How One Man Changed Gastronomy with Pig’s Feet
We spent the day with Pierre Koffmann, the most influential chef you've never heard of.
Photos d'Alison Slattery
There is a bear lurking in Derek Dammann's kitchen this morning.
A towering figure not only in influence, but in height, Pierre Koffmann has a quiet but commanding presence; his name is embroidered on his white chef's coat, his apron is stained with blood, and he's armed with a small carving knife. When I arrive at Dammann's restaurant Maison Publique, Koffmann eyes me from afar and I get the distinct feeling that he'd rather stay in the kitchen than talk to a pony-tailed Millennial about offal.
At 70 years of age, he is moving as quickly and as precisely as the young men doing prep work with him, even challenging Derek to a trotter-deboning race at one point, a challenge that Derek wisely declines.
"Pierre is a legend, he's a beast," Dammann declares. "He asked for coffee this morning, so I made him espresso and by the time I got back, he had deboned two trotters," a procedure that would take even an experienced cook at least ten minutes.
Tales of Koffmann's beast-like nature are not limited to his knife skills. When he led his London restaurant Tante Claire on an obsessive six-year climb to three Michelin stars, his intensity was legendary, leading his kitchen staff to christen him, presumably in hushed tones, "L'ours" or "The Bear."
With a mischievous grin, Koffmann insists that his ursine nickname is a reference to the fauna of his native Gascony, along the Pyrenees mountain range, and not because of his temperament. Anyways, he says, "Now, I'm a teddy bear, I'm a big teddy bear."
"Trust me, he's not called 'The Bear' because he's from the Pyrenees," laughs Chris Cosentino before asking, "Is he close?" in a far more worried tone. Cosentino may have reason to be concerned; he staged at Tante Claire "many, many years ago."
"I was in London and I knocked on the door at Harvey's with my CV to try and get a stage with Marco Pierre White, and he slammed the door on my face and said, 'Fuck off!' And that was it. So, I went over to Tante Claire and they said, 'Come in!' and it was no big deal. They put me in the basement and I de-boned trotters; Pierre taught me how to de-bone pig's feet!"
Learning to debone pig trotters from Pierre Koffmann is like learning how to string a guitar from Muddy Waters and those hours spent in the basement of Tante Claire marked a crucial step in Cosentino's exploration of offal, which has culminated in his most recent book Offal Good: Cooking from the Heart, with Guts.
"What Pierre has done with the trotter—and it's the basis of how I've worked ever since I had this dish—is that you take the humblest of cuts, the foot of a pig, and you debone it, which takes a lot of effort and skill, and you stuff it with luxurious ingredients. The point is to take the high-end and the low-end and you collaborate them together. When you smash them together, you have this harmony."
"It's also the basis of things like my tripe and lobster dish today. People are more willing to try tripe if there's lobster with it, or a pig's foot if there's morels and sweetbreads in it. It's pairing the familiar with the unfamiliar, haute cuisine and peasant cuisine, it's smashing two worlds together to create something beautiful."
Koffmann's pig's trotter is indeed beautiful, though not in a modern, dainty way. It's not trying to hide the fact that it's the foot of a farm animal. It is served without any garnish and coated in a translucent brown Madeira sauce, with a simple side of mashed potatoes. No flowers, no foam, and no herbs in sight. After nine hours of transformation, the pig's trotter looks as it did at the beginning: humble and honest, just like the peasant food that inspired it, but it conceals a luxurious secret within: sweetbreads, morel mushrooms, and onions, bound by a light chicken mousse.
In his cookbook White Heat, Marco Pierre White famously declared that Koffmann's pig's trotter was so pleasing to the eye that it could hang in the Tate gallery that houses the UK's national collection of British art and Dammann agrees. "In the 70s, chefs weren't using pig's feet. With this dish, you're just seeing a pig's foot on a plate. I think it looks amazing. The sauce alone is glorious. It's crystal clear and shiny and everything you want. You can have it every day."
When I finally wrangle Koffmann out of the kitchen, he is warm, convivial, and still eager to talk about pig's feet after decades of being associated with this one dish.
"When I die, I will have a pig's trotter on my tombstone," he laughs. "I've made thousands and thousands and thousands of pig's trotters since 1977. When I started Tante Claire, I wanted to put different things on the menu; I didn't want to do steak and rack of lamb like everybody else. In France, we love pig's trotter and tripe and frog and snails and this type of food, but in England they didn't. Then, I don't know why, but it became famous."
And though the dish became famous, its creator did not. Outside of chef circles, Koffmann is nowhere near as well-known as some of the firebrands who passed through his kitchen, but within the restaurant industry he is a luminary, which brings us to why Pierre Koffmann is in Montreal in the first place.
Koffmann, via his far more technologically capable wife Claire, took Dammann up on his text message invitation to cook a seven-course meal with him and Cosentino at Maison Publique for the restaurant's fifth anniversary. For Koffmann, it was his first visit to Quebec, or Canada, for that matter. "For a Frenchman, it's like seeing an old cousin that you haven't seen for 200 years, you know?"
For Dammann, it was a way of validating the success of his restaurant, but also a way of sharing knowledge. "It's exciting to give people the chance to taste this dish, because it's so iconic," says Dammann. "I told the guys in the kitchen to ask Pierre as many questions as they can. He's one of those people who, if you could take the knowledge pill and know what he knows, it would be amazing. He was teaching the kitchen how to do the pig's feet, he was making jokes, and barking orders at people. Everyone's a little intimidated, but he's chill. At this point, I think he just wants to travel and cook with friends."
"You've got to pass your knowledge on to young chefs, and when they become successful it's brilliant," says Koffmann. "I had Gordon Ramsay, when he was that size [Koffmann holds his hand about three feet off the ground], and Marco Pierre White in my kitchen, Michel Roux Jr., and twenty other chefs I could name. That's the beauty of being a chef. When I was young, I was very, very hard. They used to call me 'The Bear.' I don't know why... I was not a teddy bear. I was hard. If you worked for me, you did what I want, but the kitchen is like the military and you have to respect it."
In other words, we may have Koffmann to thank for the autocratic chef persona that his former minions Pierre White and Ramsay turned into a lucrative caricature, but he doesn't really care about that. "In the end, you come back to your roots, you come back to what you liked when you were young," Koffmann recounts. "And when I was young, we ate a lot of trotters and tripe and not very expensive food. Tout est bon dans le cochon. [Every part of the pig is good to eat.]"
That's music to Cosentino's lobster ears. "It's come full circle," he says. "Classics and real cooking techniques reign supreme and I think we're going to see a resurgence of really proper old-school classics and techniques. Watching Pierre work with the other chefs is amazing. He's an encyclopedia of knowledge and he wants to share that.
"People like Pierre Koffmann and Fergus Henderson were the catalyst to make things right again. I'm not creating anything new, I'm riding on the backs of thousands of grandmothers before me. I'm cooking peasant food from every culture—every culture in the world serves these cuts of meat. The point is to show what these cuts are and what they can be and a true master of their craft—like Chef Pierre—can take a piece of meat like that and transformed into something so memorable and so powerful."
Cosentino, like Dammann, and Koffmann before them, is standing on the pig's feet of giants, the technicians who for millennia have been transforming animal innards into good food. Today, though, Chef Koffmann's paramount concern is getting back in the kitchen to show the team how to properly purée potatoes. So he finishes his coffee and saunters back to the bear cave, loudly singing an ancient French ballad.