Bibendum, bon vivant

Matthew Harris has been head chef at Bibendum for twenty years. He talks to Ellie Clayton about maintaining standards, and how to work with a landmark building

The floor downstairs at Bibendum is pitched, not so much that it’s visible, but ever so slightly.  “It’s so they could roll tyres down to the front,” head chef Matthew Harris tells me.

Though this is an unconventional feature for a restaurant floor, it is just one of the lasting relics of the building’s days as the Michelin UK headquarters. Built in the early twentieth century, Michelin House  – and its three-stained glass ‘Michelin man’ windows – is an iconic landmark on west London’s Fulham Road.

“It’s definitely a draw,” says Harris. “Every day you’ll see people stopping outside to take a photo. In the summer there are people sitting on the other side of the road painting it. It’s a destination building”

In 1985 the building was bought by restaurateur Sir Terence Conran and publisher Paul Hamlyn. Michelin moved out, and with extensive and careful renovation, the restaurant and oyster bar moved in.

Simon Hopkinson was installed as head chef, and Harris, who had worked with Hopkinson at Hilaire in Kensington, as chef de partie. When Hopkinson retired in 1995, Harris took over.

“There’s only so much you can do with a plateau de fruit de mer”

The Oyster bar downstairs, complete with Michelin mosaic on the floor, was re-furbished in August last year and re-launched with a new menu. Working closely with the council, architects and designers Harris has managed to introduce hot food downstairs for the first time. The Oyster bar now serves breakfast, and its all-day menu also features “substantial” salads and terrines and other dishes.

“We were never allowed to do it before. We used to only be able to do cold food down here but we’ve managed to redesign it and get hot stoves in.”

The building is grade two listed, and council stipulations mean there can be no gas and everything in the downstairs restaurant has to be totally removable.

“It doesn’t look like it but everything can be taken away. It can all look exactly how it did originally.”

Hopkinson, who is still a partner in the restaurant, had input on the new Oyster bar menu. It doesn’t change as frequently as the upstairs restaurant, says Harris. “There’s only so much you can do with a plateau de fruit de mer. We tweak and change the other dishes, but nothing too drastic.”

Upstairs however, Harris serves both an a la carte and a set menu, which changes daily, lunch and dinner.

“Over the years, everybody changes”

But, twenty years is a long time to be at the helm. How has Harris kept standards high and stopped both his himself and his menu from tiring?

The answer is simple, he says. “I enjoyed it. I love cooking. There’s always a challenge, there’s things to keep me occupied and I enjoy what I do, really.”

His style of cooking has developed over the years, he says, but has remained classic and contemporary French, “with some British as well”.

“Over the years everybody changes,” he says. “I’ve travelled more. I’ve read more. I’ve experimented more.”

“I have absolute freedom here. There are Japanese influences, Italian influences. There are things I like doing and sometimes they find their way in.”

Harris is a constant presence in his kitchen. Something he views as intrinsic to the success of the restaurant.

“People are so much more demanding now. They’ve got more choice. They expect you to get it right and be on your game every single time.”

Getting the best out of staff is the most important way to ensure quality is consistent, he says.

“You have to keep watch on everything the whole time. You have to employ the right staff in the first place, train them, motivate them and encourage them.”