David Everitt-Matthias, kitchen maestro at Le Champignon Sauvage, cooks stunning food but has no time for anaemic desserts, snooty sommeliers or the cult of cheffiness, writes Food Critic Richard McComb.
What with the awards, the critical acclaim and a reputation for unflinchingly good food, it is hard to think David Everitt-Matthias’s future once hinged on a single lunch service.
It was the early 90s and the celebrated chef and his wife Helen were finding their feet at Le Champignon Sauvage when the economy did a fiscal version of a botched soufflé.
David recalls: “The big recession hit and a lot of our customers were going bust, a lot of the builders. It affected our trade really badly. We were a hair’s breadth of going under. We were ready to give the keys back.”
The couple’s bank manager made a final appointment to visit the restaurant, accompanied by a senior executive who wanted to pull the plug. David invited the bankers for lunch, cooked for them and won over the axeman, who ordered a stay of execution. Talk about cooking for your life.
Three years later, Le Champignon Sauvage was awarded its first Michelin star in 1995, followed by a second in 2000, which has been retained ever since. This small restaurant, just 40 covers, on Suffolk Road, Cheltenham, is now rightly hailed as one of the finest in Britain and its influence, in a sense, is global.
The sweet shoots and bitter leaves of wayside foraging are de rigueur on posh du jour menus today, but David Everitt-Matthias was doing it decades ago, rummaging on Wandsworth Common and in the countryside near an aunt’s home in Suffolk. Foraging may have been invented by cavemen but this is the chef who raised it to the level of haute cuisine and did it gimmick-free.
Alumni from David’s (very) small kitchen have gone on to work at Noma in Copenhagen, The French Laundry in California and Per Se in New York. The easiest thing would be to keep the staff he has trained, but he pushes them on to other creative pastures, for their sakes.
When he held a private lunch to celebrate Le Champignon Sauvage’s 25th anniversary, the guest list read like a Who’s Who of modern British gastronomy – Tom Kerridge from The Hand & Flowers, Philip Howard from The Square, Brett Graham from The Ledbury and the man who fired the young chef’s imagination, Pierre Koffmann.
As well as being superlative professionals, the invitees share a personality trait much admired by David.
“They aren’t bulls••••••,” he confides. “The industry is full of people that blow smoke up your arse. All of the people that came to the lunch cook honest food. There is no bulls••• to them. If you ask them a straight question, you’ll get a straight answer. They’re the people I like.
“There’s too much of this arrogance and bulls••• in the industry. That’s why I shy away from a lot of the mixing. It’s become more like that since television has evolved. That’s the bad side, the media side. The good side is that it has opened up kitchens and chefs have become more willing to share ideas.”
With his knowledge, talent and mentoring skills, there is no doubt David could have made a name for himself on TV, but he prefers to see his name above the kitchen door.
If he’s not in, the place doesn’t open. Not that that situation has ever arisen. Astonishingly, he and Helen have never missed a service in two-and-a-half decades.
Guests at the chefs’ lunch are treated to dishes that could only have come from David’s imagination, including a starter of Dexter beef tartare and corned beef with wasabi cream and a fish course of wild sea bass with mushroom tea and a bay boletus blancmange.
David, 52, who is from Wandsworth, London, knew he wanted to be a chef since he was child. He cut his teeth at the Inn on the Park (now the Four Seasons) on Park Lane, Mayfair. It was here that he met Helen, who was a waitress. The food, and hence the training, was heavily French influenced but it was a stage at Koffmann’s celebrated La Tante Clare that proved to be pivotal for David. He fell in love with Koffmann’s refined take on hearty food and realised it was in a restaurant, not a more rigid hotel, where he wanted to pursue his dreams.
“It is pure cooking,” he says.
It may be an understatement to say David does not lack confidence, but it is a confidence borne of experience and humility. He candidly admits that for the first four or five years at Le Champignon, it was for the food critics and inspectors, rather than the customers and himself, that he cooked. If there is one lesson he could impart to young chefs I suspect it might be this: be true to yourself.
David recalls: “In those days, I was cooking to please the guides. I was young and quite naive. I saw Raymond Blanc and some of the other boys doing things and getting high marks for them. I’d try and follow suit. Because I wasn’t a name, if I tried it I got criticised for it.”
Blanc and Marco Pierre White were the big names in British cooking.
“I remember Raymond Blanc put tomatoes diced through a sauce to add a little bit of acidity to it. I did it. Raymond Blanc was a sheer genius and for me it was ‘unnecessary.’
‘‘It was then I thought, ‘This is a bit wrong.’”
David realised he was deeply unhappy, shackled by food fashions and popular concepts of fine dining. Something had to give and he decided to cook what he wanted to cook.
“Because I liked cooking my food, I had more confidence in what I was doing and that’s when the praise started coming. I think it is something every young chef goes through. Some of them grow out of it, like I did, and some just carry on trying to cook for guides and never really get anywhere by doing it. I was following the food fashions of the time.
“I decided to be my own man and my style developed. Because of the recession, we couldn’t really have sea bass and turbot, so I was using mackerel and pollock. The recession kind of defined my style.
‘‘It’s with me today. We can use expensive ingredients, but I tend to match expensive and inexpensive ingredients together, and sometimes ‘free,’ with some of the foraging stuff.”
David’s influential first cookery book Essence, published in 2006, was heavily influenced by his interest in wild and foraged foods.
“We had been doing it at the restaurant for five or six years before that. Of course, now it is the mainstream. Most top kitchens have foraged stuff on their menus.
“It does make me laugh a little bit that London boys have got it on the menu. I’m sure most of them if you picked them up and dropped them in the wild and said ‘Pick me what you’ve got on your menu’ they wouldn’t know the first place to start. They get it in through foragers.
‘‘We get the coastal stuff in because we can’t go there every week, but a lot of the other stuff comes from the boys in the kitchen who go out at the weekend. Helen will pick some when she’s walking the dogs. The waitresses will pick. They all have a knowledge of the food and that’s what defines us as a kitchen. We are all involved in it.”
A second book, Dessert, was published in 2009, leading to a spate of copycat vegetable desserts. A third book, Beyond Essence, is published next month. David will no doubt be prepared for a fresh round of plundering but he is used to seeing produce go in and out of fashion. It isn’t something that bothers him.
“We put our heads down and carry on doing what we’re doing. It’s like black pudding. We make our own black pudding. I’ve seen that be in fashion, out of fashion, in fashion, out of fashion so many times. But there’s nothing nicer than fresh black pudding. In ours, we put sweetbreads and pigs head rather than the back fat so it’s a more meaty affair. It has that balance between the wet, crumbly French stuff and the hard, stodgy British stuff. Ours is a pleasant texture to eat.”
Chefs always talk about the need for food to burst with flavour, but good intentions are often sidelined in the pursuit of fad techniques and presentation. That does not happen when David is in the kitchen. Even if the constituent parts and the finished dish hints at delicacy, the style is unmistakably ballsy.
Asked to sum up his cooking, the chef says: “It is masculine food and true – true to its flavours. I might muck around with textures a little bit, but the flavours I want to be very, very true and quite condensed. If I am doing a lemon parfait, I want it to taste that a box of lemons has gone into it.”
He underlined the point at the anniversary lunch with a dish of pineapple poached in caramel with coconut gel and a pineapple and verbena sorbet. Rarely have pineapples tasted so pineappley.
“Masculine is bold, hearty flavours rather than light, wishy-washy flavours. It comes from what I like to eat myself,” says David. “What gets up my nose is dessert. When you go through and have dessert at the end of a meal, you might have had some wonderful bold flavours as a starter and a main.
‘‘And then because a lot of the times the pastry chefs have been left to do their own thing, it’s never in the same style as the head chef.
‘‘That really annoys me. When your palate needs something that is as punchy as the rest of the meal when you’ve had two, three, five, six or seven courses and your palate is beginning to tire, you need something that is either very sharp and cleansing or something as powerful as the rest of the meal.
“If you have something that is as light as a feather and tastes of nothing then it defeats the object of the dessert. It can be as light as a feather as long as it’s got concentrated flavour. That’s the area that p****s me off. And bulls***.”
Define “bulls***,” I says: “Too much faff, too much arrogance. Sommeliers can be overbearingly arrogant. Even if you know about wine, you can be made to feel inferior and that’s a big bugbear. [As is the practice of turning tables.] People need to feel relaxed, they don’t want to be looked down the nose at.”
David is concerned about the way the industry is going, with businesses too eager to spot the next bright thing and promote chefs above their capabilities. It is a criticism shared by many top professionals, including Marcus Wareing, who told the Birmingham Post last year about his anger with the sense of entitlement among some new chefs.
David says: “There are lots of people who think they are entitled to be head chefs at a younger age with much less knowledge than they should have. They are great for six months until they have used up all their ideas and then they have got nothing solid to fall back on. The core knowledge isn’t there. There’s a law of diminishing knowledge.”
David invites me to have a look in the kitchen where the brigade of four, including sous chef Matthew Worswick, is preparing for lunch service. Stock pots are bubbling and canapes and breads are being prepared. Sue Ellis, formerly of Belle House, Pershore, a competitor on BBC’s Great British Menu, is working on pastry.
I take a look in the store cupboard, which is laid out with military precision. There are containers of edible clay, nasturtium millet, woodrufff. They are some of the little things that help to make a big difference in David’s hands.
So where does he get his ideas from?
“I can match flavours in my head,” he says.
“That must be very tricky,” I say.
“I’m just lucky,” he replies.
* Beyond Essence by David Everitt-Matthias is published on February 28 by Absolute Press, priced £30.