Journal

Behind the Scenes at Le Champignon Sauvage

17th October 2016

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

One of the most revered chefs in England, David Everitt-Matthias runs an extremely tight ship at his two-Michelin-star restaurant in Cheltenham – as we discover during an eye-opening visit to his kitchen

I: Don’t be late

My first impressions of David Everitt-Matthias hit me before I’ve even met him. We are slightly delayed getting to our workplace interview with the chef-owner of Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham, so I ring ahead and ask the man who answers to inform David that we’re running five or 10 minutes late. “You’re already 10 minutes late,” the man replies tersely. Taken aback, I mumble something about roadworks and Google Maps misdirections. Then I hang up, feeling like a schoolboy whose excuse about homework has just been blown out of the water.

When we arrive, slightly addled and more than a little apprehensive about the next few hours – we’ve arranged to spend the morning observing David and his team in the kitchen of his two-Michelin-star restaurant – the man himself welcomes us with a smile. He makes no reference to our phone conversation or the quarter of an hour we’ve bumped off his morning schedule. Instead, he offers to make us coffee and disappears into the kitchen, from which the song Fernando by Abba is emanating at high volume.

The reputation of Le Champignon Sauvage is so great – particularly among fellow chefs who seem to regard David Everitt-Matthias as a kind of culinary demi-god – that I’m surprised by how small the restaurant is. We are sitting in a reception area just big enough to fit a couple of sofas and two small circular tables. To our right is the dining room, where they seat between 15 and 25 people for lunch and up to 32 for dinner. Further back is a compact kitchen, where David works with four chefs and a pot washer on weekends.

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It used to be a lot more compact. Ten years ago they knocked through into the adjacent building and effectively doubled their space. Before that, David and one other chef were turning out two-Michelin-star food from a kitchen barely bigger than a broom cupboard. “I still get a buzz out of the bigger space,” David tells us. “It’s like, oh I can swing a cat in here now, not just a rat.”

After our shaky start, I’m warming quickly to David Everitt-Matthias. What I first experienced as brusqueness could instead be seen as a refreshingly straightforward, no-bullshit approach. Sitting down with our coffees, he starts telling us about the sourdough bread that he and his team (which doesn’t have a fixed pastry chef) have been developing over the past couple of weeks. This segues quickly into a description of his cooking style – something that, as an interviewer, you usually have to drag out of chefs by force.

“Our food is quite powerful, quite masculine,” he volunteers. “That’s one of the reasons we don’t employ a pastry chef, because pastry chefs tend to follow their own line, so the end of the meal is quite different from the starter and main. There’s no point having powerful food and finishing off with something that your palate isn’t going to pick up.”

“I still get a buzz out of the bigger space,” David tells us. “It’s like, oh I can swing a cat in here now, not just a rat.”

One reason David in held in such high regard by other chefs – his fans include Tom Kerridge and old boss Pierre Koffmann – is because he is so fiercely, unwaveringly committed to Le Champignon Sauvage. Whereas others might have capitalised on their success by opening bigger operations in bigger cities, or cultivating a media career, David has channelled all his energies into this one small restaurant on a pleasant terrace in a very middle-class town in the centre of England.

“I’m here from 8am Tuesday to Saturday,” says the fit-looking 55-year-old when asked about his routine, “and I haven’t missed a service for the 29 years.” (The restaurant will be celebrating its 30th anniversary next August.) He and his wife Helen, who runs front of house, do allow themselves a holiday every year, but they shut up shop rather than handing over the keys to the staff.1

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Why is that? Is it because he can’t imagine the restaurant functioning without him?

“Well, I’ve still got quite an archaic idea that a head chef, especially when you get into Michelin stars and people come to try your food – I don’t think it’s very fair if you’re not there, leaving it in the hands of…” He pauses. “I mean they’re all perfectly capable,” he says of his staff, adding: “We have a very relaxed atmosphere here, there’s no shouting or swearing, unlike a lot of kitchens, and they get artistic creativity by – I turn the du jour menu over to them, they can experiment on there. If they come up with something particularly nice, I’ll say: ‘Let’s work on this, see if you can make it better, lighter, a bit more intense.’”

This may not seem particularly radical to anyone who hasn’t worked in a kitchen before, but it’s actually very unusual – especially at this level – for head chefs to allow their subordinates room for creative expression. Later I chat to Nathan Cornwell and Yusuf Lovett, two young English chefs who have been working alongside David for the past couple of years, and they confirm this point. “I’m pretty sure we’re the only two-star where the staff are allowed to put on dishes,” says Yusuf, who has been developing a very delicious chocolate molé ice cream for the dessert menu. “That’s the most surprising thing about coming to work here.”

David’s nurturing approach has yielded impressive results. His alumni have gone on to high-up positions at places like Noma, Per Se and Senia in Hawaii and – closer to home – Northcote Manor and the Latymer. To those who have flown the nest, his attitude seems positively paternal. “They know they can just pick up the phone and talk to me any time,” he says. “They’ve spent a few years with me here so it’s my duty to look after them for as long as they need me.”

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Yusuf Lovett on baking duty

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Helen’s haul from her morning walk: green elderberries, redcurrants, cobnuts and horseradish leaves

II: Put your head down and work hard

The following conversation takes place in the reception of Le Champignon Sauvage, as the front of house staff arrive for work and suppliers wander in and out of the kitchen carrying intriguing boxes of produce. David’s wife Helen, who was out foraging early this morning – she returned with green elderberries, redcurrants, cobnuts and horseradish leaves – prepares the front of house for the day ahead.

How did you get into cooking?

David: It all started with my aunt Pat, who was a hedgerow cook. We used to go to Suffolk with her, walk along the country lanes and pick things like wild garlic or hawthorn. She’d make her own elderflower champagne. Cooking with her, from the age of seven or eight, was what really got me interested. She was the first person who got me to try wood pigeon and rabbit.

Where did you grow up?

David: Wandsworth in south London. Near the common, so there was a great expanse of green and a lot of wild stuff growing there.

So you were out picking by yourself from an early age?

David: Yeah. I’ve always been interested in trying anything that anyone shoves under my nose. I’m not shy to taste stuff. My aunt used to have Sri Lankan lodgers upstairs and we would go up occasionally and make curry with them. That awakened my interest in spices and was a big influence in making me have an open mind about food. I’m constantly trying different things.

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Did anyone in your family work in food?

David: No, my dad worked for a company that made parts of rockets and things like that. My mum was a housewife who could just about do Sunday roasts nicely.

Helen overhears this and laughs.

David: It’s true though isn’t it?
Helen: She was better than me.
David: No, when you try to do stuff it’s very good, there’s a difference. Anyway she quite liked getting a ready-made flan case, some tinned fruit and a packet of jelly, mixing it together, pouring it in, adding some squirty cream – that was her idea of a dessert. It was very sort of 60s or 70s – that’s what a lot of people were doing back then.

The whole concept of being able to turn something like a pig’s trotter into a gourmet dish: that changed the way I cooked. Koffmann showed me that it didn’t have to be expensive

Were you certain you wanted to be a chef?

David: When I got to about 16, my career choices were cricket, money-broking or cheffing, but I always wanted to be a chef so I stuck with it. I went for an interview at the Four Seasons. On the same day, I got my final papers for an army catering course I’d signed up for, so I had to choose. In those days the kitchens were very military-style; there were 90 chefs at the Four Seasons and it was quite rank-ish in its set-up. I remember coming in and hearing Jean Michel Bonin, the head chef, shouting at the sous chef that they didn’t need anybody else, and the sous was saying, “Well we’ve got two leaving”, and he said, “Okay well you take him then”. That is what spurred me on to taking that job: I want to prove you wrong, I’ll show you that it was the best decision that your sous ever made. I stayed there for five years. I rose quite quickly because I had my head down.

If you’d chosen the army instead, would it have suited you?

David: Yeah, I’m very focused. Anal in organisation as well, as you’ll see from the storeroom. So it would have been quite easy to rise. Anyway, I was at the Four Seasons for five years, then I got sent to La Tante Claire, Pierre Koffmann’s restaurant on Royal Hospital Road. That made me think: I’ve got to do restaurants, I don’t want to do hotels any more.

Why?

David: The whole concept of being able to turn something like a pig’s trotter into a gourmet dish: that changed the way I cooked. At the Four Seasons it was all expensive ingredients, caviar and truffles. Koffmann showed me that it didn’t have to be expensive, even though he did use expensive stuff.

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How long were you working in London?

David: We came here when I was 26 – that was 1986 – and I started when I was 18, so eight years in London. I met Helen at the Four Seasons, she was on reception. I did different things: a bistro operation for a year and a half, a fish restaurant for a year, and then fine dining, to see which direction I wanted to take – and it was fine dining that got me.

What was it about fine dining?

David: It was just the focus on good ingredients… Initially, when we decided to start our own place, the plan was to go to the seaside. I had a dog and I’d run down the beach in the afternoon in our break. But the more we looked into it, seaside French restaurants in those days were all prawn cocktails and blue-rinse brigade people who wouldn’t have supported us. Then this property turned up. It had been a restaurant called Le Ciboulette and it was all very French: yellow nicotine walls, dark brown ceiling, very gloomy, but we fell in love with Cheltenham. The plan was to come here for three or four years, make lots of money and move on to something bigger. But after about a year, recession hit.

The plan was to come here for three or four years, make lots of money and move on to something bigger. But after about a year, recession hit

Oh no.

David: It was the really bad recession where property interest rates were 14-16%. Shockingly bad. A lot of our business was dropping off or going bust. But that was the other crucial turning point for my cooking: instead of just using expensive ingredients, as we did when we first opened, it meant we really took on board the lesson from Koffmann. So I started using mackerel instead of sea bass, wood pigeon instead of pigeon de Bresse, I was using cheaper cuts of meat and getting more flavour out of them – and that is really what cemented my style. I initially started cooking for the guides, as any young person does (although they probably won’t admit it). In the end I was like, you know what, I’m going to do what I want to do, and if people like it, great, and if they don’t like it, there’s plenty of other restaurants to go to.

How long did it take for that lesson to click?

David: Probably about five years.

Was that a tough five years?

David: Yeah. But then we started to grow. We redecorated the restaurant, got the first Michelin star in 1996 and the second one in 2000. That initial period was hard, but since then we’ve never looked back.

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III: Create a system

I’m fascinated by the fact that David has been moving through the same tightly circumscribed space twice a day, five days a week for the past 29 years, so I ask him to take us around the 21×24-foot kitchen and show us how it works.

For the first 18 years, before they took over the property next door, the kitchen was about half the size it is now. David points out where the wall used to be and then directs our attention to the floor. “I got these black tiles put down to show where the stoves used to come out to,” he says. “So this was the amount of room we had.” It’s so ridiculously small, the old layout – I can imagine a takeaway making do with that kind of space, but not a highbrow operation like this.

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When I ask him to point out some of his favourite details about the kitchen, David gravitates towards the hi-tech equipment. Here’s what he chooses:

The Big Green Egg (medium size) »
“I’ve got a big one out in the garden, which I love, so I thought we’d get this smaller one, mainly because I want to do a grilled octopus dish with scallops.”

Molteni stove »
“This cost a lot of money, but it’s well worth it. We saved up and bought it, rather than borrowing money and then putting financial strain on ourselves.”

Unox ovens »
“We got these ultra-modern ovens recently and they’re changing the way we cook. They are wifi-connected so you can download programmes onto them, if you want to.”

Clifton water bath »
“I’ve been using this for 20-odd years.”

Carpigiani Labo 8/12E ice cream maker »
“This is for soft-serve ice cream. The Pacojet over there works in a different way. I used to have the old churner one. That’s up in the loft now just in case one of these breaks down. I tend to have backups of everything upstairs.”

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It’s really something to behold, the level of organisation in the Champignon Sauvage kitchen. The meticulousness is even more apparent in the storeroom behind the kitchen where David keeps his extensive collection of spices, acids, gums, nuts and other dried goods. Here, across three walls, are more than a hundred Tupperware containers of varying sizes, each one carefully labelled. Mixed in with more familiar items (turmeric, cinnamon, bay leaves) are marvellous-sounding things like wattleseeds, orrisroot and grains of paradise. One large tub containing a dark brown powder is simply labelled “blood”.2

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On the right, a door leads out into a small back yard where, on a tree-like structure, many white napkins are hanging out to dry. There are also some raised beds where David has been growing an assortment of herbs and edible flowers: meadowsweet, sage, lemon verbena, lovage. A muscular dog named Alba (“like the white truffles”) trots around with a regal air, opening doors with her paws and snuffling the soil. “I planted some geraniums the other day but she keeps eating them,” says David ruefully.

It turns out that Helen and David live in the apartment right above the restaurant. It’s been their home since they took over the restaurant in 1986. Doesn’t he mind living on top of their work?

“I hate living here but Helen likes it,” says David.

Isn’t he tempted to move away?

“Well it’s probably too late now. We’ve got another house that we bought for the staff so that they’ve got somewhere to live. It’s always good to have a nice house,” he adds. “It helps you keep them longer.”

 

IV: Get some rest

It’s 10.40am and the kitchen is humming with happy, focused activity. Bread rolls are baking, a chicken stock is simmering on the stove, aubergines and miso are being carefully layered for a duck dish, a salt-baked kohlrabi is being sliced so thinly that you can see your fingers through it. On the radio, a succession of upbeat tracks – Lost in Music, Street Life, Midnight Train to Georgia – keeps the mood lifted, propelling everyone through the first half of the day.

They’ve all been in since 8am. The first few hours are spent prepping. Then, at 12pm, they snap into lunch service, in anticipation of the first customers arriving at 12.30.

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Chef Nathan Cornwell at his station

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Dan Adkin takes a moment’s break

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Salt-baked kohlrabi

David has returned to his station at the pass and is working away with quiet concentration3. He’s given us permission to wander around freely, chat to the other chefs and ask as many questions as we like. There isn’t much room for extra bodies in the kitchen so we occasionally find ourselves backing into corners to allow people hurry past with hot trays and pots. But the chefs on duty – Nathan, Yusuf and another young guy from nearby Bisley called Dan Adkin4 – are happy to crack jokes, explain what they’re doing and talk about their experience at Le Champignon.

“Yeah it’s brilliant,” says Nathan.

Although his boss is standing just a few metres away, aware of everything that’s going on in the kitchen, Nathan’s enthusiasm for the job seems entirely genuine.

“We never stop learning,” says Yusuf. “There’s always something new happening. And he” – gesturing over his shoulder at the boss – “has never-ending chef’s knowledge we can tap into.”

Loitering around this part of the kitchen is a good idea because Nathan and Yusuf are eager for me to try some of the things they’ve been working on. First I sample a Thai sweetcorn velouté that’s been made with lemongrass, lime leaves, ginger, chilli, coriander, basil and salt. Then Yusuf takes a cylinder of sorbet out of the freezer, gives it a spin in the Pacojet and hands me a spoon. The flavours are similar to the velouté, with lemongrass and chilli to the fore, but it’s sweet – and mind-blowingly delicious.

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That’s one of David’s projects. Next, Yusuf gets me to try one of his own: the Mexican molé ice cream which is on the menu with salted caramel mousse.

“This is a perfect example of the kind of support we have here,” he says. “This is something I wanted to do. Chef said ‘Yeah okay, try it’, and explained to me his working process with the Thai sorbet. He gave me the basis, how to get to where we wanted to be, rather than the result.”

Wow, I say, handing back the spoon. That’s really good.

“Yeah, I’m very pleased with it. It’s just that process of being taught…” He trails off but I get his point. They go on to tell me about former colleague who, after leaving Le Champignon, did a stage at a well-regarded London restaurant. When he asked the chefs there why they were doing something, he was taken aback by the fact that they didn’t appear to know why and didn’t think to ask.

If you work hard and show a willingness to learn, there are probably few better restaurants in the country for a young, ambitious chef to end up

If questioning and understanding is an important part of working at Le Champignon, knowing when to stop working is no less important. Between 2.30 and 3.15pm, the chefs will clear up after lunch service and exit the kitchen. “There’s no working through the afternoon, I won’t allow that,” David tells me. “People who work through the afternoon, they don’t have a good life, and there’s a sort of zombieness that sets in, because they’re not getting enough rest or fresh air. So yeah they’ll all get about three hours in the afternoon.”

What do the chefs get up to in their break?

“We’ll go for a coffee,” says Nathan, “or go home, chill out, read or whatever, listen to music. It’s a time to relax.”

“Or we’ll get some housework done,” says Yusuf. “When you work other chef jobs, keeping your house tidy, doing the washing and stuff, is a nightmare.

“That’s a real good thing actually,” says Nathan. “Having time to take your bins out. Catching up.”

Dinner service is similarly regulated. “We’ll finish quite early for most kitchens,” says David. “By 11pm everything will be cleared down, tidied, ready to go, whereas other kitchens are still going at 1 or 1.15am. So it’s all about lifestyle as well as serious cooking.”

The chefs clearly appreciate this and have great respect for their head chef. Still, I’d say that for every dedicated, hard-working chef who gets treated well at Le Champignon Sauvage, there’s a lackadaisical stagiaire who gets on David’s wrong side – by shirking responsibilities, by failing to learn from their mistakes, by (ahem) not turning up to work on time – and feels the burn.

But if you work hard and show a willingness to learn, there are probably few better restaurants in the country for a young, ambitious chef to end up.

“I don’t know where I’m going to go next,” says Nathan after they’ve told the story of their colleague’s disheartening experience at the highly-regarded London restaurant.

“There’s nowhere to go next,” says Yusuf. “Nowhere you’d have a life anyway.”

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V. Eat well

It’s 11.20am. Lunch service will be kicking in soon, so we decide to make ourselves scarce. Before we leave, however, David asks if we want to try a selection of dishes from the menu. Trying not to look too greedily eager, we accept. He turns to his chefs. “Yusuf, could you do the chocolate delice and the bergamot? And Nathan could you do a scallop and a ray? That’d be nice. And Dan and I will do wood pigeon and lamb.”

We return to the sofas in the reception area. Within five minutes, a series of extraordinary dishes begin to land on our table in no particular order – a dessert followed by a starter followed by a main course followed by another dessert. It’s like a remix of a two-Michelin-star meal played at double speed. We wolf down all six dishes in 45 minutes and are saying our goodbyes just moments before the first lunch guests are due to arrive.

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On The Menu
To eat:

Dived scallops, roasted lemon emulsion, burnt Jerusalem artichoke and liquorice puree, globe artichoke
Pressed terrine of Cornish ray, leek and potato, avocado and lemongrass puree, pickled cucumber
Saddle of Cinderford lamb, sweetbreads, clams, samphire
Roasted wood pigeon, celeriac and lovage puree, celeriac remoulade, walnut cream
Chocolate delice, milk ice cream, beurre noisette and butterscotch
Frozen bergamot parfait, orange jelly, liquorice cream »

So it’s not possible to say we’ve had the proper Champignon Sauvage dining experience. But everything we tried was extraordinarily good. The complexity of the dishes, the presence of many different ingredients on the plate, the multiple ways of presenting a single ingredient (roasted, puréed, burnt) – none of this is particularly fashionable at the moment. The current trends favour simplicity, restraint, no more than three or four elements in a dish. But when the cooking is this accomplished and inspired, who cares?

Trends come and go. Le Champignon Sauvage will turn 30 next year. Expect many more anniversaries to follow.

Le Champignon Sauvage is at 24-28 Suffolk Rd, Cheltenham GL50 2AQ; www.lechampignonsauvage.co.uk

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  1. There was also the time he had a knee operation and took the night off, but they closed the restaurant and David was back in the kitchen the following day.
  2. “We use fresh blood when we can get it,” says David, “but we also dry our own. It’s a mixture of French and English styles. Instead of back fat, we put pig’s head in there, sweetbreads, a few raisins, so you’re getting some nice big pieces mixed in. We sometimes use it to make a blood and chocolate ganache, which is really good with pigeon and partridge and venison.”
  3. While he’s chopping away, David tells me that he exercises six times a week. His regime includes two sessions of krav maga, a self-defence system developed for the Israeli Defence Forces, which he undertakes with a Polish teacher called Anna. “You’ve got to keep fit,” he says. “Especially now. You see lots of old chefs in very bad condition…”
  4. All the chefs currently working at Le Champignon Sauvage are male; all the front of house staff on the day of our visit were women

Posted 17th October 2016

In Journal

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

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