True Brit

09 November 2004
True Brit

Sir Terence Conran could perhaps be accused of turning out new eateries with monotonous regularity were it not for the fact that they vary so much in style and ambience. No one could claim his restaurants are samey. The next few weeks, for instance, will see the launch of three Conran-backed concepts, Meze, Floridita and La Casa Del Habano, a Spanish restaurant and Cuban bar and café, on the former Mezzo/Mezzonine site in London.

Then a million miles away from the tapas and salsa nights is the group's fourth launch this month, the Paternoster Chop House, a place so traditionally British it's positively exotic. Roast teal, rabbit and veal pie, angels on horseback with a glass of black velvet, cobnuts and sloe gin, pig's trotter in red wine and champ, and Cambridge burnt cream are just some of the dishes on the menu which threaten to baffle tourists and those whose taste for real British food has waned with the original 19th-century London chophouses.

Which is why the restaurant is such a personal project for Conran, as it represents a return to his childhood roots in British food (before he was "seduced by France" as a young man) and a lifelong appreciation of this country's best produce. And he admits it's something of a crusade, his aim being the advancement of plain, well-cooked British food into the diversity of the London restaurant scene.

Speaking from his country home in Berkshire, where he and his wife Vicki Davis live off their own home-grown vegetables, chickens and ducks, plus other locally sourced products, Conran explains the inspiration behind his latest project. "I think British food has been lost in this country," he says. "We've forgotten what it's all about and that it all comes down to the quality and the flavour of the ingredients. When you see the quality of the ingredients available in this country, you don't need inspired chefs to cook it. They don't need a lot of imagination because the food is there and it just needs to be simply and intelligently cooked.

"The Chop House is part of a drive towards plain, well-cooked British food into a scene that seems to constantly strive towards the new and complex," he adds. "I'm not decrying the work of chefs who yearn to have Michelin stars. It's the type of cooking that's interesting, and I very much admire what people like Heston Blumenthal have done. I think it's a great achievement, but it's not the sort of everyday food I enjoy."

The 110-seat restaurant sits in the corner of the newly redeveloped Paternoster Square, a paved area with a view of St Paul's Cathedral in the heart of the City. The interior, designed by Conran, is simply put together with slate floor, tongue-and-groove boarded ceiling, simple lighting, bentwood chairs and an open kitchen with white tiling and a marble-topped bar.

The result is modern and uncluttered, yet retains a bustling chophouse atmosphere. There are simple oil paintings of vegetables and fish on the walls (no Britart, Conran is quick to point out) against the theatre of the open kitchen, its front draped with seafood and fish. Large windows look out on to the piazza-style square in front.

It's the perfect location for a chophouse, says Conran. Historically, it was a vibrant area for chophouses and pubs, but more importantly it's a spot where the group doesn't have a restaurant. There's good potential from the tourist trade, Temple Bar is to be relocated here next month, and, of course, there is a sizable City audience.

"British food is very appropriate to this area because, particularly in the City, they like that sort of plain and simple food," Conran points out. "They don't want complex and molecular cooking, very few of us do. It also has to be food that can land in front of them very quickly and give them a satisfying lunch or dinner rather than waiting for long periods while the chef concocts his plate fiddles."

There are no plate fiddles in this kitchen - the g-word (garnish) was banned by head chef Peter Weeden from the outset. The menu is kept simple throughout, split into shellfish, grill and spit-roast, cheese and savouries, salads, vegetables, first courses, main courses, and puddings sections. It's made up of British classics, put together by Conran and Weeden during various visits to Conran's Berkshire home for tastings.

It was then, Conran says, that he made an interesting discovery. "We cooked through the menu, and at the end of it we said it was terrific for one, but for two it was the exact British equivalent of French bistro cooking. I looked at the menu that appeared at our Almeida restaurant and realised the Chop House was a British equivalent," he says.

"Obviously, there are different ingredients in France. If you look at our game birds there are no such equivalents in France, and they don't have steak and kidney pudding, which I think is one of the great British treats. But British cheese, for instance, is just as fine as French cheese. The industry just needs encouragement and not too much bloody government bureaucracy which makes everything taste like it's been prepared in a laboratory."

For all his enthusiasm, he does concede that educating customers to the joys of British food isn't going to be easy, particularly to the many tourists visiting St Paul's, whom he hopes will make up part of the clientele.

"I think we do have a bad reputation that's unjustified, although London is the gastronomic centre of the world, and certainly people who have been here for a while would agree with you. There is still, among the people who haven't had the opportunity to spend time here, the feeling that we don't know how to cook in this country. It takes time to change things," he says.

Conran has high hopes that the Paternoster Chop House will contribute towards the popularity of British food, a small movement already brought on in part by the likes of Fergus Henderson and his St John restaurant in London. Conran also cites his own Butler's Wharf Chop House, opened 10 years ago and still one of the most consistently successful of his restaurants, famed for its straightforward British menu.

"I think there will be a trend towards British food, although I still like the complex," he insists. "The diversity of the restaurants in London is a terrific thing to achieve in this country, and I'm not saying I think the future is plain and simple food. I just don't think there happens to be enough of it in this country.

"That's why I hope people will take notice of the Chop House because we've got the most fantastic raw materials that people are talking about more than they ever used to."

Paternoster Chop House Warwick Court
Paternoster Square
Tel: 020 7029 9400
Launched by: Conran Restaurants
Head chef: Peter Weeden
Manager: Spero Panagakis
Average spend: £45
Seats: 110

Peter Weeden, Head chef Peter Weeden leapt at the chance to work at the Paternoster Chop House when offered the job of head chef earlier this year. After working under Stephen Goodlad and Mickael Weiss at the Coq D'Argent for five years, he says he was ready to move on from French cuisine.

"I was very attracted to doing British food," he says. "I cook it at home, but the industry is dominated by traditional, classic French food. This was a great opportunity to raise the British standard in this city and make a mark. I want to bring British food up to that same level as people expect from French cuisine, because I think it gets a really raw deal. We have incredible produce in this country but there's a lack of flair in cooking it, and people don't think British food is exciting."

Weeden has worked closely with Conran on the menu. The decision was made to keep the dishes gutsy and unadorned, using quality ingredients at all times.

"It was about clean lines, clean plates and flavour," he explains. "There are standard things on the menu like British oysters, and Dublin Bay prawns, but Terence Conran also wanted a steak and kidney pudding, and I was happy to put that on the menu."

The menu descriptions are uncomplicated. "We serve a faggot with the Barnsley chop, for instance, but don't mention that on the menu, partly because I don't like long menu descriptions and partly because it puts people off, Weeden says. "It never comes back on the plate though."

With quality British ingredients as the driving force behind the concept of the Chop House, the provenance of products is included on the menu where possible. Beef is from Inverurie and Glen Fyne, chicken from Sutton Hoo, oysters from West Mersea and Loch Fyne. There are Dublin Bay prawns, Dorset crab and Royal Dornach Barnsley chops. Cheeses are all British, and include Montgomery Cheddar, Cropwell Bishop Stilton, Bosworth leaf goats' and Crozier Blue.

The execution is kept simple, too. Haunch of venison is cut, streaky bacon put into the middle, then rolled, tied and roasted with braised onions, carrots and celery. It's served with the same vegetables. The steak and kidney pie is made with beef, kidneys, thyme, Worcestershire sauce and suet crust pastry.

"A lot of the dishes I have put together are my interpretation of dishes that Jane Grigson and Eliza Acton have done before me, but it's funny how often people say this is French bistro food," Weeden says.

"Fay Maschler said the pig's trotters was a French dish in her review, but I don't think any of the menu is French. If you look at British food and bistro French food, they're very similar because the basic techniques of cooking are the same.

"We've lost our cooking heritage, while the French are better at saying this is how it's always been so let's keep it that way, but pig's trotters are no more French than English."

Spero Panagakis, manager Australian Spero Panagakis started his career in hospitality in England as a waiter at Quaglino's in 1998. Within three months he was promoted to head waiter, becoming restaurant manager in 2002.

The former Caterer Acorn winner was asked to manage the Paternoster Chop House in March. "This is my first opening and I thought the concept was fantastic. Although I'm not officially British, I have always felt the country lacks an identity for its cuisine. People only think of bangers and mash and fish and chips when they think of British food, which is ridiculous," he says.

"Nobody knows what British cuisine is about, and I think people are fed up with manipulated French food. We've gone from glamorous to fusion, and now we're going back to basics. People are going back to the food they had as a child. I think this is a great opportunity to show British cuisine being done properly."

Panagakis knew the importance of developing a British environment in the restaurant which went further than the food and the small selection of British wines. "We had to create an atmosphere here. With St Paul's next door and it being a tourist spot, people will see the restaurant, so we have to tell a story behind the traditional chophouse," he explains.

A difficult search for British front-of-house staff resulted in nearly 40% of the team being recruited from this country, but even with home-grown staff, menu training is crucial. "It's ironic really, but this type of food is like a new cuisine in this country," Panagakis says. "French, Spanish and Italian food has been the focus up to now, and it's great to be in possession of a cuisine being re-established, but even some of the British staff haven't heard of half the dishes. "A lot of this stuff is new to me," he admits. "Marrowfat peas confuse a lot of people and the potted veal means people are always asking where the pot is. And most people have no idea what angels and devils on horseback are."

The training schedule, which lasts six to 12 months, covers food and wine knowledge and people skills. Menu descriptions and food tastings are held daily, and wine tastings twice a week. No sommeliers are employed, so a wine manual includes name, character and price of wine. Staff learn to upsell and receive wine education from wine and bar suppliers.

"The training is all about communication," Panagakis says. "We have to educate the staff on the tradition of the chophouse and give them a firm understanding of the traditions of this country because the concept of British cuisine has to be established every day."

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