An exclusive way to sample the simplest, best Gallic food

 
Timothy Barber
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AS dinner parties go, this one’s a bit different. Over to my left sits double Michelin-starred chef Claude Bosi of Hibiscus, on the right is Joel Antunes of South Bank’s acclaimed Brasserie Joel and opposite him is Russell Norman, the rising star of London’s restaurant scene with his hugely popular “Venetian tapas” joints Polpo, Spuntino and Polpetto. Making up the table of 14 are other gourmands and foodie pros, and each of them, to a person, is looking down quizzically at a dish that’s likely never been served in a London restaurant before. Demoiselle de canard – an elegant name for what is, simply, duck carcass.

On each plate sits an ovoid cage of oily bones: a roasted carrion shell with thin ribbons of meat still attached here and there, and pools of fat gleaming in the joints. It’s not what you’d call haute cuisine. Until you eat it, that is – or at least feed on it, vulture-style. We tear off the meaty slivers with our teeth, suck on the bones, rub bread across the carcass to soak up every bit of deeply flavoured fat. “My God, it’s amazing,” says Norman, grinning, turning the carcass over in his oil-smeared hands, searching for morsels to eke out.

The person who has brought such food-world luminaries together, and rendered them speechless as duck fat drips down their chins – it’s very good for the complexion, apparently – is Pierre Koffmann, the most revered French chef working in the UK. His old restaurant, La Tante Claire, opened in 1977, had three Michelin stars and was London’s most celebrated dining rooms until he closed it in 2004 (its original site is now home to Gordon Ramsay’s flagship on Royal Hospital Road in Chelsea). After years out of the kitchen, last year Koffmann returned to the Berkeley hotel (where La Tante Claire had moved in 1998) to open Koffmann’s, a more relaxed expression of his exquisite Gallic cooking.

This is the very first of Koffmann’s “dinner clubs”, in which guests gather in the private dining room of his restaurant to experience the kind of food the chef grew up with in Gascony.

“You will never find a demoiselle in a restaurant, but it’s typical of a Gascon family meal,” says Koffmann, 62, when we sit down to talk a few days later. “The duck is like the pig, you use everything out of it – even with the tripe you’d make stew, though nobody does that any more.” He shrugs sadly.

I can’t say I was sad to be spared the tripe (nor the beak and feet, which he also apparently had plans for until the supplier failed to include them), but every other bit of the animal was worked through in spectacular form in the dinner. Salty, unctuous gizzards on skewers with snails and persillade; the nutty, earthy wonder of confit of stuffed neck [recipe right], foie gras terrine, foie gras pan fried, duck confit, duck breast in a deep wine sauce. And that demoiselle.

“We wanted to share with people the dishes we have at home with Pierre’s mum, to show a different side of Pierre,” says his partner, Claire Harrison, who acts as vivacious host both in the restaurant and for the dinner club gatherings, others of which are planned to feature similarly hearty gastronomic odysseys. “As an English girl going to Pierre’s family for the first time, all I could remember hearing was ‘mange’ all the time – everything revolves around the table. If it was starting to rain people would suddenly be heading out collecting snails.”

“Well, you have to!” Koffmann chimes in. “If it’s a good rain in the summer, you have to take a torch and a bag and you go and collect as many snails as you can.”

Koffmann’s rustic culinary origins are a firm part of his legend – he is famous for having elevated pigs trotters to the level of haute cuisine at La Tante Claire, in a period when British restaurants were dominated by extreme conservatism. The trotters, stuffed with veal sweetbreads and morels, remain on his menu now, but amid the sophistication of today’s culinary landscape, he is standing out by returning to simpler ways of cooking.

“When I go to a restaurant, I don’t want to go somewhere stuffy anymore,” he says. “We don’t have three chefs to dress each plate, we go fast – we just want a relaxed, noisy restaurant where people are happy.”

Having emerged from a premature retirement Koffmann, it seems, is happier than ever, applying his exceptional instincts to his most beloved dishes and taking his cooking back to its roots. “I’m just a chef, I’m not good at doing anything else,” he says. “I’m working because I enjoy it, this is what makes me happy.”

Koffmann’s is hosting four dinner clubs per year, at £110 per person all inclusive. For info visit: www.the-berkeley.co.uk/Koffmanns

PIERRE KOFFMANN RECIPE | CONFIT DE COU DU CANARD FARCI (CONFIT OF STUFFED DUCK NECK)

2 duck breast
Salt /pepper
150g fatty boneless pork shoulder cut into cubes
1 shallot finely sliced
2 neck skins
1 garlic clove
Pinch thyme
1/4 bay leaf crushed
1 egg
100g cooked foie gras
500g duck fat.
1 tablespoon Armagnac

METHOD:
1. Remove the skin from the duck breast. Sprinkle with salt and pepper
2. Cut the breast meat into chunks, place in a food processor with the pork cubes, and process to coarsely chop. Add the shallot, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, salt pepper, blend until mixture is coarsely but evenly ground.
3. Scrape into a mixing bowl, mix in the egg, Armagnac, and the foie gras, mix well.
4. Stuff the skin with the farce and sew both ends.
5. Put the stuffing in a sausage shape down the centre of the skin, roll the skin over to form a neck shape, sew up the ends and tie the roll at intervals with string.
6. Melt the duck fat to 90oc add the duck and confit for 30- 35 minutes or until the neck rises to the surface.
7. Serve hot or cold with potato salad.