The French Horn is iconic, quintessentially English and has a celebrated restaurant. The chef has an equally enviable reputation but she isn’t English. This is, after all the ‘French’ Horn.
The owner is Michael Emmanuel and he knows what makes a good chef. “We’ve always been about good food cooked well and delivered properly. I’ve had just three chefs in 24 years. The first one I inherited from my parents, he stayed with me for five years and he was with the family for 20; I then employed Gilles Company, and he was with me for 18 years. Chef Josiane Diaga is a wonderful lady who was my second chef. She went away to work in America as head chef, and when she came back to the UK I immediately asked her back as my number two, because I needed two strong characters in the kitchen.
“Gilles was offered a professorship at the Cordon Bleu school in London, and that gave me the opportunity to refresh. We interviewed many great chefs and I was pleased to say to Josiane that she was the best candidate. She is taking us in a different direction, and keeps raising the bar, pushing the envelope. It’s about quality and it’s about the customer.”
It’s been an easy transition for this chef, who has always been comfortable in this kitchen. She hasn’t come in as an unknown element: she has been tried and tested by The French Horn and it’s evidently a relationship that works.
Josiane Diaga has a quick and bright smile but complains that her English isn’t perfect – she doesn’t realise that a French accent is an asset for a chef and particularly a French one. She was born in Marseille and I asked her about her family. What did they think when she told them she was going to be a chef? “They didn’t know exactly what a chef was, because they are not part of the profession. I’m from a not particularly prosperous part of Marseille, so to have any kind of job is important. I’ve found the one I want and I’m very pleased!” In fact it’s not just a job for this lady – she is working with her passion.
Working at the Waldorf Hotel
Did Josiane always have a dream of becoming a chef? “This is something I really wanted to do. When you start training you don’t know if you are going to like it or not, but from the beginning I absolutely knew I wanted to do that. I went to school in Marseille, because I was born there, then after I got my certificate I started to travel around France. I was very lucky because I worked in Le Casse-Croûte in Nice. While I was working there, my chef placed me in Alsace, he even brought me to England to work at the Waldorf Hotel, and then some time in America as well. I first worked at The French Horn in about 1997.
“When I worked in Nice I had met my chef de partie Eddy, who was American, and when he became a chef back in the US he asked me if I would go over there. I moved to the USA and worked in Cape Cod – it was so nice, I could have stayed over there! Eddy then moved to Snoqualmie, near Seattle, but that didn’t work out and I only stayed there for about a month. I came back to England and worked in Nottingham – but I always wanted to return to the French Horn!
Had she considered changing the menu?
“I took over from Gilles Company, having been his sous-chef for some time, and when he left and the Emmanuel family asked me to take over I was not sure – it was such a nice place and I didn’t want to let it down. It was quite scary! But I accepted and now I really enjoy it.”
How does Josiane feel about her new position in The French Horn? “I took over at the beginning of the year (2012); I am not cooking any less than I did, I find that I am doing more now, because I have the meat section to look after as well as managing the kitchen.”
I asked if she had considered changing the menu. “There are a few things, like the duck which you can see on the rotisserie by the fireplace, which are specialities of the house, and we can’t change those, but there are other dishes that we can change. You have to be a bit modern as well. This has always been a really classic restaurant and the customers do like things the way they are, so we can’t change too much, but we can always try to improve, little by little.
“We have the set menu (£16.50 for two courses and £26.50 for three) and what we’re doing is good quality and value for money, everyone can come to eat – before, it was more expensive. We change every month, and the à la carte is seasonal, too. It’s exciting now, being in charge, I can make my own decisions, and I can’t say it isn’t thrilling! I have a good team, too – we are six normally in the kitchen.”
I really enjoy preparing fish
Is there anything that Josiane particularly enjoys cooking? “I am on the meat section, so I have to let the rest of the team work the other stations, but I really enjoy preparing fish – it’s a more delicate ingredient and looks amazing on the plate, lighter; the meat is ‘big cuts’ and more robust. Presentation is very important because the first thing you see is the plate, before you taste the food.”
The south of France has its very particular culinary heritage. I asked if Josiane had considered offering guests at The French Horn some of her family recipes. “No, I want to do ‘my own things’. I really like sweet and salty – I like both. As a child my Mum was always cooking because she was not working. Usually kids would eat something sweet as a snack at 4 o’clock, but Mum would have made a cocotte (casserole) the day before and I would eat the ‘leftovers’, and when I started I couldn’t stop! When I am at home now I love to make something very quick like risotto or pasta, or a steak with potatoes, simple things; anyway, you don’t want to mess up your kitchen!” Josiane laughs.
Josiane is typical of every good chef: she likes to keep a finger on the culinary pulse. “I like to go to restaurants and take the wine-tasting menu. A favourite restaurant, and it’s traditional as well, is Le Gavroche, I know the maître d’hotel, he’s very nice … at first they didn’t know that I was a chef, I didn’t tell them, I just wanted to enjoy the food! I like to try the dishes that are unfamiliar, I am not a person to always have the same thing.
I love cooking the light Mediterranean food
“My favourite seasons are Spring and Summer – they are better than the Winter, because of the sun!” Remember, Josiane does come from the south of France. “I love cooking the light Mediterranean food because I think it’s tastier. I love when you put fresh garlic and onion in the pan and begin to cook it; or when you cut the basil, it smells so good, you’re already hungry!”
At college, was there a chef you thought was a ‘master’, someone you wanted to be like, somebody who was your culinary hero? “When I was studying I admired Monsieur Dominique le Stanc, from the Negresco in Nice and now at La Merenda. He was so calm, and I don’t know how he did it, I’m not like that! And he was so good with his staff.”
Chef Josiane Diaga is modest, and as far as she is concerned it’s all about the food. She takes pride in every plate and that’s why The French Horn is safe in her hands. She oversees one of the most respected traditional restaurants and helps to guarantee its continued success, although she is likely to say she is only part of a team …but what a team!
The French Horn Hotel
Berkshire RG4 6TN
Phone: 0118 969 2204 and 0118 944 2210
Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018