Le Gavroche's legendary maitre d', Silvano Geraldin, talks to Mike Barnes about looking forward to retirement
Retirement for Silvano Geraldin definitely brings new opportunities. Over his 37 years at Le Gavroche he has made many friends. Now he will be able to spend a little more time with them away from the restaurant, primarily in some of the most beautiful countryside which England has to offer, for like them he is a keen game shot.
"We have some very nice sporting people come to the restaurant who I have got to know quite well over the years. It is surprising how many enjoy shooting and as a consequence they have invited me to their shoots" he explains. His retirement present from the Roux family was appropriately a pair of Beretta EELL 12 bores, made in Italy of course, the country of his birth.
It was here where the love of the sport first took hold. The family home was on the fertile Venito plain, where his father farmed - 'a 25k bike ride from Venice'. He too was passionate about the sport and would take young Silvano with him from an early age on his hunting expeditions. "The most memorable shooting was on the Venetian lagoon where in late summer our quarry was migrating ducks. It was very exciting. We stood in large 1000 litre wine barrels known as Botti, cut in half, with a large stone in the bottom. So we were out there in the water closer to where the ducks would flight. I didn't go back to school until early October and we went to the lagoon as often as possible." The area has drawn hunters from far and wide over the years, and Ernest Hemingway was a regular visitor.
Pickings were otherwise pretty lean. "This was after the war and we were shooting for the table - we would probably bag only two hares per year on the farm." He first fired a gun when he was nearly eight years old, and remembers how proud he was to shoot 16 sparrows with one shot! "It was winter with snow falling, and we would lay an old door flat on the ground, propped up at one end on a stick. Then we put wheat under it to attract the birds to feed. Back in those days there were hundreds on the farm. I waited until the birds came to feed and then took my shot!" He was to also witness his father losing his thumb and the end of a finger when the barrels on his ancient muzzle loader blew up! Did that not put him off? "Not at all" he says, genuinely surprised that the thought should have crossed my mind.
When after catering college he joined the Roux brothers in London, he must have recognised kindred spirits. He discovered that they too were keen shooting men and a couple of years later he got his first taste of shooting in England when they invited him for a day on their shoot at Lakenheath, in Suffolk. Thirty five years later he still goes there, often accompanied by his attractive French wife Irene. "It is only a rough shoot, we do a lot of walking and on a good day we shoot maybe 20 head and five or six hares. But we get a real mix of species and it's a lot of fun. The land is owned by a former Italian prisoner of war, who married an English girl - he started with 10 acres and has built it up to 1,000, now shared between the sons." In conversation with regular diners at Le Gavroche he found that many are keen shots. "I have been very fortunate to have become friends with some very generous people." There is little doubt that the feeling is mutual - I cannot think of more agreeable company in the shooting field.
"John Apthorp, the founder of Majestic Wines, is one of my very best friends - he is the most amazing person and very generous. He invites me to some lovely shoots and this year I am joining him for two days' grouse shooting on one of his moors. It will be wonderful."
His first experience of formal driven shooting came 20 years ago with Alex Brown at Singleton Manor, in West Sussex. "I loved it - it was easier than our rough shooting in Suffolk!" he laughed. Hampshire, Gloucestershire, Devon, Herefordshire, Berkshire - he is enjoying a busy season. "Paul Lock at Upwalton, West Sussex was instrumental in me bringing over a team of top chefs from France to shoot on his estate, including Paul Bocusse, George Blanc, Bernard Dissem, Jean Milieu - all enthusiastic shooting men. There is a great affinity between chefs and the sport. Game is very much part of the food we prepare in our restaurants. These people also work in claustrophobic environment, so what better escape than to beautiful countryside in pursuit of fine food that is also sporting quarry?"
The restaurant serves all game through the season, mostly birds, but they currently have an exceptional hare dish on the menu, Le Lierre a la Royale. "This is a complex dish," he explains "which only a classically trained chef would be able to prepare but it is exceptional."
Grouse, of course, kicks off the season and is on the menu for six weeks. They always serve grouse on the evening of the Glorious Twelfth of August. "We had a party of elderly gentlemen who came to the restaurant from Paris in the last week of August for five or six years especially for the grouse." So how do they cook grouse? "Very simply - roasted with game chips, cabbage, wild mushrooms, bread sauce, with a little streaky bacon and a nice gravy. There is no recipe for grouse in French cookbooks - it simply does not exist". The bird is of course unique to the British Isles.
Though having retired on August 30, Silvano says he seems to be as busy as ever. And not just with shooting. He remains a director of the business, is a consultant to Le Gavroche, and does a lot of consultancy work with Albert Roux Fine Dining. The company has a contract catering business in the city working with leading banks such as Merrill Lynch, City Corps and UBS. Le Gavroche continues to hold its place as one of London's best most consistent and popular restaurants. Its two Michelin stars give an indication of how good it is, not overtly trendy, just excellent food, a great atmosphere and brilliant service, overseen by Silvano, a maestro of his art and who was voted as last year's top London restaurant manager. One suspects that despite his 'retirement' little is likely to change - he has groomed an outstanding team.
So when in February he is enjoying the final instalment of his retirement present, partridge shooting in Spain with Le Gavroche chairman Lord Sharman, he will be taking his shots in the knowledge that the business is in very good hands.