Earlier this week, chef Pierre Koffmann visited Westminster Kingsway College with his protégé and college graduate Ben Murphy to spend time with students and staff as part of celebrations of 50 years as a chef.
Koffmann and Murphy also took part in a Q and A with the students. Questions by Jose Souto.
What do you look for in a chef?
PK: Someone that is hard working with a good character and someone with passion – passion is the most important. They have to work hard and it’s not easy if you want to be a good chef. I have got easier to work for though!
Who did you look up to when you were a young chef?
PK: I never really went to restaurants as a young chef, and mostly learnt from reading recipe books. But it is important to get out to restaurants and taste – but if you can’t afford to do that, buy books and practice.
Ben what inspired you about being at Koffmann’s when you first went there from Westminster Kingsway?
BM: College taught me the basics and with Chef Koffmann I was able to develop the basic recipes I’d learnt. I was able to add a little bit more sauce or a slightly different garnish, it was a bit more advanced but not too complex at first.
What do you think about Fusion cooking?
PK: It’s great, of course, but you should always learn classic French to start. Learn the technique and then start to adapt.
BM: Yes, learn the basic French techniques and then develop them into your own style. I tweak them to my own recipe.
Would you advise young chefs to go into a restaurant like Koffman’s after leaving college, was it good to go in at the deep end?
BM: Yes, absolutely. I don’t think I could have gone in any deeper! Getting sent to France as well when I didn’t speak a word of French, it was such a good way to learn the language. Working in France meant I was completely out of my comfort zone.
PK: It can be difficult if you go into a kitchen without knowing the local language, and You might have a shitty time for the first three months. But as a young chef you can move a lot, work in different countries but working as a chef means you can go anywhere in the world.
Travel a lot when you are young, before you fall in love and meet your wife or husband and have kids, because it can get boring as you have to stay in one place!
Are the foundations we are teaching chefs here [at WKC] the right ones to move on into the professional kitchen?
PK: Yes, I think so. The facilities here are very impressive and the students look engaged and well prepared. You cannot learn everything at college but then you cannot learn everything in a restaurant. Move around and learn as much as you can.
Ben, what difference did it make having a Westminter team with you at The Woodford?
BM: It was great to have people with me who I’d worked with at college, it gave me extra confidence knowing that we had all been trained in the same way. We were a young team too so we understood each other.
I’ve enjoyed everywhere I’ve worked. The South of France was difficult as I was so young, but I knew that once I’d done that I could do anything.
Ben, how did you find the transition from college to industry?
BM: I’d done quite a lot of work experience while still at college, but you have to have a completely different mind-set. It’s full-time, and you can’t watch the clock. It’s not healthy.
Are you happiest when you’re at work?
BM: Yes, definitely. I like when we start the service, but then there’s nothing better than finishing a service.
PK: Yes of course, that’s why I’m still doing it at my age! It’s very exciting, you’ve got to be passionate about it and it’s a fantastic job and every day you can do something different.
Is catering still perceived as a career not to get into?
PK: It used to be difficult to find an English person as a chef or a waiter, but there are so many successful chefs from the UK now, and they have been inspired by the chefs on the TV, which I still find a bit strange as you cannot taste this food. But it has changed a lot here. Most of the best chefs are from the UK now.
What’s the main characteristic you need to be a chef or front of house in this industry?
BM: Be passionate, don’t look at the clock and enjoy it!
How old were you when you started in the industry
PK: I was 14, back then we finished school at that age. I was always told ‘you could do better, you could do better, and then one day I was told ‘you could do better somewhere else….’ I came from a small town and 14 was too young to find a job so cookery school was a good option for me. I studied until 17, I first worked in Strasbourg.
I first came to the UK in 1970 and the food was terrible, and 46 years later I’m still here. When I was 17, it was prawn cocktails and avocado and all those things, nothing very interesting.
And Pigs Trotters…
PK: When I opened my first restaurant in 1977 I wanted to do something different. There was no point doing steak, everyone was doing steak.
When I started to cook the pig’s trotter, it became one of the best 10 dishes in the world. Six years ago I did them as part of a pop-up on top of Selfridges and it was supposed to be for one week and it last two months. We cooked 3,200 pig’s trotters.
How has the changing equipment in a kitchen help a chef, is it a good thing?
PK: I think a lot of them are essential, we could not do the same process a blender does for example. But as for the bags [sous vide] I’m not for it, and Ben knows that.Young chefs should be banned from using this until they have learnt the basics.
They should learn how to cook a piece of meat the traditional way without these bags! Any donkey can do that. When you have more experience you can experiment.
It’s like chefs who use timers, don’t do that, touch it with your finger, learn how the texture changes.
Some equipment can de-skill chefs if they are used too much.
In France they use them a lot. Especially in the smaller more remote restaurants, even they vegetables are put in sous vide.
What were the challenges of opening your first restaurant and do you have any tips?
PK: I never had any problems, because when you are young you are slightly stupid! A little crazy, and you don’t think about problems. It was successful – I had customers and some money. You’ve got to be adventurous and take chances, buy a small place, don’t pay too much rent, avoid places like Mayfair or Chelsea.
What makes your food different?
PK: Nothing. Just cook the food you like to eat.
What are you views on failure?
PK: Sometimes it can be a positive, you need to analyse it and try not to do it again. What you need for a successful restaurant are three things and you need all three: good food, good service and a good ambience. And again cook the food you like to eat and do not copy other people.
Is it OK to take part in competitions as a young chef as part of a brigade
PK: Yes, it’s OK to do this. It has to be their own work with just input from the head chef. It doesn’t affect the team if you have the support of your chef.
BM: Competitions helped me because it benchmarked me against industry chefs as well as being able to benchmark myself against chefs at Koffmann’s.
What is one of your most memorable dining experiences?
PK: If I was to die tomorrow I would want my last meal to be Bouillabaisse, with the fresh ingredients, that’s my favourite dish, but it depends on the occasion.
BM: It’s about comfort food, good food done properly.
Do chefs stop taking risks when they achieve a Michelin star?
PK: I guess it depends on the capacity of cooking, if you have time you can practice something new every day – it’s nothing to do with stars. You need to try and keep life interesting if you can, to keep enjoying it.
What was it like earning your first Michelin star?
PK: It was nice, I didn’t work for it – it just happened. The next year I got a second star and I joked and said: “next year I will get my third” – it took me five more years to get my third star. I remember the person from Michelin telling me that I’d won my third star and my reaction was”‘thank you”. I should have had a glass of champagne or something! But, it’s better to have a full restaurant than to have a Michelin star and be empty.
Are chefs becoming head chefs too quickly?
PK: Yes, of course. They come to us as commis and six months later they want to be a chef de partie and then in two years a head chef. It doesn’t always work this way. I remember asking someone who wanted to be a sous chef: “OK, can you make a béarnaise?” and he said, “What’s a béarnaise?”
Chefs are progressing more quickly in restaurants – you can if you keep your eyes open, look left and right in the kitchen, learn from your colleagues and travel a lot, keep awake.
Do we put too much emphasis on Michelin stars?
PK: I think it’s very nice for young chefs to win Michelin stars but it’s not always a route to success. It’s nothing more than a piece of paper and sometimes these restaurants can fail. But for young chefs to be part of that red book is a dream.