16 Aug 2010

Thierry Tomasin: Salesman of Pleasure

AS ‘Angelus’ celebrates its third anniversary, Douglas Blyde heads to Lancaster Gate to hear about ‘bling bling’ ingredients and marital aid tasting menus...

‘With all respect to the church, Angelus is not a church,’ glowers owner/manager Thierry Tomasin. ‘The menu’s not printed on a cow. If you fancy eggs Benedict at 11 o’clock at night, then why not? I’ve had enough of the formality of serving lunch 12-2pm and dinner 7-10pm. We’re open non-stop, 10am-11pm, seven days a week.’
After 10 years as sommelier of ‘Le Gavroche’, then five managing Chelsea’s ‘Aubergine’, Tomasin chose the derelict ‘Archery Tavern’ over 27 other sites to showcase his ‘21st century approach’ to hospitality.
With designers, Guillaume Evrard and Josette Plismy, Tomasin took three months to rehabilitate the 1804 boozer into a decadent brasserie. I met the impeccably suited Gascon under silk shades in the louche lounge. Here, tabletops are balanced on sawn columns and graphite walls are stencilled with flowers.
‘I wanted something crazy, like me,’ he says. ‘A bit boudoir, a bit Belle Époque where you can imagine men watching women smoke long cigarettes. But I also wanted to keep the building’s nature.’
Tomasin recalls a visit from an 82 year-old lady luncher who cast her eyes over every cranny before considering the menu du jour. ‘I thought she was an inspector,’ he laughs. ‘But it turned out the pub belonged to her parents. As a girl she overheard influential people discussing war strategy around the fire, drinking pints and whiskies. “Can’t you tell me more?” I asked, to which she replied, “No, I’m writing a book, so you’ll have to wait!’
It seems that mantelpieces still magnetise memories at Lancaster Gate. A brass bell which lends its name to the venue takes pride of place above the fire by the bar. ‘It belonged to my grandfather who used it to call my brother and me in from the fields - the mobile of the day.’
A Sporting Chance
Although Tomasin is becoming a Godfather of gastronomy, the Chairman Sommelier of Britain, holder of the Excellence Award from the Academy of Culinary Arts and Grand Prix of Gastronomy winner came late to a culinary career. For five years he played rugby with Fabien Galthié (French number nine) and also disc jockeyed for national radio. Indeed, he ‘obsessively’ collects vinyls and when driving home, ‘turns up the stereo for energy.’
Tomasin highlights his grandmother as the catalyst for the change. ‘She had an inn where I helped with everything, from room service to cooking and of course, wine. What interested me was seeing the customers’ pleasure as they left. A chef rarely sees that.’
After serving as a cook in Africa during military service, Tomasin sought work in the UK to repay debts to his parents. ‘I received five offers, including ‘La Tante Claire’, ‘Le Manoir’ and ‘Le Gavroche’. Even though my friend warned it would be “worse than the foreign legion” I decided to go to Gavroche for a year, but stayed for a decade.’
On the double Michelin starred Mayfair restaurant’s legendary cellars, Tomasin boasts: ‘when I took over we had 12,500 bottles; when I left, there were 66,000. I remember Maitre d’, Silvano Giraldin shouting because I bought so many ‘99 white Burgundies. But now he’s laughing, because it’s a fantastic year. “And the price you paid was superb”, he says. I suppose I’ve got too much stock at Angelus [including Chȃteau Angelus]. That’s always my problem.’
Tomasin rallies against style over substance operators and their ‘bling-bling’ approach. ‘I had enough of seeing chefs’ names on the front door. I don’t understand why people always talk about cuisine and forget about service or wine.’
Lobster, for example, is considered too flash. ‘Anyone can cook with caviar and lobsters if they have the money. I’m also against one spoonful and nothing else on the plate. I want three flavours and three textures. If you order lamb, I want you to taste lamb. Show me a chef who can make an omelette or great Béarnaise.’
I wonder what Tomasin thinks of elongated tasting menus. ‘Good for couples with nothing left to say,’ he says. Indeed, on couples in general, Tomasin is similarly frank. ‘They come expecting the moon on the table. Husband wants to show wife he’s the man in charge, and you smile. But when he comes with the mistress, life’s fantastic! Valentine’s is the worst, when you come with your wife and drink Beaujolais Nouveau, compared to the day before or after when you’re in with your mistress drinking Champagne.’
Tailor of Tables
As Angelus turns three, does Tomasin have an eye on another venue? ‘Sometimes it’s better to keep control and say hello and goodbye. I’m not saying I don’t want another, but I must have control. It sounds “hohoho”, but my name’s on the front and the menu. We’re not a factory. Customers are our bread and butter.’
As our city’s gastronomic scene matures, I ask Tomasin about the main differences between London and Paris. ‘The problem is staff,’ he sighs. Whilst I anticipate a tirade against lazy Brits, he confounds me. ‘Thanks to France’s Socialist government, people only work 35 hours a week. Of course there’s a difference between 35 and 60. And last night I finished at 1:40am. But I’ve chosen this life, and if I’m not happy, I could close the door and go fishing.’
As lunchtime approaches, I inform Tomasin of my impatience to try Angelus’ signature fois gras crème brûlée adorned with poppy seeds. But away from the restaurant it transpires Tomasin’s tastes are far less decadent. ‘When it was very hot, my grandmother used to mix cheap red wine, sugar and dry day-old bread with water and then chill it in a pot. At five o’clock in the afternoon she rang the bell. “Goute” she said, and I would fill my stomach and still play into the evening.’
We walk downstairs where ex Anton Edelmann chef, Martin Nisbett calmly works with his eight-strong brigade in a daylight flooded kitchen. As we speak, I catch sight of hooves leave the adjoining Hyde Park Stables. An intoxicatingly perfumed salsa of red wine, peppers, vinegar and shallots bubbles on the Chavet range.
‘Our identity is French but with Scottish touches, like a small haggis, because our chef is from Edinburgh, says Tomasin. ‘Out of 17 interviewees, Martin was the only one who said, “it’s nice to talk, but don’t you think I should cook something now?”
Nisbett responds: ‘I wasn’t trying to be arrogant, just confident.’ Largely self taught, Nisbett likes food which ‘punches in face a bit’. He shows me a small selection of his 700 cookery books lining the walls around the chef’s table. Sensing my admiration, he says: ‘I bought six in the past three days.’
As I retrace my steps, I half expect Tomasin to ring the Angelus bell - a gong for the dinner I so deeply yearn for...
Angelus - 4 Bathurst Street, London. W2 2SD
Commissioned/first published: Eat Me magazine