When Pascal Aussignac opened the Michelin-starred Club Gascon in Smithfield, it was a huge gamble – but one that has heartily paid off
Pascal Aussignac is slightly perturbed. Thanks to a mix up in organisation, we are speaking an hour later than planned, with the acclaimed French chef due to head out and discover if his first restaurant, Club Gascon (astonishingly 17 years of age now), has retained its Michelin star with the publication of the new Guide. We run the risk of having to curtail our chat, but as soon as we get started, Pascal quickly gets into full flow and we lose all track of time.
For a start, 17 years is a long time for a London restaurant’s lifespan. ‘When I came over from Paris it was just Marco Pierre White and Jean-Christophe Novelli,’ he recalls in his still strong French accent, ‘it’s unbelievable what’s happened since. But I have to say, if you want to do something from scratch and be in the right location, the rents in London are outrageous. If you are independent you just can’t do it. When I arrived here, that didn’t exist.’
Frustrated with the lack of support from French banks, Pascal came to London with business partner Vincent Labeyrie and, after searching for a year, found a home in Smithfield. ‘Then it was a dead end,’ he laughs at the incredulity of it. ‘Even our bank said we shouldn’t open in the evening as there is nobody there. The first night we did 30 covers, but it was 600 a day a week later. So never trust a bank! Always follow your own instincts. Back then only St John was open [in the area]. We were a French restaurant, specialising in small plates, the only restaurant in all the square – even the meat market was going through a refurbishing process as this was the time of “mad cow” disease. We opened, the reviews were good – and soon we had queues of people outside.’
For anyone who has eaten at Club Gascon, the hype was fully justified. Seventeen years later and he’s still in the kitchen every day at Club Gascon, despite the fact his empire has grown with two more restaurants in the area – Cellar Gascon and Comptoir Gascon – as well as Cigalon and Baranis (both just off the Strand). ‘Yes,’ he says simply when I ask him if he was always going to open more restaurants, ‘and I wish to open some more, in London or somewhere else. You only have one life after all!’
These new outlets allowed Pascal to advance his cooking at Club Gascon – switching from the traditional (now found at Comptoir) to the more modern – and as we speak he is excitedly preparing for a new menu at his original restaurant. Mentioning our country special this issue, he is quick to tell me about their forthcoming game menu at Club Gascon. ‘I always link the food to the seasons,’ he states. ‘We have a market menu, which we have had since day one, which is five courses, and from next week four of those will be devoted to game. Grouse, partridge, hare, mallard, foie gras… It’s always quite a challenging menu – it’s much more masculine with strong flavours.’
With all this, it’s a wonder how he manages to fit anything else in, but once again this month he will be appearing at Taste of London, taking place from 19-22 November at East London’s Tobacco Dock. You get the impression his long-standing association with the Taste festivals – he has appeared at all bar the very first one – offers him a welcome change from the day to day challenge of running all of his restaurants. ‘It’s a jungle out there, in terms of restaurants in London, so image is important,’ he says of being involved in the festivals. ‘It’s a chance, too, to interact with your customers. When I’m in the restaurant I never go to the dining room. When you are at Taste, it’s the complete opposite and I am always there from the beginning to the end. I am working on the menu now and I’m looking forward to talking to people there.’
A glance at the watch shows we are over ten minutes behind schedule, but I put the blame firmly at Pascal’s table due his enthusiasm. ‘I do try to be happy when I come to my kitchen every day and I like to share that with other people,’ he latches on to that. ‘Every day is different – the flavours, the palate, the customers – so it’s always evolving.’ Oh and that Michelin star? It’s safe and sound in the new Michelin Guide.
Words: Mark Kebble
Pascal Aussignac will be appearing at Taste of London from 19-22 November at Tobacco Dock. Advance tickets can now be purchased for £12 from tasteoflondon.co.uk, and Club Gascon can be found at 57 West Smithfield EC1A 9DS; 020 7600 6144; clubgascon.com