Interview: Jean-Michel Gauffre - La Garrigue owner and chef
'TECHNICALLY I'm not that gifted." That's not what you'd expect a respected chef/restaurateur to offer as an opening gambit. But Jean-Michel Gauffre, the man behind the award-winning La Garrigue and L'Artichaut, is adamant that professing his limitations isn't about false modesty either.
• Jean-Michel Gauffre says good produce cooked well makes La Garrigue and L'Artichaut attractive. However, he is not enamoured of the UK's obsession with celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver. Picture: Malcolm Irving
"I know some chefs who can do really extraordinary things with food," he says in an accent that's a heady concoction of South of France and Scotland. "That never really appealed to me as a chef. I like to take something that's very good, whether it's a tomato or a cucumber, a chicken or a piece of venison, and cook it simply. For me that's what it should be all about. That's the kind of food that people should eat every day; perhaps if we were we wouldn't be having the problem that we have in this country with food and diet."
He has a point. Gauffre comes from the Languedoc region of the South of France, and the culture he grew up in is one that celebrates excellent fresh produce, eaten when in season, and cooked traditionally and simply but skillfully.
Of course, there are aspects of Scottish cuisine that might merit the same description, but you'd be hard pushed to make a case for that being the norm these days. In our supermarket-ruled lives, the link between produce grown in the fields then cooked and enjoyed at home – a link that is as strong as it ever was in France, Italy and Spain – is sadly absent here. But fortunately, our appetite for the kind of dishes that exhibit an understanding of food remains as hearty as ever.
Gauffre's La Garrigue has been a respected member of Edinburgh's notoriously competitive dining scene since 2001; its sister (vegetarian) restaurant L'Artichaut since 2009. But things have just become a whole lot better, with La Garrigue being named the Good Food Guide Readers' Regional Restaurant of the Year. He's modest, but Gauffre can't hide the fact that he's ecstatic.
"I was already delighted a couple of years ago just to be listed in the Good Food Guide, because, you know, it's not as if you pay for it, you get it because of your customers' recommendations. So just to be in the guide was already a great achievement. But this year to be the nominated restaurant for Scotland, it's just…" Gauffre makes a classic Gallic noise that sounds something like "whoof". "It's amazing, I'm absolutely delighted."
Gauffre's catering chops are well established – he was executive chef of the Sheraton Grand, before a stint outside the kitchen, as food and beverage director of a series of deluxe hotels. Gauffre knows only too well that his is a cut-throat business, so receiving an accolade such as the Readers' Award, means a lot.
"It's from our paying customers, people who come in and who obviously enjoy what we provide. It proves that we are consistent in the product that we're delivering. We have no pretension to be the best restaurant in Edinburgh or for that matter in Scotland, but to be the favourite restaurant, in terms of the welcome, the surroundings, all those kinds of things. It shows me, as the chef and as the owner of the business, that we're doing the right thing, that we're on the right track."
There can be little doubt about that. La Garrigue's menu takes in such classics as la daube de boeuf provenale, gratin de macaroni (slow cooked shin of beef in red wine sauce with tomatoes, olives and macaroni pasta gratin) as well as cassoulet comme Castelnaudary (pork, lamb, duck confit, Toulouse sausage and lingot beans) and le magret de canard persillade de salsifis et pommes de terre (roast duck breast with salsify and sauted potatoes). For dessert you might try Gauffre's renowned la crme brle la lavande (lavender crme brle) or le nougat glac aux fruits confits, orange salad (iced nougat parfait with candied fruits and orange salad).
For Gauffre it is not only essential to stick to the regional specialities of his native Languedoc, it's vital to do it in such a way that the dishes remain as authentic as they possibly can be. This is why all of his herbs come from France ("especially the dried ones, like lavender or thyme, or herbes de Provence of course") and dishes are designed around produce which maintains the inherent flavours of the classic recipe.
But as to why his restaurant has managed to create such a loyal following, as far as Gauffre is concerned it's about providing customers with the right thing at the right time.
"Customers need La Garrigue because La Garrigue is home," he says, quoting a couple who recently returned to the restaurant after a break of a few months. "The style of cooking that we do is the kind of food that people might eat at home, it's comfort food. That's the approach that we've had over the years and it's what we'll keep. People sometimes say that they don't want to go to restaurants to eat food that they could cook at home, but they don't really mean it. The most popular dishes in restaurants are often dishes like grilled steak or roast chicken. It's food that people understand and food that they can enjoy eating."
Gauffre makes clear that he's not exactly enamoured by our celebrity chef culture ("one of the most famous chefs in France now is Jamie Oliver," he says, shaking his head) and the fact that although in the UK we seem to spend more and more time talking about food, we seem to spend less and less time actually cooking.
"Here we talk about food constantly but we don't deliver. On the Continent they talk much less about food because it's just a feature of the way they live. Here we all go – and I'm guilty of it – to the supermarket and buy that produce that's come from all over the place and although it tastes of something it doesn't really taste of the original."
The quality of produce obviously vexes him and he says it has a huge impact on what can be achieved in the kitchen. "We're very limited in what we can do. Every time I go to the Continent and then come back my first week or ten days are very depressing because it just feels different. Over there in the market there's only seasonal products; we don't really do that (in the UK]. We talk about it, but we don't do it. As a chef here you have to compromise all the time. You just don't have the choice."
Ask Gauffre if he's felt the brunt of the tough economic times we're living through and he's unequivocal. "Definitely," he says, explaining that they first noticed the downturn last August – not so much in customer numbers but in how much they were spending. It got steadily worse from then and by January business was hard.
But he adds: "It's beginning to pick up, I can feel it that there's a different mood … but we have definitely suffered. Our customers have been supporting us as much as they could, I suppose, not just La Garrigue but the industry as a whole. I'm grateful that we're still here."
Gauffre isn't sugar-coating how hard it has been, but in a way that is what has made his restaurant's triumph in the Good Food Awards so meaningful. "To paraphrase a Scottish football manager," he says in that Scots-French accent, "this one feels a wee bit special."
• La Garrigue is at 31 Jeffrey Street, telephone 0131 557 3032. The overall winner of the Good Food Guide Restaurant of the Year Award will be announced at a ceremony in London on 19 May.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 20 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West