Mickael Weiss expertly slices a corner from his rib-eye steak and dips it judiciously in pepper sauce. “I love this sort of food,” he smiles, his quick brown eyes darting between plate and fork. “I enjoy cooking and eating fancier food, of course, but this is what I feel like after a day in the kitchen.”
It helps, of course, that he is sitting in Coq d’Argent, the landmark City restaurant where Mickael has been Executive Head Chef for nearly a decade; it helps, also, that he knows exactly where the steak comes from – much of his time is spent searching out the finest ingredients – and that the pepper sauce is made to his recipe.
Things in Mickael’s life were not always so well organised. “I moved to London two weeks before my 18th birthday. I arrived at Victoria Station, a piece of paper in my hand, with the name of a restaurant written on it – the Opera Terrace, in Covent Garden – and the name of the manager.
“I didn’t have a clue where I was going, and I spoke absolutely no English. If it hadn’t been for a policewoman who spoke French, I might not have got into the restaurant business!”
He turned up to the restaurant at 6.30 am, and waited on the steps until the manager turned up three hours later. Life remained precarious for months after that, though, and – returning after a Christmas break in France the next year – he found himself with no job, and nowhere to live.
“All the French restaurant staff used to hang out at a nightclub called Elle Et Lui – well, it was more of a bar, really – so it was the best place to find a job and somewhere to stay.” Thanks to the Gallic grapevine, he found both fairly quickly, and started his first proper job at Le Provençal.
A succession of jobs followed, as Mickael steadily climbed the ranks, gaining experience at such exalted eateries as Le Gavroche, Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons and The Walnut Tree Inn. 1995 saw his first taste of real responsibility, as sous-chef to Peter Kromberg at The Intercontinental. He stayed for a year, then moved on to be head chef at Kartouche, followed by stints at Chapter One and Bleeding Heart, before finally settling at Coq d’Argent in December 2000.
“I learnt a lot from Peter, and I started to develop my own style then, too.” More seniority meant that Mickael could find an outlet for his own philosophy of how a kitchen should run, based very much on his childhood experiences. “I come from Gipsy stock, and when I was growing up, food could be scarce. We reared our own chickens, rabbits and pigs, but sometimes there wasn’t a lot to eat, and the occasional hedgehog or water rat crept into our diet! I know the value of food, and I don’t mean the price.”
It was a close-knit family, however, with a good support structure, and so it is hardly surprising that the two most striking aspects of Mickael’s kitchen ethics are a loathing of waste, and an office door “which is always open, whatever any of my staff want to talk about.
“As far as waste goes, it is something I feel very strongly about. I’ve worked in lots of kitchens that produce great food, but a lot of perfectly good ingredients end up in the dustbin. I try to keep waste to a minimum in the kitchen at Coq d’Argent and teach people to respect food.”
“I am very lucky at Coq d’Argent that we have so many loyal staff, which is unusual in the restaurant business. Two-thirds of my chefs have been with me for more than three years, and a couple of them for more than six years.”
“I think it comes down to treating staff with respect. We sort out rotas well in advance, for instance, especially over Christmas, so that we try to accommodate everyone’s needs: they all get a Christmas card and a small present, too. And I don’t mind when people leave the kitchen after a shift, as long as they have finished their work: I insist people turn up on time, though!” He is eager to pass on his skills to chefs in general, as well: as Willie Pike, MBE, organiser of the Scottish Chefs Conference, told Mickael, “your skills were not only an inspiration to the 300 trainee student chefs, but also to the 275 senior chefs and college lecturers in attendance.”
It is the way Mickael prefers to run his kitchen: “I’ve had to use agency chefs just three times over the last nine years, but they have never really worked out. I am much happier when I know my staff and they feel they can talk to me about anything that’s bothering them. I still remember the help I received when I was starting out, so it would be hypocritical of me not to do the same.”
His twin ideas of fostering a family atmosphere and avoiding waste have had a profound effect in another area of his life, too. In 2001, he attended a fundraising dinner at Circus, in Soho, organised by the charity Action Against Hunger, who are world leaders in treating child malnutrition and have forged very strong links with the restaurant industry in the UK. “It made me think ‘what can I do to help?’ I was watching the terrible pictures on the TV news, like everyone else, and I felt really powerless and almost sick.
“I went to a few more of their dinners, and donated prizes for raffles and auctions. Then, in October 2005, I had the chance to host an event here at Coq d’Argent, which was wonderful. After that, I became more and more involved with Action Against Hunger, cooking at many other events, until one day AAH’s director Jean-Michel asked me if I would like to travel to the field to see what AAH does with the money it raises.”
It was a remarkable experience for Mickael. “We went to Kenya, meeting semi-nomadic people who were struggling every day to find enough food for themselves and their families: with my Gipsy blood, it struck a particular chord, reminding me of the extent to which some people have to go simply to survive. It really made our day-to-day worries seem trivial.”
The plight of one little girl impressed him particularly. “She was nine years old, but weighed just six and a half kilos. I had tears in my eyes, just thinking to myself ‘what can we do to change this?’
“The answer, I think, is money – of course – but time and effort are just as important. I was hugely impressed with the skill and dedication of the AAH staff that I met in Kenya, both the ex-pats and the national staff: they are passionate about seeking long-term solutions for the societies they help, not just short-term fixes.”
Back in London, his experiences had a knock-on effect, too. “It made me realise just how lucky we are to have the facilities that we do, and it really reinforced the way I treat my kids at home, and my staff at work. I also signed up for a triathlon, which really pushed me to the limit! It was freezing, my knuckles were blue and it was bucketing down with rain, but it was a beautiful experience.”
He has faced some other unusual challenges, too: not least, appearing as the chef on the BBC’s Supersizers programme, where his brief was to prepare a feast fit for King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (actually Giles Coren and Sue Perkins, in full period costume). “My food has always been about ‘going back to basics’ and understanding the traditional processes of French cuisine. So it was a fantastic opportunity to step back in time and discover how my famous predecessors constructed their lavish banquets.”
He concedes, however, that some delicacies are probably best left in the 18th century. “Little did I know that I would be looking for fish livers, pig’s guts, coxcombs and testicles in Paris at six in the morning!”
Mickael’s work over the last decade at Coq d’Argent has inspired not only loyalty from his staff, but also the respect and admiration of his fellow professionals: Pascal Aussignac, for example, the Michelin-starred chef/patron of Club Gascon, who describes Mickael as “a very well-established chef who hasn’t let success go to his head, and I know I can always count on him.” And Jeremy Lee, chef at Blueprint Café, lauds Mickael for “doing something quite unique and rather wonderful. Langoustines, mayonnaise, frîtes and a bottle of lovely white wine at Coq d’Argent is a veritable treat.”
This style of casual, sociable eating sums up Mickael’s idea of what makes the perfect restaurant, and it is a philosophy he hopes, one day, to turn into reality. “My ideal would be to run a sort of gastronomic theme park, encompassing not just great food in relaxed surroundings, but art and music too, as well as an artisanal cheese shop, a little vinoteca where you can sample great wines by the glass, a bakery and a patisserie, and lots of kids running about, learning instinctively about the great pleasure to be gained from eating and drinking well in pleasant surroundings and good company. You don’t need a Michelin star to give people a great time.”
Given Mickael’s drive and ambition, nobody would bet against him achieving his dream one day soon, but it is his human qualities that impress his peers most. As Gilles Quillot, chef to the French Ambassador and President of the Association Culinaire Française, says, “Everyone knows that in order to be a good chef, talking is not essential, but generosity certainly is.
“He is a chef with a lot to give: passionate and generous is how I would best describe him. Those two qualities make the Chef of the Coq d’Argent a real ‘Grand Chef’.”
Food critic and writter