and his career have always been of interest to the British media, after all. Pierre’s story, on the other hand, might be a little more foggy – but no matter, let’s get up to speed. Originally from France (bear with us, we’ve got more), he arrived on these shores in the early ’70s at the age of 22. Starting out working at Albert and Michel Roux’s Le Gavrosh (just as Marco did a decade later), he went on to open his own soon-to-be three-Michelin-starred gaff. Since then, Pierre has taken on and trained countless novice chefs, many of whom have become well-known culinary success stories: think Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Wareing, Tom Kitchin and Jason Atherton. It’s no coincidence that you might not have been aware of any of that, though; this is a chef who always kept himself tucked away in the kitchen – purposefully.
“There are great chefs who have three Michelin stars and nobody knows them,” Pierre tells us. “Then you have others who also want to be famous. I might have had three Michelin stars, but I’m not a famous chef – nobody has ever stopped me in the street to get my autograph.
The more media-savvy Marco was the one who approached Pierre about this new project. He knows the owner of the Abbey Hotel, Anil Khanna, who asked him to do a restaurant there. Knowing that the lease for Pierre’s place, Koffmann’s at The Berkeley, had come to an end, Marco pitched him the idea of Koffman and Mr White’s.
The most remarkable thing about the new restaurant? Perhaps the fact that the two plan to be pretty hands on. Well, as hands-on as famous retired chefs tend to get with big-brand restaurants in cities that they don’t actually live in…
“When we’re open in October, I will be there five days a week,” says Pierre. “I will be in the kitchen all the time, more or less. I won’t move to Bath completely, but I’ll be there Tuesday to Sunday, or something like that.”
Having a former three-starred chef in the kitchen is a pretty exciting prospect, but that doesn’t mean we should expect a high-end, uber-snazzy restaurant that’s jumping up and down, waving its arms in the direction of the Michelin gang. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“It’s bistro-brasserie food,” explains Marco. “The whole point will be to make it affordable, because by doing that people come back to you. Yes, it will be aimed at Bath residents but also, of course, at guests of the hotel, who might just want one course and a glass of wine. I think it’s that simple; everyone has a different need. Sometimes at lunchtime, I just want a delicious shepherd’s pie with some buttered garden peas and away I’ll go.
“We’re working on the menu now, actually, and it’s coming quite easily. Pierre puts forward what he wants, I put forward what I want, and it just merges. I do the English, he does the French – the best of both worlds.”
These two retired chefs have no interest in breaking boundaries and reinventing the wheel; instead they want to serve classic, straight-up food that satisfies both palates and appetites. In short, the kind of food they like to eat themselves these days – as opposed to the style they were cooking 30 years ago.
“I was guilty as a young man of what most chefs are guilty of today – over-working food, over-trying, feeling that because you have this technical ability you need to use it,” says Marco. “But in time I simplified what I did, and you know what? I started to earn more stars from Michelin. When it was complicated I didn’t even have one star, but as it became less complicated I got more and more.
“If you look at great writers, they write so simply, don’t they? Look at Hemingway. Look at AA Gill. It’s very simple, but delivers a point. It moves you emotionally; makes you smile, makes you cry. And that’s what great food should do, too.”
That all makes you wonder what kind of restaurants these former three-Michelin-starred chefs head to for a good feed, right? Well, dear reader, wonder no more.
“My favourite restaurant in Wiltshire and Somerset is, without question, The Scallop Shell,” says Marco. “It serves just the finest food. Lots of people will disagree with me, but remember, I’m turning up just to eat – not for the fluff.
“It’s the best. Every Thursday I go there and have the langoustines, the razor clams, the scallops, the smoked herrings… I indulge. And for the main course, eight times out of ten, I’ll have the haddock from Peterhead. But then if they’ve got lobster, turbot or Dover sole I’ll have that.
“Richard Bertinet recommended it to me. I told him I take my daughter to Smashburger – Smashburger is fantastic, she’s a teenager and she loves it there – and he said, ‘Michael, have you tried The Scallop Shell yet?’ When he said it was the best he wasn’t lying; Gary [Rosser, chef and founder] and his wife Lisa have created something very, very special. I’ve taken Pierre there twice, three times now – he thinks it’s sensational. He was a bit shocked when I first told him I was taking him to a chippy for dinner, though!”
The way Marco’s taste in food and restaurants has changed is illustrative of the way the UK’s dining scene has developed as a whole: simple food and casual, relaxed attitudes have largely replaced the complex dishes and stuffy atmosphere that prevailed in 20th-century dining. And although he may not be at the business end of restaurant outfits day-to-day anymore, he still has some strong opinions about recipes for their success.
“The most important aspect of any restaurant is the environment you sit in,” says Marco. “The second is the service, and then, third, it needs to deliver food to a standard and at a price point that everyone can enjoy. But food is number three – that’s the same for both a three-star restaurant and a little café. If you don’t feel comfortable in a restaurant, what’s the point?
“How many times have you been to a Michelin-starred restaurant and not liked the environment? You might like the food on your plate, but you can’t be yourself, can you? Some of the country house ones can be like the chapel of rest. You want a waiter with a smile, a maître d’ who looks after you; you want it to be affordable enough that you can come regularly, so they get to know you and – bingo!”
Pierre agrees that for a restaurant to have staying power these days there needs to be some solid foundations in place – contemporary punters have a different attitude than the ones he started out cooking for, so businesses need to adapt if they plan on sticking around.
“Everything changes in life,” he says. “When I was young we went to a restaurant to get the best cassolet, the best dishes. But now young people go to a restaurant to try something new. They want to say that they’ve gone to this new place, and tried this famous dish, and they want to tell their friends about it. They want to say, ‘I went there before you’. But they don’t want to go again. So it’s a totally different attitude.
“Novelty alone is not a recipe for a successful restaurant, and neither is the publicity they get just because they have a particular dish, or a famous person went there. People will go once and won’t go again – they’ll move on to something new.”
These two culinary super stars will surely be hoping, then, that once the PR buzz of their collaboration subsides, what will remain is a casual, neighbourhood restaurant, knocking up consistently great food that keeps people coming back time and again. Let’s see what they come up with, hey.
North Parade, Bath, Somerset, BA1 1LF