After eight years away, Bruno Loubet is back cooking in London, much to the delight of his many admirers. French-born Loubet, 49, established his reputation in London in the 1990s, earning a Michelin star at the Four Seasons at Inn on the Park before opening his own Bistrot Bruno and then moving on to L’Odéon. This buzzing brasserie above Regent Street was a hit when the fashion for big restaurants was taking off in 1995.
After a stint at Isola in Knightsbridge, he quit London in 2002. “I was completely burnt-out,” he says. “I felt I just had to get away.” He took his wife and family (he has three daughters) to Australia, spending eight years working in restaurants in Queensland.
His new place, Bistrot Bruno Loubet at the Zetter Hotel in Smithfield, is already impressive. “We’re serving about 180 customers a day two months after we’ve opened,” Loubet says when we meet for a late lunch. “But this does mean that last week I worked 135 hours, three times more than the rest of my brigade. Many things may have changed in London’s restaurants since I left for Australia but good cooks are still as difficult to find.”
I have eaten at Bistrot Bruno three times and Loubet, who describes himself as “an old grafter”, has been conspicuous behind the kitchen counter. The first two times, he was running the show and, the third, he was towards the back, coaxing the last of the ingredients from a Magimix with the concentration of a chef who first began in the kitchen 35 years ago, when he was 14.
This experience is also evident in his food. Among the dishes I have enjoyed are a guinea fowl boudin; chicken and egg broth served in a tureen for two; trout Grenobloise; pollock with a pistou sauce; crêpe Suzette served in a copper pan; and a mille-feuille of apples and quinces. They all demonstrate Loubet’s ability to take simple ingredients and extract the maximum flavour. Loubet’s mantra is that the best cooking is simple cooking.
The bistrot’s other attractions include an enterprising wine list while the 85-seat restaurant is managed, professionally, by Michael Benyan, an Australian.
When Loubet and his wife decided to return to England from Oz, Loubet wanted to run a gastropub in the country with land so that he could fulfil a long-held ambition to rear pigs, chicken and geese.
He was diverted from his country pub plans when he received a phone call from Guillaume Rochette, a hospitality recruitment specialist. Rochette knew that Benyan and his partner, Mark Sainsbury, one of the founders of popular London restaurant Moro, were looking for a new chef.
Loubet says: “Last August I went along to Mark’s house with a couple of large ice boxes and cooked an eight-course meal for him and his friends.
“They were delighted and the idea to recreate Bistrot Bruno was born.”
The restaurant is now a three-way partnership, with Loubet in charge of a kitchen that presents him with some challenges: the kitchen is not big; the dining room is curved, which means the food has to travel quite a distance; and, for the first time in his career, he is responsible, as a chef in a hotel, for the breakfast menu.
Once he has overcome these challenges, he says his menu will gradually become more adventurous. He says the only constraint he feels under at the moment is the pressure to get things right and to be happy. The most important lesson he has learnt during his career at the stoves, he says, is never to forget the reason for your success.
He says there may eventually be three or four Bistrot Brunos but never more, he adds. “My food is too personal.”
Bistrot Bruno Loubet at the Zetter Hotel, 86-88 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1, tel: +44 (0)20-7324 4455 www.bistrotbrunoloubet.com