Simon Hopkinson and Matthew Harris interview

There are few finer restaurant buildings in London than the one that the iconic Bibendum is housed in, namely the 1909 Art Nouveau Michelin building that sits snugly on the corner of Sloane Avenue and the Fulham Road. Even a casual visitor can’t help but be impressed by the elegant contours and calm air of comfort that the place exudes. Just as well, then, that the restaurant has continued to go from strength to strength since it first opened in 1987, the brainchild of Terence Conran, publisher Michael Hamlyn and chef Simon Hopkinson. Offering classic Anglo-French (or, as Hopkinson quibbles during our chat, ‘French-Anglo’) cuisine, it refuses to rest on its laurels, opening a new and very chic oyster bar downstairs that’s designed to be a more affordable and casual style of dining.

When I head over to Bibendum for a chat with Hopkinson and Bibendum’s long-standing head chef Matthew Harris (whose brother, Henry, is chef-patron at the wonderful Racine up the road in Knightsbridge), the first thing I see is the oyster bar, which has been made…magnificent’s the only word that comes to mind, really. The lovingly decorated interior, complete with stained glass and vintage tiling, looks like a fantastical recreation of what a turn-of-the-century establishment should look like, and yet the menu’s stuffed full of contemporary dishes and the very best seafood, all at prices that are remarkably kind, for the area.

Chatting to Hopkinson and Harris, it’s clear that their long-standing friendship (Harris was on board at Bibendum from the outset, and became head chef when Hopkinson stopped working there full-time in 1995) and partnership has been a fruit(de mer?)ful one, encompassing tradition and innovation alike. The creation of the oyster bar is typical of this. As Harris says, ‘We’ve always sold oysters out the front, and people liked to have a glass of champagne with it, and so it’s become something more elaborate – we’ve actually got more seats downstairs than up now!’ Not bad for an establishment that sits a fairly substantial 170 covers in total, and can fill them without much difficulty. ‘Good Saturday, I heard’, Hopkinson says solemnly.

Even a place as well-known as Bibendum has to deal with the various tribulations of the restaurant trade. Harris thinks about the major problems they’ve faced, and cites two in particular. ‘Staff’s a big one – it’s hard to find people with the right skill, and then keeping them on, although there are a handful here who have been here over 20 years, which is very gratifying. And the other problem we have – although it’s a very nice problem to have, in a sense – is that we’re a Grade 2 listed building, which means that we have to be very careful about all the changes and improvements we want to put in.’ He glances around at the sumptuous room, briefly interrupted by a conga line of tourists filing glossily into the Conran shop beyond. ‘I think we got there this time!’

When Bibendum opened in 1987, it was something of a revelation, offering a combination of excellent food, a stunning setting and something less quantifiable – the alchemy of some brilliant people coming together to create something great. Hopkinson claims that its continuing success comes down to something relatively straightforward. ‘We have a beautiful dining room, and it’s always been an extraordinary place to sit and watch time go by. Lots of new restaurants open, and a lot of people are obsessed by going to the new hip thing, but I, and I think a lot of others, would prefer to go back to somewhere that they know, where they’re known in turn and looked after, and there’s that continuity.’ A relationship, if you will, rather than a series of one-night stands. Although there’s something chic and exotic about Bibendum that makes it feel more like a very classy mistress than a dependable wife.

The basics remain the same – there are dishes on the menu, such as escargots and fillet steak au poivre, that have never changed since the restaurant’s opening – and many of the regular customers would be up in arms if their favourite dish ever disappeared from the repertoire. Nonetheless, Harris and Hopkinson are well aware that resting on their restaurant’s reputation isn’t an option in a city where dozens of new establishments open every month. As Hopkinson says, ‘Opening the oyster bar is the biggest thing we’ve done in years, and it’s a big step away from what we used to do downstairs, where the only hot food we did was soup.’ Harris chimes in – ‘What’s nice is that you can stand on the other side of the street now and clearly see that we’re a bustling restaurant upstairs and downstairs, whereas previously perhaps we had a few too many flowers, and it was harder to see what we were doing.’ Hopkinson chortles merrily. ‘We looked like a florist! It’s the only negative comment Terence has made about the revamp – he wishes that the flowers were back!’

Harris and Hopkinson prove a most entertaining double act; Hopkinson’s the more mischievous of the two, ever ready with a dry one-liner or witty retort, whereas Harris is the straight man, albeit with a twinkle in his eye at all times. It’s easy to forget that between them, they’ve created one of the country’s best-loved restaurants – until, that is, you get them back onto food, and then their passion really shines through. When asked about what their desert island meals would be, Hopkinson, perhaps unsurprisingly, plumps for roast chicken (arguably his best-known book, Roast Chicken And Other Stories, was once voted the most useful cookbook of all time) followed by chocolate pithivier, while Harris chooses the oysters Rockefeller, which we’d been discussing with great enthusiasm a moment before. As he says it, his eyes mist over slightly. ‘I could do with those right now, actually…’

We also had a chance to hear from the great Sir Terence himself, whose comments on the refurbishment are ‘I love the new space which has really opened up the downstairs area while retaining the beautiful, industrial feel of the original Bibendum garage. The redesign has also allowed us to introduce hot, brasserie style food influenced by Simon Hopkinson so people can enjoy a more substantial meal in the surroundings of one of my favourite buildings in the world.’ And you can’t say fairer than that.

Heston Blumenthal

The Resident interview

‘Sometimes, I have to remember I’m a chef amongst everything else.’

It’s a daunting thing to be Britain’s most famous and respected chef, but the charming and frighteningly talented Heston Blumenthal has managed to take it in his stride. Not only does he run The Fat Duck, the legendary Bray restaurant which is regularly voted best in not just England but in the world, but he has taken his Knightsbridge outpost, Dinner, to great heights since it opened in 2011 with his head chef Ashleigh Palmer-Watts, winning a second Michelin star this year. And, along with his restaurants (and pub, The Hinds Head), he has somehow found time to write a magnificent new book, Historic Heston, which offers a lavishly illustrated and beautifully presented account of many of the historic recipes that he has been including on the menus of his various establishments for several years.

When we speak, Blumenthal is a combination of the humble and the pragmatic. Discussing his highlights of a tremendous 2013, he singles out Dinner getting a second star as ‘a fantastic moment’, but also claims that being called ‘chef of the decade’ at this year’s Observer Food Monthly awards ‘was a real wake up and smell the roses moment’. He’s entirely sanguine about a career that might have given others an ego the size of Claridge’s – naming no names – saying ‘I was never driven by money. My real ambition was wanting to cook – and now we have around 200 staff on our books, and so it’s all about having a fantastic team who have worked their socks off! As a boss, you have responsibility to those people, as well as expanding your business. Dealing with everything from the Fat Duck to Waitrose can be quite overwhelming sometimes, but I manage.’

One thing that he’s rightly proud of is his new book, a truly sumptuous object that any budding chef or food lover would be delighted to find underneath their Christmas tree. It’s attracted rave reviews and much acclaim for its fresh and unusual attitude towards age-old recipes, and, as Heston says, it’s been a real labour of love. ‘I wanted to make sure that I was involved all the way. I had a great team and we finished this book on time – the first time I’ve managed to do so! I wanted it to look as if it had oil paintings, with a Caravaggio-esque feel to it, and so getting the right photographer (Romas Foord, with art by Dave McKean) was essential. We wanted each chapter to consist a dish, and to feature recipes throughout. I sketched out how I saw it all looking visually, and I knew how it was going to be  – for instance, I wanted the hash of snails dish to look as if it was a forest. And also keeping period detail was right – we couldn’t have Victorian tiles in a set if the dish was pre-Victorian. It was overwhelming, but I think it worked out well….’

Heston’s interest in historic food was sparked at the turn of the millennium by an unexpected discovery. ‘I was browsing in Notting Hill’s Books for Cooks and found an interesting book, Le Viandier de Taillevent, and it had all these mad recipes of how to pluck a chicken and then bring a chicken back to life and things like that.’ He pauses, and laughs, semi-incredulously. ‘We’re trying to do those in the new TV series, actually!’ His interest piqued, he met the historians who run the kitchens at Hampton Court, and they developed a dish called Quaking Pudding, which is now served at the Hind’s Head. As he says, ‘I wondered if it was possible to make modern versions of the historical dishes, which nobody had done before – and the TV show (2009’s Heston’s Feasts) stemmed from that. The idea was a cooking show where you weren’t supposed to try do it at home, based on historical recipes. And that’s come to permeate Dinner and the Fat Duck. This is an ongoing thing, and is a real influence in my cooking. It’s amazing to think we have this amazing gastronomic heritage, which we nearly threw away entirely. But food, and people’s attitudes to food, has changed completely.’

As Blumenthal reflects, he grew up in a country that seemed to have turned its back on good food. ‘People weren’t aware of it! The only people who knew about our amazing history of food were academics. Food in the 70s was left behind as we were embracing technology and modernity – it was as if we were ashamed of eating, which was deeply depressing.’ However, thanks in no small part to his trailblazing, matters have been ameliorated, with London regularly voted the world’s best (or second best – New York is an implacable rival) city for dining in.

It hasn’t always been plain sailing. As Blumenthal’s revealed in the past, it was only The Fat Duck winning its third Michelin star that saved him from bankruptcy, and he’s had his own kitchen-related disasters too. (‘One time, at the Duck, the oven blew up and burnt my scalp quite badly!’) However, his life now is an enviable one, albeit busy. When he’s not dividing his time between London and Bray, he’s a big fan of some of the other restaurants round Knightsbridge, an area he adores (‘you really can’t go wrong with Zuma’) and he’s planning an expansion of Dinner into other countries over the next few years. ‘We always planned to do more internationally – the concept was that we could take it overseas, because Britain has been a big international presence, and we wanted to respect that.’ It’s little surprise that all he wants to do at Christmas is to relax at home – ‘it’ll be a low key event, and I’m going to cook a traditional roast, which is how I always like to celebrate’ – before he begins another year full of innovation, delectable food and fun.

Before we finish, I ask Blumenthal who his historical idol is, half-expecting some incredibly impressive and obscure chef I’ve never heard of. Instead, this modern Renaissance man chooses another, Leonardo Da Vinci, and sounds genuinely awestruck when he talks about him. ‘He was the most stunningly talented man! He was an artist, actor, musician and inventor – he had the ability to do so many different things.’ Give it a few years, Heston, and the rest will fall into place.