Pierre Koffmann: Life story. Words by Richard Vines

“Every family ate well in southwest France when I was born in Tarbes, in 1948. But we were working class and not wealthy, so my mother had to make the best of what she could get. It wasn’t fillet steak on the table. If she had a chicken, she would keep the wings, the feet, the neck, the head, everything, and make a stew. It was brilliant. She would cook pasta in it, and it was one of the best dishes I’ve ever had.

“My mother and grandmother were both very good cooks but my mother was better because she was living in a town. It was a small place of 40,000 people but in a town you’ve got a fishmonger and everything you want.

“My grandmother had a big open fire, an open chimney, so there was a lot of roasting: chicken and rabbit on a spit and my granddad was in charge of turning the spit. Poor guy: my grandmother was on his back, like any couple. So you have that visual image of the chickens and, then the smells were very important. Saint Puy was a tiny village and if you were on top of the hill in winter – because everybody burned wood to heat their homes – there was a beautiful smell.

“My father was a mechanic for Citroen and my mother was working for the council. My grandparents were both farmers on my mother’s side. Every time I had a holiday, I went to stay with them. If my mother wanted to make my dad happy, she knew what to make. He loved cauliflower, cooked but cold, with mayonnaise.

“I wasn’t very good at school and when I reached the age of 14, they asked me to leave. I tried for jobs at the French railway, the post office. I went to cookery school not because I enjoyed food but because it was still school. If you went to work for the French railway, you were a man. And I really enjoyed it. I was happy. When you are that age, you are still a kid you know. I’m still a kid now. Mentally, you are a kid all your life.

“At that time, food was different from the southwest to the east, Strasbourg, to the north, to Brittany, completely different food. If you wanted to be a good chef you had to go to Provence, Savoie, Strasbourg, to the France of gastronomy. So I went to Strasbourg and after that I went to the French Riviera then I found a job in Switzerland, in Lausanne.”

“I came to England just because I wanted to see England play France at rugby. I said I’m going to go to England to see the game and I stayed for six months working at Le Gavroche. The plan was to spend six months in England and I wanted to move to America. And now, 41 years later, I’m still here.”