Emma Brophy finds out from Le Vacherin's Malcolm John
Egon Ronay gave him one star, AA Gill bestowed him with a rare three star rating but just how did a boy from St Vincent end up running a renowned French bistro in Chiswick? I had the pleasure of finding out from the man himself, Malcolm John.
Born in St Vincent, Malcolm John came to England aged four and settled in Coventry with his family. After leaving catering collage at the age of 18, Malcolm moved straight to London where he trained with the Savoy Group at the Berkeley Hotel Knightsbridge for six years.
When London temporarily lost its appeal, Malcolm moved to Italy and learnt the fine art of making pasta by hand at the Sirenous Hotel, Positano. “Every year the village would host an amazing Easter celebration,” explains Malcolm “All the hotels would prepare their specialty dishes and villagers and tourists would make their way around Postiano tasting all the delicacies on offer. It was fantastic.”
Malcolm’s passion for Italian food is evident in his descriptions of his time in Italy but still doesn’t answer the French bistro in Chiswick question.
“When I felt I had gone as far as I could in Italy, I came back to London in the early 1990’s and was made Head Chef at Danielli’s [which is now Gravy] in Chiswick. In the three years I was there I got a really good feel for the Chiswick restaurant scene and noticed that there was a gap in the market for an informal, inexpensive French bistro.”
But the time was right to go out on his own so between 1995 and 1997 he worked as Executive Sous Chef at the Café Royal alongside Herbert Berger and then as Head Chef at St Quentin, Knightsbridge before moving to Terrance Conran’s Blue Bird Private Members Club, for two years in the same role.
“Since I was sixteen, all I ever wanted to do was have my own restaurant so the flicker has always been in me. But it was when I was working for Terrance Conran that the flicker was inspired to become a flame. I had kept my eye on Chiswick and knew it was where I wanted to be and was really lucky to find the site on South Parade. I knew instantly it was what I wanted.”
Malcolm John opened the doors to Le Vacherin in 2004 and has been reaping rave reviews in reward for his efforts. Charles Campion wrote “The cooking is good here, well-balanced dishes, intense flavours, good seasoning and a healthy dollop of real passion…Le Vacherin is a relative newcomer, but already chef proprietor Malcolm John seems to have won the hearts and minds of the locals with a combination of passionate cooking and a rather old-fashioned French menu.”
AA Gill agreed stating “baked vacherin…this is a duck-heart-stopping dish of unctuous splendour and, on its own, worth finding Chiswick for…Le Vacherin…is exactly what you would expect in every provincial ville…it is a blessed local phenomenon.”
With so many accolades I asked Malcolm if one stood out from the crowd.“Yes, when Giles Coren chose us as the first restaurant to review under his new points system. He awards points for food knowledge, food traceability, quality, service and cooking skills. He gave Le Vacherin 8/10 and included us in his top twenty best restaurants."
"But local views and reviews are equally important if not more so. What I would say to diners is that if you have a bad experience or feel your meal was not up to standard, then let the restaurant know so that we can do something about it. We are only human, everyone has off days and no one can get it right 100% of the time. Diners should remember that the service charge is not obligatory and give us the chance to put things right it is before using a public forum to complain.”
The word 'bistro' is a name for a restaurant serving moderately priced simple meals in an unpretentious setting and Malcolm has remained true to this ideal. “I want to disprove the impression that Le Vacherin is an expensive place to eat. I always use the freshest ingredients which are organic and from local suppliers where possible. I believe in offering excellent quality food, well prepared using fresh ingredients, for a fair price. Le Vacherin is an informal restaurant where customers are welcomed in the same manner as I welcome guests in my own home – that is my philosophy and the one that I instill in my staff.”
Talking of home, Malcolm and his wife Donna are expecting children four and five in March next year. With three daughters already Malcolm his hoping one of the twins will be a boy “Just one!" he says "I only want one son that’s all!” With only two days at home with his growing family, Malcolm talks about the importance of eating as family. “I do the cooking when I’m at home. We sit and have our meals together as a family sitting at the table.” And it is this homely quality that he brings to his business “The restaurant is an extension of me; it has to be to be successful.”
No one could have missed the huge influx of new restaurants in Chiswick; I asked how Malcolm viewed the ever increasing competition.“Competition is a good thing for both restaurants and customers and it keeps us on our toes. I find it invigorating to know that I have to consistently raise my game, come up with new and inventive ideas for the menu to keep my regular clientele happy whilst encouraging new custom. Of the other local restaurants I particularly admire Sam Harrison [Sam’s Bar & Brasserie] he’s a lovely guy and a great restaurateur, I also really like what Michael Nadra is doing at Fish Hook – both places are producing good quality artisan dishes.”
And what about the future? “I’m not chasing Michelin stars. My goal is to have a lucrative, well run business, the accolades come after that. I’ll keep the restaurant going in the same direction but I am always looking for ways to improve the day to day, grow the regular client base, oh and crack the lunch trade!”
November 23, 2006