He's famously never missed a service in 34 years. But celebrating a landmark birthday recently doesn't mean David Everitt-Matthias plans to step away from the stove any time soon. Amanda Afiya talks to one of the UK's most dedicated chefs.
David and Helen Everitt-Matthias's Le Champignon Sauvage is a rare jewel in the crown of Cheltenham's dining-out scene, and is, remarkably, Gloucestershire's only Michelin-starred restaurant.
Having received its first Michelin star in 1995, the restaurant went on to be awarded two Michelin stars in 2000 – an accolade it held for 18 consecutive years. But in the 2019 guide, many industry experts and chefs were stunned when the restaurant returned to one-star status. "I was devastated," David says reflecting on the news, "and to be perfectly honest, I'm still upset about it."
Critically, however, it didn't seem to impact business. "We thought the sky was going to fall in on us," he confides. "But, fortunately, we had such a wonderful response from a lot of this country's best chefs, best critics and a lot of our customers. It was very humbling and some of the letters and messages I got from my ex-chefs made me quite tearful, actually. It provided us with the sticking plaster that we needed, the ‘there, there'."
Despite holding many of the top industry accolades, including 8/10 in The Good Food Guide (it's also consistently listed in the guidebook's top 50 restaurants) and four AA rosettes, David says the team at Le Champignon Sauvage doesn't work towards awards and never has. "We've never chased accolades. It makes me laugh when people say they are ‘going for' their first star, their fifth rosette or 7/10 in The Good Food Guide… You don't ‘go for' things like that; you're given them. It should be given to you for doing your job.
"That's what we did before and that's what we are doing now. We've got our heads down. We're working as normal, trying to improve where we can, and [we're] just working hard like hundreds and thousands of unsung businesses in this country. There are so many other businesses in the same position, working their socks off, but for some reason they don't get recognised."
We're working as normal, trying to improve where we can, and just working hard like hundreds and thousands of unsung businesses in this country
Like hundreds and thousands of restaurants in the UK, Le Champignon Sauvage is currently closed due to the pandemic and, of course, spent much of 2020 shuttered, too. "It's been as bad for us as everybody else, I suppose, but not as bad as it's been for the guys who turn their tables," says David. "They're the ones who are really feeling it now."
In the months when they were able to operate, albeit under social distancing, they were able to take their seating arrangement – usually 40 covers – down from 14 tables to seven at lunch and eight at dinner. "We were quite well-spaced anyway, but we made the changes to make sure everybody was really comfortable with it."
The workforce is very much a family to David and Helen, and their greatest concern during the past annus horribilis has been the welfare of their team. "That was our biggest worry," says David, who has, of course, been making use of the furlough scheme. "I bake cakes once a week for the team and get them to come to the back gate to collect them. We've also been delivering cakes to five or six of our elderly neighbours down the road, just to give them a treat."
From a financial point of view, having been proprietors of the Cheltenham property for more than three decades, this isn't the first time they've experienced stormy waters. "Early on with our restaurant, we had the very big recession of the early 1990s and we nearly went under then. Ever since, we've always made sure there's been something for a rainy day, so the cash flow has bitten into what we had.
"Initially, we had the government grant, but, unfortunately, we didn't qualify for anything else to help us to pay off the bills that have accrued in the meantime. But because we'd had the big recession in the 1990s, the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, not to mention in 2007 when Cheltenham was flooded and flood water got into the mains water supply – people were having to go to the supermarket or B&Q to get water and we couldn't even shower because the water supply was tainted in the area – it's taught us to keep something in reserve."
Mentally, David and Helen feel they have coped well with the pandemic, adding that they have been strong because they've been conditioned by unknown influences in the past. "But you're never ready for something like this, are you? Each lockdown, we're more ready than we were the last time. The first lockdown was just a big shock and people didn't know what they were doing. At least now it's more plannable; you know what you're doing and when you do get to come back to work, you have your systems in place. You know what those systems are now – but you didn't before."
The first lockdown was just a big shock and people didn't know what they were doing. At least now it's more plannable
Fitness is a big part of David's life and a key reason why he can be found happily at his stove day in, day out, despite turning 60 at the end of October. "I'm surrounded by a young team, I always have been, and my energy levels are fine. I come down every morning and still enjoy what I'm doing.
"I work out six times a week; I do CrossFit in between shifts and on my days off, and, normally, three times a week I go to the gym. I have no problem getting out of bed and going into service and enjoying myself."
Because David and Helen live upstairs from the restaurant, during each lockdown they have been able to turn half the dining room into a gym. "I've been disciplined about working out, disciplined about eating and disciplined about drinking."
Due to the off-on nature of the lockdowns, among the changes that David has made to the restaurant is reducing the menu choice, in order to carry less stock in the fridge in the event of more lockdowns. "It seemed silly to have seven choices on the starters, six on the mains and six on desserts. So, we went down to four, four, four, and people were fine with it."
It's a strategy he'll keep until the country is out of the woods. "The virus is an unknown entity; people can be shut down within a few days' notice, and that's an awful lot of stock that you're carrying. This way, there is a little less, and whatever is left over is divided up between the team for them to take home with them."
One thing that hasn't changed is David's passion for produce. "We're always looking at ingredients. That's the great thing about the trade now. You have access to suppliers who specialise in Japanese produce, for example; you can get Japanese fruit like yuzu, sudachi, ingredients like that, and you can get them when they're in season.
"It's great to see small, up-and-coming suppliers, youngish businesses, all striving to do their best. Some suppliers used to get quite jaded in what they gave you and have a sort of ‘take it or leave it' attitude, but a lot of these younger businesses have a great enthusiasm and pride in what they are serving. They are as passionate as the chef, which is great to deal with."
Having originally planned to only stay at the site of Le Champignon Sauvage for a few years before selling up and moving on, today David and Helen can't imagine being anywhere else. "We've been offered a few things, but I enjoy doing what I'm doing in my little kitchen – for me not to be here, I couldn't do it. The customers know I'm here and that's important for them. So the plan is to carry on cooking with my head down until I wake up one day and don't enjoy it anymore.
"All the mistakes we've made, all the pluses and minuses we've had, we've learned from them and they are part of the scars of our careers. And scars are pretty… they tell the story of your life."
George Blogg, executive chef of Michelin-starred Gravetye Manor in West Hoathly, Sussex, spent nearly two-and-a-half years at Le Champignon Sauvage from 2010 to 2012 before embarking on his first head chef's role at Nina and Gerard Basset's Hotel Terravina in the New Forest.
"David has been through a few recessions and so his grasp of the ups and downs of the hospitality industry, his experiences, are huge. It doesn't surprise me at all that he's still at the stove – that's who he is. It just goes to show that he loves it so much.
"His devotion to his craft is unparalleled; he has the most creative of minds, an exacting eye and a fine palate, and David and Helen treat their team like their family. The respect we have for them in return is never-ending."
Blogg believes few chefs love the craft quite as much as David does. "That's what I mean by unparalleled devotion – however much I love cooking, I can't see myself at the age of 60 still being in the kitchen, behind the stove. And that's not because I don't love cooking, it's just that there are other things that are important to me now. That shows how single-minded David's devotion to Le Champignon Sauvage is – it eclipses everything else. Being in the kitchen isn't a journey to another point for him – it's the destination."
David's cooking will always be classically based, but he believes, in recent years, the cooking at Le Champignon Sauvage has become a little lighter and a little more flamboyant in style.
"At the core, it still has quite powerful flavours, even if they are lighter," he says. "We've looked at Asian influences, but I would still very much rather bone a pig's trotter out and ensure my chefs have the skills to do things like that than do fermented cabbage. They have their place, but it's not the be-all and end-all of food.
"There's a dumbing down of technical skills now for the art of minimalist simplicity. In the right hands, it's fine, but in the wrong hands it leads to food that repeats itself throughout the menu, that's too bland and shows no technical skill."
Dishes that sum up David's style, which he describes as "masculine", include a starter of rabbit loin, rillette and parfait, heritage carrots, carrot and muscat jelly, and a main of Cinderford lamb fillet, braised lamb breast, anchovy cream with dandelion and burdock salsa.
The chef says he feels his food still tastes of what it is, and a bit more. "We have gone over to using dashi as a seasoning or dashi in the sauce occasionally now, and the jus are lighter than they used to be, but they still pack a punch."
Would he describe it as healthier cooking? "To be perfectly honest, our food has never been heavily cream-laden or buttered. It's always been based on reductions and natural parts of the animal. It is rich, because of the flavours.
"We've always thought your starter and your main course should match your dessert. There's no point in having a masculine, powerful starter and main course, but as you're eating through your meal your palate is starting to diminish. A dessert can be light, but it still has to be intense in flavours."
"I don't think we should have called ourselves Le Champignon Sauvage – a French name. I think we should have given ourselves an English name – that's the only thing I regret. But when we opened it was trendy to be French, and my training is French anyway. We've had many gifts over the years of wild mushrooms – perhaps we should have been called the Gold Ingot!"
"Winning the Chef Award at the Cateys in 2007, because you are nominated by your peers; the second Michelin star in 2000; Waitrose Good Food Guide Chef of the Year in 2014; getting an honorary doctorate in philosophy from University of Gloucestershire in 2009; and The Observer Food Monthly Outstanding Contribution Award in 2013 for myself and Helen was fantastic. They are the awards I'm most proud of, although I'm proud to receive any award."
"We still have ‘playlist Thursday' where we take it in turns to play what we want to play. I'm still very much into Northern Soul, California Soul, Motown and jazz, but I do like any music – apart from grunge. Nathan Cornwall [a former sous chef at Le Champignon Sauvage and now head chef at the Barn at Moor Hall in Aughton, Lancashire] put grunge on once, and even he got fed up with it after an hour! I do like music – life would be terrible without it."
"Anything cooked by Phil Howard, Tom Aikens, Brett Graham, Pierre Koffmann, and certainly Chez Bruce [in London's Wandsworth]. Every time I go to Chez Bruce, I just love it. It's done so well: the atmosphere, front of house, the food – it's all combined to make a real jewel of British cookery. It's humble and Bruce [Poole, owner] is very humble, as is Matt Christmas [head chef]; it contributes to making a place that's on a par with anything in the world. It's that feeling you have when you leave a restaurant and you know you've had some wonderful food – that ‘ahhh' moment. A lot of higher-class restaurants can't compete with that."
David and Helen have kept dogs ever since arriving in Cheltenham, but lost Alba, their beloved Boxer, last August. Lily, also a Boxer, arrives this month. "They bring a joy and peace to our lives and we wouldn't be without one. They have all had their own characters, but all give unconditional love."
Portrait photography: David Cotsworth
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