He looks French, he sounds French, but Claude Bosi isn’t like other Frenchmen. William Sitwell meets a Michelin-starred curmudgeon, honorary Englishman and star of a Twitter row
IF YOU’RE LOOKING for someone to play Obelix and Gérard Depardieu isn’t available, you could do worse than hire Claude Bosi. He is Gallic to the core. He has it all. The shape, the nose, the voice and the buoyant spirit. Give him pigtails, a large moustache, an all-in-one blue-and-white-striped body suit, lend him a menhir to carry and all you’ll need is some Romans for him to beat.
Also like Obelix, he’s prone to minor explosions — as witnessed recently when an unknown blogger had the temerity to criticise a dish served at Hibiscus having meekly told the chef on the night that the food was ‘fine.’ Bosi called him the c-word on Twitter and a huge row ensued between bloggers and chefs.
While Obelix was fiercely loyal to his fellow Gauls, however, Bosi, who has lived in England for fifteen years, is less so. The French are, he says during the course of our conversation, a ‘very lazy’ people who ‘live in the past’, and having lived and worked here for many years he ‘would never go back home’. Bosi, 40, has embraced British culture fully, and today give him a Sunday roast and a pint of bitter and, he says, ‘I’m happy.’
It makes sense, then, that we’re meeting in an English pub. It’s called the Fox and Grapes, it’s on Wimbledon Common, and it’s his. Bosi made his name in the UK with Hibiscus, a restaurant in Ludlow where he won a Michelin star in 2001 and a second in 2004. In 2007 he relocated the restaurant to Mayfair, where he retained the two stars. So, having cracked the fine dining world, he’s opening pubs. In addition to the Fox and Grapes he’s soon to open one in Fulham and plans to own six in total over the next few years.
‘I love pubs,’ he says, biting into a bacon and egg brioche bap. ‘They remind me of the bistro my parents ran in Lyon. They are wonderful places. You can have dinner or just a coffee with the newspapers. The overheads are smaller than in restaurants, the food is simple and you can make more money.’
Indeed, as he explains, at Hibiscus on Maddox Street he employs fourteen chefs and does 1,000 covers a week. In Wimbledon, with six staff, he serves 1,500 covers. The chefs earn more at the pub; those at Hibiscus are on more of a learning curve and earn an average of £18,500 per year. But, he says, ‘you should see those kids in the kitchen. They love it. It’s the only place I cook and the hours we do there are crazy.’
While the Fox and Grapes menu, overseen by head chef Julian Ward, specialises in beef, includes the likes of fish and chips and steak and kidney pudding with the odd curve ball (the lasagne is made with snail and veal cheeks), it’s at Hibiscus where you’ll see Bosi’s playfulness in action. It’s from that kitchen that he uses the skills he learned working in Michelin-starred kitchens in France employed to dramatic effect with British ingredients.
And if I quote dishes such as halibut and grapefruit served with pork pie sauce, you’ll see what I’m getting at. It may not be on the menu as I write, but barbecued poussin, fricassée of girolles, greengage and cobnuts is — as is a starter of Devonshire crab, pickled melon sorbet and fresh almonds.
The high cost of ingredients and the labour involved in turning out such dishes mean Hibiscus can struggle to break even — especially if there are Olympic Games going on. The summer was, he says, ‘a fucking disaster. In three months we lost nearly everything. London was like a ghost town. People were brainwashed to stay at home.’
Thankfully his pub, successfully converted from what he calls ‘a shithole’, makes money. To assist in its smooth running, his younger brother Cedric manages it with his English wife Amy and their little boy William, who is running about in the pub on the morning I visit and is, says Claude, ‘the real boss’.
CLAUDE AND CEDRIC were brought up in Lyon and helped serve in the family restaurant after school. Claude was, by his own account, ‘rubbish at school’ and left with no qualifications at just fourteen. His headmaster and parents understood and encouraged him to follow his only interest: cooking. Two weeks after leaving school he was a chef in a brasserie and, bar a longish sojourn to the Caribbean in his late teens, he hasn’t stopped cooking since. He worked under some of the biggest names in France before landing a job for Alain Ducasse in London in 1997.
‘I didn’t particularly want to come to London but I wanted to learn the language for a few months,’ he says. The planned six months is now fifteen years and he has no plans to return.
‘Some of my friends didn’t understand what I was doing. But the food here is now wonderful — especially out of London — and the ingredients are great, too,’ he says before turning his mind to the country of his birth.
‘France is now a country of lazy people. A very lazy country. They live in the past and just live on their reputations. While there are some young chefs moving things forward in Paris, most people are obtuse about what they like to eat. They live in this world where French is best. But I couldn’t do what I have been doing with Hibiscus in Lyon — they just stick to what they know. Whenever I visit France now, I’m so happy to come back to England.’
Bosi puts his money where his mouth is by rarely employing a fellow Gaul. ‘I don’t employ any Frenchmen in my kitchen. Every time I try it’s a disaster — all they do is ask, “What time is my break?” I just tell them to go back home.’
THE PROBLEM, HE thinks, is the French ‘benefit culture, which is far worse than in Britain and which makes them think, “Why bother going to work?” That’s what makes them lazy.’ It’s British produce that helps to encourage Bosi’s positive view of the UK. ‘The game season here is a dream, and there is fish and seafood you can’t beat.’ But, he adds, ‘we miss good vegetable farmers — small producers don’t shout loud enough. And forget about English wine, it’s piss.’
Bosi, like Obelix, doesn’t need any magic potion to dispense his big, bold and funny views of the world. And as he’ll remain on our shores for quite some time, I suggest any French men or women with a sensitive disposition keep well clear of him and the tossing about of his metaphorical menhirs.
Illustration by Rebecca Buckland