There are few hotels I like more than the characterful Petersham, overlooking the River Thames in Richmond. And to compound the joy, there is a restaurant to admirably partner that hotel, and its Head Chef is Jean-Didier Gouges!
This young man is charming, with a smile that seems never far from his lips. He is a chef with a passion not only for cooking, obviously, but also for chocolate. He is energetic, curious and presents polished and delicious dishes that are full of innovation.
I asked Jean-Didier what his favourite foods were when growing up in Mauritius
“That’s hard to say. In Mauritius the food is completely different, and the way each person – Mum, Grandma, Dad – cooks it is unique. The cuisine is creole and every dish has garlic and thyme in it, so when we make Chinese food, which was my favourite, it doesn’t taste the same as it does in the UK and in China!
“Before I started travelling I didn’t know about other cuisines. At cooking school I learned French cuisine – every student learns that as it is the basis of what chefs do – so I could see the difference between French and the food we cook at home that we call ‘French’. So the béchamel that we cooked in the school or in the hotel was completely different from what we do at home – at the hotel we used fresh milk, and at home we used powdered milk, so the taste was quite different, sweeter, richer.
“In family cooking everyone adds their own little touch. If you ask me who was the best chef, I would say my Grandma or my Mum, because they cook from the heart, and it’s not cooked in a rush. If you want something good you take your time – we know we have pressures of work every day, but it’s about time.
The family would cook together
“The tradition in Mauritius was that every Sunday the family would all get together, cook together and eat together. So various aunts and uncles would bring food that they had prepared at home, and we would taste so many different things. Sometimes they would turn it into a competition and ask us kids: ‘Which one is better, Mum’s, Grandma’s or Uncle’s?’ As a kid of course you tell the truth, and it was funny! The nice thing is I also had a godfather and a godmother who were really good cooks.
“When you’re young you really don’t know what you want to do. But I remember one day my Mum taking me, my sister and brother for a walk. We always had an ice-cream, or my favourite cake, which was a napolitaine – shortbread biscuits with jam in the middle, covered with pink sugar icing. This time, after the ice-cream, I wanted the cake but my Mum said, ‘No, you’ve already had your ice-cream!’ So I said to myself that one day I would know how to make it.
I go with my heart
“So it started like that, and after school I had the choice: my family’s business, or I go with my heart – which was always about food. So I worked hard at the business for two years to be able to pay for my course. I said to my Grandad, ‘I think I have the money, but I don’t know where the school is.’ I was only seventeen. One day my Grandad told me we were going to a business meeting, and to dress smartly. He took me to the Hotel School of Mauritius, and he paid for my course!
“From there it was non-stop in the kitchen. I worked in many hotels in Mauritius to learn lots of techniques, which is very important to a chef’s development; I was private chef to the President of my country. I had a chance meeting with a French chef, and unexpectedly he asked me to work with him.
“I went to France, near Montpellier, for nearly a year. It was the best and the worst time ever as a chef! It was tough, and it made me really strong and focused. I returned to Mauritius and started helping small businesses in their kitchens, teaching them how to save money and not waste the product. I showed them how important it is to respect what the great chefs, the ‘godfathers’ of the kitchen, did: it’s all very well to have liquid nitrogen in the kitchen, but you have to know the classics first!”
“One day I decided to go on holiday to the UK (for the weather, of course!), and I wondered what future I might have there. I sent my CV around and the first hotel I tried asked me for an interview. That was the Metropolitan in Park Lane, and I thought I would give it a year in the UK – I am still here after twelve years!
“I say I am learning every day. We make mistakes, we try, we develop recipes, we don’t get things right the first time. Mauritius is loads of different colours, and I like history, I like art, and I try to bring all this into my plates. So with the lamb we have fresh peas cooked with butter, and fried peas – in Mauritius we call them gaja and we eat them as a snack with whisky or rum or beer – they’re crunchy and salty.
‘Less is better’
“I like to bring texture into the plate, so with the lamb we have two different textures: one we cook slowly and finish with butter, the other is shoulder that we braise, compress, and present as a croquette. We have a black olive powder with it, that we dry ourselves here, as well as fresh green olives. So we have two textures of lamb, two of peas, two of olives. If we put three elements on the plate chefs say no, it’s boring, but also people tell me ‘less is better’. So if we are able to do more flavour, and they work together, then why not – the sky’s the limit.
“But at the Petersham we also have the classic, and we respect the classic along with the modern. The Dover Sole has been on the menu for a long time, and people like it. I have changed nothing about it, except perhaps the garnish, but we cook it in the same way. We have a trolley of smoked salmon that we slice at the table – that is very classic, and it provides an engagement with the customer. So we balance the old and the new, and bring in the modern, which is important.”
And your love of chocolate?
“Chocolate is my biggest passion, and it just relaxes me, makes me forget all the other things I have to do at work. It’s an escape from the routine of every day, something just to have fun with.
“People say that I am a chocolatier, and I am very happy about that, because that’s a title that has been given to me, not received from any school, so that means a lot. When I was going from hotel to hotel, I went in the pastry section, and watched the chef doing chocolate. I asked if he would teach me, and he said, ‘Yes. You clean all the moulds first – that’s number one: you respect the equipment. If you don’t clean it with cotton your chocolate will not be shiny. And then you stay next to me and you watch only!’
“I always felt it was something I wanted to do. I ordered my own little diamond mould from France (that I still have now), and made chocolates at home in Mauritius. From then on I taught myself. It was so hot there, so tempering was a nightmare in that climate, but I did not give up!
“When I came to the UK, to the Metropolitan Hotel, I remember one day (arrogantly) saying, ‘I can make chocolate!’ and immediately thought, ‘Oh, gosh, what have I done?’ But it worked, and I kept at it. Later, I started a chocolate business which was going very well, but it was getting too much for me, and I was missing the kitchen. But I still bring my chocolate-making with me – tastes, colours, teaching people how to work with it. Practice makes perfect, and I am practising every day.”
How much has the menu changed since Jean-Didier came to The Petersham?
“I’ve always been lucky meeting a good team. I tell them that without them I cannot do the job. I come with the ideas, but they keep them going. The first menu I did had a salad with 14 different ingredients, and they were worried; but after a week or two they got it.
“For my first menu I introduced art and texture, so I did ‘rock potatoes’ with clay, and a mandarin cheesecake that looked like a whole mandarin. For a beef dish, I did a potato that looked like a mushroom; at Easter I did an Easter egg that looked like a whole egg, made out of chocolate. I enjoyed introducing some Japanese yuzu dressing to a beef tartare. I try to make things fun.”
Jean-Didier Gouges is an exciting and innovative chef who has brought his evident skills and imagination to a lovely hotel which is thankfully near me. He has elevated the culinary scene in Richmond beyond measure, and his cooking can be favourably compared to that of any celebrated chef anywhere in Europe.