As megamall Westfield opens its doors we talk to one of the pioneer restaurateurs going in, both before the big event and on the opening day
Smithfield is being lashed by rain, it’s coming down in stair rods and almost horizontally as we push our way hurriedly into the cosy dimness of Cellar Gascon, next door to Club Gascon and across the way from Comptoir Gascon. That’s a lot of Gascons and with the launch of Gascon on the web and the imminent opening of Croque Gascon in the new mega-mall Westfield it seems Gascon is taking over the capital.
One half of the French Invasion is Pascal Aussignac who together with his business partner Vincent Labeyrie created the original Club Gascon years back with minimal money and precious little encouragement. ”The banks didn’t want to know,” he laughs toying with his espresso in Cellar Gascon, his jacket barely concealing the chef’s whites beneath. ‘You know back then this area was pretty much dead, there wasn’t even any real street lighting. It was just the market and the evenings were strange, deserted and almost spooky.”
The two had done their research though and felt the area had potential for their clever idea of bringing Gascony food to London in small portions. ‘Because, you know, normally the food is delicious but pfffffff” Pascal mimes his stomach swelling to an enormous size. ‘We didn’t want the customers being carried out!’ In fact customers were soon clamouring to get in, with six hundred people a day trying to book a place with room for just thirty five. ‘Madness,” says Pascal ruefully shaking his head.
Up in the cellar
And so when the place next door became available, the duo grabbed it and turned a run down old coffee house into Cellar Gascon, although to be honest it is actually on the ground floor. Here they were able to feed people faster with quick dishes eaten at pace and with perfectly matched glasses of wine from the home region. Then needing more kitchen space their Gallic gaze fell on a disused building the other side of the market, ‘It was a pissoir,” says Pascal. ‘ No really, it was the lavatory supplied by the council for the meat market workers but it hadn’t been used for awhile I am glad to say.” Here they used the kitchen downstairs while upstairs they had a range of Deli items from Gascony all displayed in a classically simple manner along with plenty of fine patisserie. ‘At night though people going past seemed to think it was a restaurant and were disappointed to find out that it wasn’t,” Pascal shrugs, ‘so we turned it into one! We serve larger, more filling dishes there and we have different plats de jour every day because now we have locals to feed and they want variety, of course.”
Meanwhile over by Sloane Street the owner of a large hole in the ground decided it shouldn’t be a swimming pool for the residents of the block above after all but a restaurant and a French one at that. He called Pascal and Vincent over to gaze in. ‘It was just a big empty underground space,” Pascal recalls. ‘Not even a staircase to get down to it. The building’s owner wanted a French restaurant but without the heavy classicism, the baggage of centuries and certainly not the arrogant waiters!” It chimed with what the duo wanted. ‘Gascon was modern in concept when it started,” Pascal explains, ‘ but we then wanted something like Alan Yau was doing with Asian food at Wagamama and Hakkasan; cool places, tradition modernised. And the area was right for that because here in Clerkenwell it is still masculine, a place of red meat and red wine, marble and leather but over there it is fashion and feminine elegance.” Pascal looks now at the success of Maze with its petits plats and muses that he was first. ‘Maze is exactly right, so good. If they did one thing better than we did at La Cercle it was to also offer larger portions as an option. But I like to think we definitely paved the way for a restaurant like Maze to succeed. We were ahead of our time!’
And so now here they are again, in at the start of something big with the opening of Croque Garcon in Westfield, in just a week’s time as we speak, and they are not alone, many big names are venturing into the kind of area that they would not normally have touched with a twelve foot breadstick ten years ago, a place where fast food is normally filthy food. Pascal is excited of course.
‘It’s going to be superlative food served in minutes,” he enthuses. ‘You know Croque means toasted as in Croque Monsieur a superior cheese sandwich and we are going to serve food above the normal standard with a short menu of twelve dishes including Cassoulard, a kind of reworked Cassoulet and a signature dish of Duck burger made from the leg meat shredded and formed into a burger, served in a bun of course, and for an extra cost topped with some pan fried foie gras. It’s something we’ve seen as one offs around London but this is permanent, something never done before for the general public, all in a place dedicated to raising the concept of fast food.”
The day dawns
October 30th 2008 and I am seated at one of the big tables near Croque Garcon. The opening day crowds are incredible but up here in the Balcony, where a host of cool food outlets are gathered together, you can breathe a little easier and even relax a bit. Pascal is not that relaxed behind the pass in the open kitchen, rushing back and forth and getting the dishes out with remarkable speed considering this is the first time he and his team have actually done a real service. Plates of thinly sliced vegetables with a tuna dipping sauce, tiny squid with chilli, scallops, rillette pate with cornichons, they are all being seized by hungry shoppers and carried off to the tables. And of course the mighty duck burger with foie gras. I grab half of one, feeling that perhaps a whole one might be too much and it’s good, especially alternated with mouthfuls of great chips cooked the traditional way in duck fat and washed down with hearty red wine. As dishes continue to pile up, Pascal emerges to chat grinning from ear to ear; you get the impression he rather likes this kind of cooking.
“I’ve never worked in a shopping mall before! This crowd, the numbers we are serving. I’m really pleased even if it’s not quite as fast as I want it. But then we only took over the kitchen just yesterday!” he yells above the noise, ‘before that it was just dust everywhere. But I am so happy to be here right now, being able in this recession time to be serving decent food at a decent price to anyone who drops by. We are open until 9pm and I like the location, I prefer it to being on the outside terraces. I am going to be here for three weeks, checking and refining, it will be long days! Good fast food the Gascon way!”
With that he scuttles off to the kitchen to make some Churros, the sweet Spanish crisp piped donuts dipped in chocolate that are also popular on the beaches of his native South West France. ‘We only tried the machine this morning,” Pascal calls over his shoulder cheerfully, as happy with his new kit as a kid with a new toy. ‘Some things we are learning as we go along!” The whole Westfield opening is a challenge but it’s clear that these Gascons are going to rise to it.
Comptoir Gascon, 63 Charterhouse Street, London, EC1M 6HJ
Club Gascon and Cellar Gascon 57 West Smithfield, London, EC1A 9DS
La Cercle 1 Wilbraham Place, London SW1X 9AE
Croque Gascon Westfield