The notoriously dedicated chef – a long-time proponent of foraging and ingredient experimentation – is celebrating 25 years at his two-star Cheltenham restaurant Le Champignon Sauvage, which he runs with wife Helen.
It’s true that I’ve never missed a service. If I am ill, I still work. I guess it’s a matter of pride, but it’s also the perhaps-archaic idea that the customer expects the chef whose restaurant it is to be cooking their food.
I used to go round to my aunt’s once a week when I was a kid – she was a great cook and used to go foraging on Wandsworth Common. From the age of seven, I knew I wanted to be a chef.
Chefs must never think they know everything. It’s the great thing about this trade: if your mind’s open, you can be on a fantastic learning curve your whole life.
The same day I had an interview at The Four Seasons, the forms came through to join the Army Catering Corps. Luckily I got an apprenticeship at the hotel’s Inn on the Park, working under Jean-Michel Bonnin, a very traditional – and tyrannical – French chef.
I’ve seen head chefs becoming younger and younger – often they just haven’t had the required training.
I went to do a stage at Pierre Koffman’s La Tante Claire, when it had three stars. That’s when I knew I wanted to move out of hotel food in order to do a pure restaurant.
Le Champignon Sauvage opened with Helen plus one out front, and me plus one in the kitchen. The first check on the opening night was for a pork dish. I went to the fridge and realised I’d forgotten to order the meat.
It’s been a long slow journey. As we’re in the country, it’s sometimes very hard to get people out here. There are many chefs around the UK doing blinding things, but the critics are still very London-centric.
Foraging helps keep our prices reasonable. This time of year we’re looking for mushrooms, crab apples and acorns.
Not long after we opened a major recession hit. We were a hair’s breadth from going under. It was only the fact that the bank manager insisted on bringing his boss to eat at the restaurant that saved us, along with a bit of money from Helen’s mother.
I’m very keen that when my chefs leave me, they will go on to achieve a lot. Samuel Miller became head chef at Noma, Lisa Allen went on to Northcote, another is sous chef at In De Wulf, another at Per Se.
The only other thing I might have been was a professional cricketer. I played for Wandsworth and Surrey Colts.
Our food is an amalgam of very different things. People labelled us as foragers, but it’s just one element in our whole style. We know just as much about spices, or about unique things in Chinese and Japanese cuisine.
Pomposity in restaurants is finally going out of the window. We’ve always been about getting away from snooty country house service. You can still get pompous wine waiters, of course – and there’s nothing worse.
For 18 years we worked from a very small kitchen. Seven years ago we took the plunge to buy next door, allowing us to create a brand new kitchen and a restaurant with 40 covers. There was the potential for more, but we believe diners shouldn’t be crammed in as they often are elsewhere.
Stay true to yourself, rather than chopping and changing too much. Customers want to have confidence in you, so you’ve got to have it in yourself.
Koffmann was a great influence on my style in terms of marrying ‘rich’ with ‘poor’ ingredients – the foie gras with the trotters, things like that. For me, he’s still the chef.
We don’t have a sommelier. Helen looks after the wine, though I do some of the reds as that’s my love – especially those from the Rhône. But you should never be pushed into someone else’s selection.
I’ve had brilliant meals recently at Murano and Tom Aikens, but we tend to eat a lot at The Square. I’d like to go to Fäviken [in Sweden] and Geranium in Copenhagen.
I just love what I do. I’ll be cooking here for the next 25 years, I hope.
David Everitt-Matthias’ new book, Beyond Essence, is published in November, £30
This interview first appeared in the October issue of Restaurant magazine. Subscribe here.