When he opened Grain Store in King’s Cross 2013, Bruno Loubet caused quite a stir – and now he has been let off the leash in Clerkenwell
Bruno Loubet is feeling his age. ‘I will be 54 in October,’ he grimaces whilst stretching out a stiff knee. I insist he looks good for that. ‘Sometimes I feel good, sometimes I don’t,’ he grins. ‘I started catering school at 14, so 40 years ago. I don’t think anybody on my staff is 40-years-old, so I started cooking before anybody here was born.’
He slides back into one of the leather booths at Grain Store Unleashed, a worthy addition to his roster marking four decades in the business. He has come far since his days as a ‘naughty boy’ at school in Bordeaux, where all he had an interest in was cooking. ‘Strangely for my parents, I was top of the class straight away,’ he laughs at the memory of heading to catering school. ‘My school report was excellent – my parents were like “is this really the right person”? From that moment on cooking was the love of my life.’
It’s been quite a journey since then. During his stint of doing National Service, he applied to some 25 restaurants all over the world requesting work, with only Pierre Koffmann’s La Tante Claire replying. ‘That’s why I ended up in London,’ he says on coming here in the 1980s.
He leans in close, which signifies he has a story to tell. ‘I arrived with one suitcase and £120, which was all my savings. I arrived on the Friday night and was due to start work on the Monday. I didn’t speak much English and I was a bit lost. I walked around for hours with my suitcase and looked for the cheapest hotel to stay at – by the Monday I only had £15 left! My first month here I had literally nothing – I slept on the floor of another chef’s room.’
Soon enough, however, that hard graft paid off. It’s 30 years ago that he was awarded the Good Food Guide’s Young Chef of the Year and his career turned on its head. He went on to work for Raymond Blanc as Head Chef at the two Michelin-starred Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, before returning to London to run the Four Seasons, Inn on the Park, where he earned a Michelin star within a year.
The 1990s was a decade of success, with his restaurants Bistrot Bruno and L’Odeon ensuring he spent almost as much time at award ceremonies as he did in the kitchen. ‘I have to say they were hectic years,’ he looks back. ‘At the time I remember a lot of chefs took drugs or turned to drink as it was such a hard time.’ Did he follow that route? ‘I never had a vice like that, I was always very focused and my family would keep me straight. You were learning your job the hard way for many years under an incredible amount of pressure. London, too, really felt like it was happening, but it was about who was going to get into the Good Food Guide, get a Michelin star… You were very focused on who was going to be the best.’
He pauses and takes a sip of his coffee, an apt action considering what he did next. Bruno was riding high on a crest of wave, but gave it all up to ship his family off to Australia in 2001. ‘I used to work 100 hours during some weeks. It was a continuous story, this fight to do something different that everybody would talk about,’ he recalls. ‘I basically burned myself out. I was exhausted, both mentally and physically. I was not myself any more and I couldn’t go on like that. I was successful, but my life was terrible.’
Describing his time in Australia – where everyone was ‘super nice’, the weather was balmy, he could have a swim before work every day and his family could afford a beautiful house – I remark that I can’t believe he came back. ‘I know,’ he laughs. ‘Together with my wife, we felt that we were still young and hadn’t achieved what we should have achieved.’ Back on these shores, The Zetter Hotel was where he decided to start his second London stint. ‘I didn’t know the area that well back then,’ he says on Clerkenwell. ‘I realised straight away that it was a nice area, I liked the feel of it, and it was trendy, but not too trendy. I could see the potential.’
Bistrot Bruno Loubet quickly became a destination restaurant, but the chef had that nagging ambition to do something completely different – and in 2013 he did just that and certainly got everybody talking. ‘I really like cooking with vegetables and I always have, and for a long time I thought about doing a restaurant with veg leading the menu,’ he says on Grain Store. ‘It’s organic, sustainable, we need to eat things from the earth, and it was a realisation that eating meat wasn’t good for your health, but also has an impact on the climate. I decided to go for the whole thing: veg was important and came first, the meat followed.’
It was undoubtedly a gamble, but paid off handsomely and is a principal reason why the King’s Cross restaurant scene is booming today. Before meeting up with Bruno, I decided to revisit and was delighted to see it still has that wow effect. The team in the kitchen had a real buzz around them, the waiting staff were ultra friendly and it was packed. Being a proud meat eater, I would never had plumped for something like the sprouting seeds and beans with miso aubergine and crispy citrus chicken – but was hugely impressed with the combination, with the chicken acting as an after taste. My companion’s butternut squash ravioli was spot on, and my chilli con veggie was so good I didn’t even reflect on the fact there was no meat in the dish at all.
Considering Grain Store’s success, it’s little surprise that a second restaurant has followed. ‘This is a pop-up for the moment,’ Bruno points out about Grain Store Unleashed, which has taken over from Bistrot Bruno Loubet. ‘It will be here for a few months, but if we have a big demand for it and realise this is what people want, then we will look at it again.’ We are sitting down at the back end of lunch, but it’s busy, suggesting it won’t take too long for Bruno and his team to get the message.
The concept here is different from its King’s Cross sibling, based around tasting menus. ‘I wanted to try that here and push it to another level,’ Bruno says on the approach. Taking a look at a sample dinner tasting menu, it’s a risk worth taking: vegetable oyster and ‘caviar’; asparagus, brown butter and pomelo; Chamomile carrots, salted lemon and orange puree, baked scallop; Charlotte potatoes, little gem, anchovies and eggs; grilled calcot onions, sweet peppers, cod flakes with smoked cod roe; spring cabbage roasted with crème fraiche butter and caraway, charcoal suckling pig; red vegetables, spiced bread sauce, fermented corn and wood pigeon; parsnip white chocolate cream, matcha tea, puffed oats and grapefruit gel. I don’t even know where to start describing such a mix of flavours.
As the sun pours in from the Clerkenwell sky, Bruno looks content. He may be just as successful as he was back in the 1990s, but there’s a distinct glint in his eye. ‘It is a big challenge cooking with vegetables in the sense we have been programmed to work with first your meat, then your sauce, and then the garnish. If you forget that, anything is possible.’ And it’s easy to forget about his age too. ‘I am 54, I have worked in Michelin starred restaurants and won Michelin stars, but now I find it challenging and fulfilling. I have always been passionate about what I do – but now every day is exciting.’
Words: Mark Kebble
Grain Store Unleashed at The Zetter Hotel, 86-88 Clerkenwell Road EC1M 5RJ; 020 7324 4455; grainstoreunleashed.com