With an impressive two Michelin stars to its name, it’s fitting that Claude Bosi at Bibendum is located within the iconic Michelin building in Kensington. Built in 1911, it’s stunningly modern. The kitchen and the dining room are separated by an automatic glass sliding door. Sensors on the dining room side cause it to open as a member of front-of-house staff approaches. On the other side, it is operated by a small button to the bottom right-hand side that is operated with the swift tap of a polished shoe toe, or with the heel depending on the payload the member of staff is carrying into the dining room.
It’s a door more akin to one found at the front of an office building or supermarket than a restaurant, and one a million miles from the sometimes challenging swing doors with which waiting staff are used to running the gauntlet, making life that little bit less precarious for those working the restaurant floor. It’s also been advantageous for the kitchen brigade. Chef-patron Claude Bosi admits that having the kitchen in full view – and in hearing range – of the customers in the dining room has meant he has had to learn to tone down any potential mid-service outbursts.
“I used to be hot-tempered [in the kitchen] but because we have a window now I find I’ve been keeping my cool,” he says, standing in his already bustling kitchen. “It’s better for all of us. Sometimes I’d just blow a fuse, but now we talk about any issue after service when the heat of the moment has passed. That’s probably why staff stay longer with me now, I can’t go mental any more. This window has saved a lot of lives!”
You’d think, therefore, that a busy service in Bosi’s kitchen would be a raucous affair, but the reality couldn’t be further from this. At 12.30, half an hour into lunch service on a Thursday afternoon, the kitchen is eerily silent with the brigade talking in hushed tones. Bosi, wearing green-rimmed glasses, is pacing up and down the pass like a caged tiger. Seriously but calmly he calls out orders that he, head chef Francesco Dibenedetto or sous chef Alex Parker garnish once they arrive, before beckoning for a member of waiting staff to spirit them away on wooden trays to the dining room. The atmosphere is brittle and intense, like a changing room before a vital cup match; every movement is efficient and purposeful, with the gentle hum of the various kit the only constant sound. As Bosi says: “I don’t like noise.”
The 47-year-old Lyonnaise chef runs a tight ship, but then to get two Michelin stars as he has done here, and previously at Hibiscus, first in Ludlow and then in Mayfair following its relocation, he needed to. Bosi opened the restaurant in the Michelin building just over two years ago having sold Hibiscus late the following year, with the restaurant being awarded two-star status just six months later. As well as the upstairs fine dining room that bears his name, and which is open for four-and-a-half days, he oversees the ground floor oyster bar and restaurant at the front of the building that is a daily operation. It’s a big undertaking for any chef-patron, and one that nearly never got off the ground for Bosi.
“I wanted a new challenge, but the plan was not to come here at the beginning”
Owned by Sir Terence Conran, the building that was once the UK headquarters for Michelin between 1911 and 1985 is much loved among gastronomes ever since the days of Simon Hopkinson, who opened his upstairs restaurant there in 1987. Under Hopkinson, the building gained legendary status but had lost some of its shine in the years following his departure. In 2016 Conran looked to Bosi to breathe new life into the dining areas as part of a consultancy, and while that relationship never came to fruition, a stronger one was created as a result.
“I wanted a new challenge, but the plan was not to come here at the beginning,” says Bosi, who had just had an offer accepted on Hibiscus in Mayfair when Conran made his overture. “The agent came to me and asked if I would I take an offer on the restaurant [Hibiscus] so I said a figure I never thought I’d get. But they accepted, so I said ‘done, have it. Have the keys, have the mise en place in the fridge, I’m out’. We signed the deal very quickly.”
With cash in his pocket and a newfound sense of freedom, the proposed consultancy role didn’t fit with Bosi’s next career move. Nor, indeed, did the operation at Bibendum, he admits. At the time he planned to open a small 24-cover restaurant and return to basics. “I came here, walked through the place and it was a disaster,” he recalls. “I said ‘no way, I can’t put my name to something like this, there is too much to do.”
Undeterred, Conran invited Bosi to his flat in Battersea to try convincing him otherwise. He accepted but his line remained the same. “I told him ‘sorry, the place needs so much love and hard work. I’ll take your consultancy fee but in six months’ time you’ll have the same problems’.” Instead, he speculatively suggested buying the spaces outright and running them himself, an offer that Conran accepted, selling Bosi a large chunk of the restaurants (while wanting to retain a stake in them) and forming a business partnership. “He grabbed a cigar and at 10.30 in the morning I was smoking and having a gin and tonic to celebrate,” he says.
From that point on the hard work began, with Bosi under no illusions of the task that still lies ahead. “It’s a big responsibility,” he says of running both restaurants, standing in the bright and welcoming entrance to the upstairs restaurant. “It’s such a big building and the expectation is massive. What Simon Hopkinson did at the beginning, people still remember the reputation he built. People come here with the expectation of something special, it’s on our shoulders.”
“It’s such a big building and the expectation is massive. People come here with the expectation of something special, it’s on our shoulders.”
At the start, Bosi considered letting Hopkinson’s shadow be cast over the menu, thinking he would revisit some of the dishes that made Bibendum so beloved but modernise them. Yet something didn’t feel right. “I thought, let’s kill it off and do my own food. After a certain age you become a bit more mature, you know what you want to eat and serve. So we just did that. I didn’t think about being in the Michelin building, I just wanted to cook good food and that’s it.”
Rather than being in the building’s thrall, the restaurant is more relaxed because of its impressive stained-glass window location. “Hibiscus never felt like my own place. It was a back-street restaurant. It was very dark and I tried to show off on the food side, but doing something that wasn’t me. The building here lets me do what I want, I don’t have to show off. That freedom came because the building speaks for itself.”
No more is this freedom manifested than in Bosi’s tripe and cuttlefish gratin with pig’s ear and ham cake, a recipe lifted from his mother. “I had to take tripe off the menu at Mayfair and I’m the only one who makes it in the kitchen here. I go home after making it and my wife tells me to sleep in the spare bedroom. But this is who we are. Sometimes chefs forget what they open a restaurant for. We just cook food, we don’t save lives.”
Two years on and Bosi freely admits he is pushing for that third star, and has set up his kitchen in a way he believes makes it achievable. He was
in charge of the design of the kitchen and the choosing of its kit, including its huge Athanor solid-top stove.
The stove is flanked by a Rational combi-oven on one side, where some of the seafood is steamed and also the restaurant’s French veal sweetbreads are cooked, and a huge rotisserie grill on the other on which the meat for the gueridon trolley, including its roast chicken ‘de Bresse’, is cooked. A Mareno salamander grill sits above the pass, while the pastry section to the left has another Rational oven. there is also a Tecnomac blast chiller, Pacojet, Metcalfe mixer and a well-used Carpigiani ice cream machine (“everybody always says ‘chef she’s dying’ – but she’s still going strong 12 years on”).
The kitchen is part electric, part gas because Bosi says the building doesn’t have the requisite electricity supply. “At the beginning I wanted
all electric, but I love gas. It suits us better for what we want to do. It’s back to basics where you have to adapt to the heat, as one side of the stove is hotter than the other.”
Other kit includes Winterhalter under-counter glass washers and a pass through dishwasher, a Eurocave wine cooler and a Hoshizaki ice machine whose sporadic rumbling is the most consistent noise in the kitchen. It is surprisingly low tech, although there are hints that the brigade does like to experiment – a Clifton waterbath sits to one side of the kitchen, and an Excalibur food dehydrator is perched out of the way in the pastry section. The only piece of kit Bosi is lacking is a meat ageing room, due to space restrictions.
“A good brigade understands what you want to do. It’s not their background or how many Michelin stars they have on their CVs that is important, it’s about them understanding what we are trying to achieve. It’s that simple."
Downstairs, the open kitchen is considerably smaller, reflected in its menu of seafood platters, oysters, fish and chips, salads and caviar. Here there’s room for a lobster tank, fryer and plancha as well as a pasta cooker. “It’s harder downstairs, it’s a smaller space with a bigger number of covers. The menu is based on produce and simplicity.”
Bosi describes the layout of the main kitchen as being ‘very French’. Unlike in some grand kitchens, where the saucing is done by one member of the brigade, each section chef is responsible for their own sauces. Dishes then come to the pass where Bosi, Dibenedettoor Parker take charge of finishing them. “Outside of the pastry we dress around 80% of the dishes, we’ve got full control,” he says. “If it goes out and there's a problem, it’s our fault – they messed it up but it’s our job to stop it. Between the three of us we are checking almost everything that comes out of the kitchen and ensuring things are consistent.”
There are around 17 chefs in the upstairs kitchen and six on the ground floor, and the chefs stay in their designated kitchen. “I’m a big believer that if people come here to eat and are ready to give me their hard-earned money we have a responsibility to give them value for money. This is why I have the amount of staff I do,” says Bosi.
Another reason for the brigade size is to compensate for the building’s ‘tiny’ cold room, which means very little can be prepped in advance and stored. “People say they had food poisoning because our food was old but it can’t happen because we get two deliveries a day. It’s good for the customers but it’s hard for the guys, which is why we need so many in the kitchen because you’ve got to make everything every day.”
The large building is also surprisingly lacking in other back-of-house space, with Bosi admitting that, while his staff use the staff changing room, he gets changed on the staircase at the rear of the kitchen, with his fresh whites hanging from the banisters.
With a four-and-a-half-day week for the flagship restaurant, staff have a good work/life balance. But when the restaurant is open – Wednesday dinner to Sunday dinner – the team earns its crust. The day begins for the entire brigade at 7am when they start to prep for service. The majority of things are made in-house, with the exception of bread, which Bosi has long sourced from Mikael Jonsson at Hedone – partly because of kitchen’s size restrictions and partly because Bosi believes his bread is best in class (“why try and beat him?").
Midday. Guests promptly arrive as the clock strikes 2 – a table of four hoping to be in and out, plus a solo diner. Lunch ends at 2.15pm. Dinner runs from 6.30pm to 10pm, with the kitchen given a thorough clean down between services and at close. The upstairs restaurant averages around 450 covers a week in total, with the downstairs doing double that.
A typical meal starts with a glass of champagne and with the waiters coming in to ask for canapes which are checked over by Bosi or his right-hand men. The signature canapes include a light egg shell filled with mushroom crème and topped with coconut foam and dusted with curry powder that is served in a Michelin Man silver egg cup, known as the Bibendum egg – Bosi checks the temperature of the egg by touching the base of the shell – or a bonsai olive tree with liquid-filled ‘olives’.
“The most important thing is the quality of the produce”
Bosi remains at the pass throughout, with a three-course lunch expected to take around 90 minutes. While there are amuse-bouche, there are no pre-desserts and Bosi has dispensed with petits fours at the end of the meal, instead offering handmade chocolates which sit in a wooden box on the pastry counter. “When you go to a restaurant you should be hungry, which is why we offer the small snacks at the start, but after that people don’t want to be given loads of small things.”
The service is slick and on point – just as Bosi likes it. On this particular day he is distracted by the setting up of cameras and lighting equipment in his dining room for the filming of a video for the Daily Mail. Only when the five-strong crew attempts to wheel in three overloaded trolleys of gear to the dining room does one get a flavour of a Bosi outburst when he gives them a curt dressing down. “I’m not an easy chef to work with in the kitchen because I know what I want, and I won’t take any prisoners,” he says later. “But I’m fair. Sometimes I mess up on the pass and I admit I’ve messed it up. We need to be honest with each other.”
He expects the same approach from his team. “A good brigade understands what you want to do. It’s not their background or how many Michelin stars they have on their CVs that is important, it’s about them understanding what we are trying to achieve. It’s that simple. I can show them the skills until they are consistent and sometimes we mess up, but if they have the honesty to admit that then I’m fine. What I don’t accept is them giving me something they know is wrong but think I’ll miss. If you work 15 hours a day it’s too much to not do things properly. I don’t like people cutting corners. If you think it’s just fine, you’re in the wrong job.”
And if they do mess up and fess up? “If we need more time I’ll give the customer an extra course and they’ll do it again. Everything has to be perfect.”
This attention to detail is ingrained into the restaurant’s sourcing. It has around 70 suppliers, each of which is meticulously vetted. “The most important thing is the quality of the produce,” says Dibenedetto. “We are always researching the best produce, it’s very exciting.”
Parker shares this notion. “The standards we are working to are so high. Working for Claude, the ingredients we get in and the connections chef has are amazing, I’ve never seen better stuff in London for sure. It makes you take so much pride in what you do.”
As head chef, Dibenedetto describes working for Bosi as “one of the best things that could have happened in my life”, but the respect is mutual. Bosi describes his flagship restaurant at Bibendum as an evolution of what he was cooking at Hibiscus when it first opened in 2000, another time in his life when he was cooking what he wanted. This time round, and with three stars in sight, he acknowledges he needs to marry this return to confidence with greater finesse than ever before. It’s a job he admits he can’t do alone.
“Sometimes a dish can be beautiful but there’s nothing behind it. I’m from Lyon, where flavour is more important than decoration. Look at me, I’m 18 stone, there’s no refinement inside of me, so I need my team to bring out that refinement.”
Will it be eventually be enough to get three stars? One thing’s for sure, no restaurant is more befitting; with silver and porcelain Bibendums (the name for the Michelin Man) keeping constant vigil over the dining room.