A vintage shot of the L’Etranger team
Step inside L’Etranger, an elegant restaurant located on a busy Kensington high street, and you will find a location full of well-heeled guests. While the popularity of the restaurant is pleasing to chef-patron Jerome Tauvron and his business partner, Ibi Issolah, the large number of local affluent patrons has attracted the unwanted label of being a neighbourhood restaurant; one of London’s best kept secrets.
While many restaurateurs would be pleased with this type of press, as soon as I meet Tauvron and Issolah it becomes apparent that this pair are not content to settle for anything less than the very best. And not without reason, since both have pedigree.
Tauvron began his career working with Michel Guérard, before stints with other masters of French cuisine, such as Henri Roux, Pierre Gagnaire, Guy Legay and Alain Ducasse. His spirit for cooking seems to have been a birthright. “Since I was a baby I have been in the kitchen. My parents owned a restaurant in our town and, as soon as I could walk, I was helping in the kitchen.”
His parents’ restaurant was a small one in their village of Estivareilles, located in the Loire in central France. Yet people from across the region would come and eat there. “I was not very good at school, so I focussed on the kitchen. By the age of 16 I left school and moved about 30km away to work with Guérard.”
Spending those two years at an impressionable age with the great chef, latterly one of the founders of nouvelle cuisine, had the most profound effect on Tauvron’s career. “The whole team around Guérard, not just Michel himself, put the pressure on. Even just Guérard not talking would put pressure on us to succeed. I like it this way; you perform better if you know you’ll get a plate in your head. At the time I was quite young, but I really enjoyed it. It was a reason to wake up in the morning.”
By 1998, Tauvron, via a stint at the world-famous Louis XV in Monaco, had arrived in London to help a friend with a restaurant opening. “I said ‘okay, three months’, but I never came back from my holiday.” Not much longer after, Tauvron met Issolah – a stalwart in the food and beverage industry of Conran and, at the time, manager at the Atlantic Bar on Glasshouse Street.
The pair hit it off and, within weeks, were looking to open their own restaurant. Issolah tells me of their search for a suitable venue. “It took a long time to find somewhere. One night Jerome and his girlfriend cooked a six course meal. We had a lot of wine. It was a beautiful experience and there and then we shook hands on this place [the current Gloucester Road establishment].
“It had been an Iranian restaurant since 1974. It had been for sale for two years but nobody wanted it. It was a great opportunity for us so we decided to come in and take it that night. Four weeks later we had completed the process.”
It didn’t take long for the restaurant to fill up. “I was head chef at the time,” Jerome tells me, “And people knew me from previous jobs, so it was busy straight away.”
But what of the cuisine? Often mooted to be part of the ‘fusion’ cuisine craze, the restaurant takes its cue from French and Japanese traditions. “It’s not a fusion,” asserts Ibi. It’s obvious this accusation is something that irks them. “It’s just a mix that comes naturally to me,” Jerome adds. “I’m French and we had a lot of Japanese students at my parents’ restaurant so I became involved with that. It became very natural for me to add some Japanese flair to my cooking.
“Japanese cuisine is very fresh and pure. The taste of the natural product is exceptional. Here we don’t hide the original taste; we focus on fresh ingredients, which is why the Japanese twist works well.”
With Tauvron a regular visitor to Japan and other Asian countries, he has made a number of acquaintances in the culinary profession there. Issolah tells me that Tauvron was particularly friendly with two Japanese chefs, both by the name of ‘Nobu’. “One day Jerome heard tell that Chef Nobu had sadly passed away. As it happened, later that night, we had a customer in who knew Nobu personally. So I went over to her and told her the sad news. She was in tears. She said, ‘Are you sure Nobu died?’ I said, ‘Trust me, both Jerome and I are very sad.’
“The next morning I discussed it with Jerome who told me the Nobu the customer knew was a different one! Needless to say, the lady was not best pleased.”
Given Tauvron and Issolah’s propensity for using the freshest ingredients, I wonder whether they are also proponents of the popular trend for sourcing local ingredients. “It depends,” Tauvron tells me, “Tomatoes from London or the south of France? You’d rather go local if they’re both good.”
“But we can’t get everything locally,” Issolah interjects, “You look after number one, it’s your customer. If you meet a chef in London who says they source everything locally, I’m sorry but it can’t be done. If the tomato from London is good we buy it. But if it’s better from the south of France, we get that.
“I think there’s a lot of trickery in the industry – people trying to portray an image that’s not there. We’re quite maverick here; we’re down to earth.”
I put it to them that finding the best quality of ingredient is what matters. “Yes, we do get a lot of vegetables from around London. We get our venison from a famous farm in Hertfordshire. But we look for the best spots,” Tauvron explains. “We want local as much as possible. But when it comes to quality, if it’s better abroad then we go abroad.”
Issolah says they used to drive down to France once a week to get hold of some ingredients. “It’s kind of interesting how the food culture changes down there. A lot of fish is much cheaper there because nobody eats it. Red mullet, cod, herrings. It’s just a cultural thing. We used to pick up tuna there because no-one wanted it. Now it’s a delicacy in France.”
I ask the pair whether they think French attitudes to food are changing a little to become more influenced by foreign cultures. “Yes, cuisine in France was edged out because it rested on its laurels for twenty years,” Issolah suggests. “For sure you can eat better in London now than in Paris. That would have been unthinkable 15 years ago.
“But you’re right, the French have begun to embrace change. They have started to include ginger, lemongrass, it’s a slow process.”
London may have overtaken Paris in terms of its restaurant scene, but does that make it the world’s culinary capital? “Yes, I think so,” says Tauvron, “Japan is very impressive but I think London has a lot of big stars. Paris is trying to fight back but it will take time.”
London’s transformation into a global gastronomic hub is known to have taken many abroad by surprise. “I tell you, when I arrived in London, in 1986, to have a cappuccino or espresso I could only go to one bar, called The Capri, by Leicester Square,” Issolah tells me. “If you went to any other English place and asked for a cappuccino, they would give you coffee with double cream.
“If I wanted a sandwich, it was jam or tuna. I couldn’t eat it – I had to go to the Italian place. So for London, from there to here, it is quite a transformation.” I ask Issolah what he puts the turnaround down to. “I think it’s the foreign influence – you had the French, Italian, Indian, now also the Spanish, Asian, Latin American and even north African influences.”
The pair tell me that the next cuisine they think will really take off in London is Korean. But, if they had to choose one, what would their favourite cuisine be? “It depends on my mood,” Issolah replies, “when I go into a restaurant I do things backwards. I always look at the wine list first. Then when I select the wine, I decide which dish will go with it.”
This way of thinking seems to neatly embody the philosophy at L’Etranger, where the wine list is renowned as one of the best in the country. In fact, the restaurant recently won ‘Imbibe Champagne List of the Year’ for 2014, while it scooped the prestigious ‘Best Wine List’ award from AA for 2012/13.
The coveted cellars at the restaurant have attracted all manner of well-known guests who stay in west London, from Prince Harry and Kofi Annan, to Liz Hurley and Dustin Hoffman. Yet, unlike certain other establishments, L’Etranger hold their guests’ privacy dear. And so, even despite being named London’s Best Restaurant by the Good Food Guide in 2010, the restaurant is still often cited as a ‘best kept secret’; a hidden gem of a neighbourhood restaurant.
“We’re proud of that, but we’re growing almost tired of being a hidden gem now. We’re not so much a local restaurant, as a destination. We like being a best kept secret in that people can recommend us to friends. You know, ‘You said you went to a great restaurant – well try this one.’ We’re recommended between friends, those who know how.” Issolah explains.
While L’Etranger seek to shake off their oft-used tag, I have one more question for the pair. What of the lady who thought her good friend Chef Nobu had passed away? “We are all still good friends,” Issolah laughs. “When I explained the mix up she saw the funny side.”