“Being a chef is not about just doing a job, it is a passion.” We chat inspiration, culinary adventures and what it takes to create exceptional dining experiences with Eric Chavot, recently appointed Executive Head Chef of Bob Bob Cité and the iconic Bob Bob Ricard.
What inspired you to become a chef?
I have fantastic memories of growing up with my mother’s incredible French home-cooking. The heart of our family was the kitchen and our daily life revolved around what was happening at the stove.
My mother dreamt of becoming a seamstress in Paris but she was taken out of school at the age of 13 to look after her father and two brothers. Incredible…the authorities wouldn’t allow it today! She was forced to (very quickly) teach herself to cook – there was no internet, no cookery programmes on TV, and few kitchen gadgets or cook books. Now, she can cook anything and everything.
There was also Chef Lahy. He took me on as a commis de cuisine in his fish restaurant “ A Deux Pas de la Mer”, which translated is “Two Steps from the Sea”. At the time it was THE place to eat in Arcachon where I was born. Chef Lahy was my first mentor teaching me the fundamentals and practical technical skills of cooking. Without those I wouldn’t have survived Pierre Koffmann at La Tante Claire!
Tell us more about your culinary background…
My first job in a kitchen was at 14 as a kitchen porter in a small restaurant called ‘L’ Amphytrion’ in my home village Cazaux. It became my place of apprenticeship for the next 2 years. As I signed my contract I remember my new boss saying “After 2 years with me you will either be a chef forever or quit forever.” Two years later, I quit!
I decided to apply for military service in the navy. Unfortunately a few years before I had shot-off three of my toes and the military wouldn’t enlist me for anything but infantry. In Cazaux the only other career options were to become a carpenter, a mechanic or a chef which left me with little choice but to return to the kitchen. Chef Lahy took me on as a commis de cuisine at the famous fish restaurant “ A Deux Pas de la Mer” ). We were doing +100 covers for lunch, +300 for dinner, 7 days a week with just 3 of us in the kitchen and two ecailleurs preparing the sea-food platters.
At 18 years old I decided I wanted to learn English and to gain more experience in the Michelin starred world of cooking hoping it would open doors to working in the top restaurants back in France. At the time there were not that many Michelin starred French restaurants in the UK, just Raymond, the Roux, Nico Ladenis and Pierre Koffmann. Having only an apprentice background with no formal college training I was considered the lowest of the low in the structure of a brigade so I knew I would be starting on the lowest rung of the ladder.
In April 1986 I started as a 1st Commis at Whites Hotel in Bayswater. Luckily after 9 months an opportunity came up to move into the Michelin world working for Pierre Koffmann (Chef) at La Tante Claire. My interview with him lasted all of 30 seconds and I started as a commis on the 5th January 1987. La Tante Claire held 2-Michelin stars and working with Chef was like moving from go-karting to Formula 1. I moved up the rungs to chef de partie and then sous chef. Over the 4.5 years of working with Chef I understood and was able to run every section of the kitchen… his food knowledge and culinary skills are astounding.
In May 1989 I went to work for Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons which for an aspiring young chef was the place to work at that time. Raymond had a very different approach to Chef and it completed the foundation of my style.
I then went on to work in many other kitchens with many different chefs, before opening several of my own restaurants with completely different styles – most recently, CODA Restaurant by Eric Chavot.
You’ve recently been made Executive Chef for Bob Bob Ricard and the soon-to-be-opened Bob Bob Cité. What’s the biggest challenge of the new role?
I’m thrilled to have been made Executive Chef for KNBY, the owning company of Bob Bob Ricard and Bob Bob Cité. The immediate challenge for me is at Bob Bob Ricard to restructure ‘a la Chavot’ – the kitchen team, the organisation back-of-house, and the work ethic, so we can consistently achieve my standard of cooking day-in-day-out for every one of the very many guests they welcome.
I want to raise the standards to those I’m happy with. That will apply equally at Bob Bob Cité when it opens next year and obviously the challenges are very different in a new opening compared to in an established restaurant. Bob Bob Cité will be as ‘deliciously daft’ and glamorous as Bob Bob Ricard.
The interior design is beautiful. The menu will be Bob Bob with my twist…snail dumplings, brioche stuffing for the chicken…. I won’t reveal too much and spoil the surprise! It’s about creating a dining experience which is a joy and fun.
Do you have any role models?
Pierre Koffmann and Raymond Blanc have both had an equally lasting impact on my work. Whilst they have two very different styles, they share the same passion for food. As mentors they inspire you to become a better version of yourself.
What keeps you inspired?
Since I was a kid I’ve always wanted my dad to be proud of me. Although he passed away a few years ago that feeling is still very much with me. He’s up there watching all this unfold.
Working with like-minded people and the synergy created is another. It’s a huge buzz. With Leonid Shutov (the owner of Bob Bob) and chefs like George Farrugia and Richard Hondier, we’ll be chatting about something or prepping in the kitchen, and it’s hey how about we try this or tweak that. It’s wham-bam. The creative juices flow.
Appreciating the time we have is important too. The average male life span is what 75-80 summers? I celebrated my 50th this year so I’ve 25-30 summers left. The bucket list is pretty long and there’s a lot I still want to achieve. I’m always going forward, moving on to new things, new experiences, new skills.
Finally, being able to empower young talent and give aspiring chefs opportunities to demonstrate their own creativity. I love teaching those who want to learn. It’s very rewarding seeing them grow in technical ability and confidence. I try and make time for my chefs who have gone on to set up their own restaurant. To give them some constructive input, some guidance, sometimes I’m physically in their kitchen doing prep and service with them.
What is your favourite autumn meal?
Daube de boeuf provencale with creamy mash.
Name us three of your favourite restaurants?
I love Bistro Vadouvan, in Putney. The chef Durga Misra worked for me at The Capital and at Brasserie Chavot. B.V. is a fusion of French-Indian. Delicious flavours and great value for money.
The Churchill Arms in Paxford near Chipping Campden is terrific. It’s a drive out of town but Nick (Deverell-Smith) has created 4 bedrooms above the restaurant and dogs are welcomed so it’s perfect.
Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham, run by David & Helen Everitt-Matthias, is in my opinion one of the best restaurants in the country.
Do you have any tips for aspiring chefs?
Understand that being a chef is not about just doing a job, it is a passion. You have to do it for the love of it. It will demand a lot of effort and dedication so make sure it is truly what you want to do.
Find a great mentor and stay with them for a minimum of 1-2 years to learn the basics. Listen, absorb, learn, then find your niche, develop your style and perfect it. Look after your body and mind. Establish a life balance that keeps you physically and mentally healthy. (This is difficult!).
Don’t accept any form of bullying nor be a bully yourself. Respect everyone you work with because at some point in your career your paths will undoubtedly cross again.
What’s your favourite midnight snack?
Currently it’s thickly sliced home made multi-seed bread with brie and honey-smoke ham.