I’ve been hearing good things about The French Table in leafy Surbiton for some time. From enthusiastic words about the restaurant from various people to my friend Jane telling me she’d stumbled by chance upon a wonderful cafe/bakery in Surbiton called The French Tarte that she thought The Single Gourmet Traveller should check out. When I checked it out online, I saw it was attached to this restaurant everyone was telling me I should visit. So, today, that’s where I went – to talk to Chef/Restaurateur Eric Guignard who runs The French Table with his wife, Sarah.
Since The French Table opened in 2001 it has received much acclaim: nominated ‘Best Local Restaurant’ by Timeout in 2002, getting to the finals of Gordon Ramsay’s F Word in 2009 as ‘Best Local French Restaurant’ and then Winner of Best London Restaurant in The Good Food Guide 2010.
Before opening The French Table, Eric enjoyed a career working in various parts of the world, including a number of Michelin starred restaurants. I asked him when he knew he wanted to be a chef; whether it was in his family. No, he said; none of his family are chefs, but he remembered spending time with his grandfather when he was small and living in France, where he was born, and helping to look after the rabbits and chickens – and learning how to butcher them. He said his parents worked hard and were often home late so he took to exploring the kitchen and teaching himself to cook. He was nine, he told me, when he decided to be a chef; he just knew it was what he wanted to do. I told him some of the other chefs I’ve interviewed have told me similar stories – almost a sense of realising very young that they were born to be chefs and there was never any doubt that that’s what they wanted to do.
At 16, Eric started his first job in a kitchen. It was very hard work, he said, and you only got one day off; you either survive or very quickly give up. From there he became a chef in the army when he did his year’s national service (compulsory in France) and then moved to Paris. He found a job in a good restaurant on the Ile St Louis where he learnt a lot but he was determined to find work in a Michelin-starred restaurant. After 16 months he moved to the Jules Verne restaurant on the Eiffel Tower where he stayed for two years. This was followed by a number of jobs in other Michelin-starred restaurants before working in the USA, then in Venice on the Orient Express and the Hotel Kempinski in Berlin.
Between 1995 and 1997, Eric worked at the Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge, the only privately owned hotel with a Michelin star. Around this time he met his wife Sarah and then worked at The White Onion in Islington until the couple opened The French Table in 2001. I’ve already mentioned the success the restaurant has enjoyed, but Eric and Sarah also run cookery classes from the restaurant’s kitchen on some Saturday mornings and Eric’s passion for baking led them to open The French Tarte next door just over a year ago. Here, apart from wonderful breads they make, you can buy delicious cakes, pastries and quiches, either to eat in or take out.
When we got to talking about books, Eric said he was always buying cookery books – some every week. He doesn’t so much use the recipes as find that looking through can inspire him to come up with new ideas.
1. Alain Ducasse: Eric said Ducasse was without doubt his favourite chef and his books, like Grand Livre de Cuisine, were great but perhaps more for professionals as the recipes were complex.
2. Michel & Albert Roux: The Roux Brothers on Patisserie – Eric said that, pastry-wise, the Roux brothers’ recipes were sound and always good. This book is a great base for classic recipes.
3. Auguste Escoffier: The Escoffier Cookbook: Guide to the Fine Art of French Cuisine – A classic.
4. Anne Willan: La Varenne Cookbook – La Varenne is a cookery school in Paris and Eric said its cookbook is a great one for basics and is available in French and English – which is often helpful.
5. Saveur Magazine – Eric said this was a great French food magazine that contains loads of ideas and he finds it useful to look through this for inspiration.
At this point we briefly moved off books to talk about the kind of cooking Eric does at home. For a chef who has travelled so much, I thought he’d have diverse culinary interests and indeed he does. He said in terms of French cooking, nothing for him can beat a good roasted chicken with lots of garlic and potatoes or a steak. But he loves to make Indian curries; often makes pizzas with his sons (7 and 8) and also stir fries – especially with prawns which are a great favourite.
6. Anne-Sophie Pic – Pic is a 3-Michelin starred chef with a restaurant in Valence who has written a number of books that Eric recommends.
7. Anne Willan: La France Gastronomique – a great reference book that divides France into regions so excellent for looking up classic recipes.
8. Joel Robuchon – Eric thinks Robuchon’s L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon is one of the best restaurants in London. He’s written a number of books that Eric would recommend.
9. Champignon Sauvage Cookbook: Champignon Sauvage is a restaurant in Cheltenham and Eric said he liked their cookbook a lot.
10. La Maison Keyser is a prestigious bakery in Paris. Eric, having talked about his passion for baking and making bread, was inevitably going to choose a book on baking – and this is it.
I really enjoyed talking with Eric and must head back to this pretty road in Surbiton soon to eat at the restaurant. Meanwhile, I couldn’t resist heading back into the bakery after our meeting to buy a loaf I’d seen when I arrived – a chorizo loaf. The smell was divine and it made a wonderful quick lunch with its nice chunks of chorizo inside with some olive oil and salad.
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