On opening in 1927, L’Escargot became Britain’s first restaurant to serve snails. ‘Amusingly enough, the word oleaginous comes to mind when describing Tony, our snail man,’ purrs the Soho stack’s co-owner and reviver, Brian Clivaz, as we appraise salted morsels roasted over coals and bathed in butter. ‘He’s a wonderful fellow with two-to-three million Herefordshire snails. They’re hermaphroditic. I read a snail can have same-sex sex for 16-hours without realising it.’ Clivaz draws breath. ‘How do scientists know that?’
We meet and eat in L’Escargot’s eaves, which now serve as a ‘club privé’. ‘The only criterion for membership is that I have to like you,’ Clivaz advises. Late, great designer, David Collins’ 1990s carpet creeps from ground-floor front door to this threshold, a bold, swirled homage to gastropoda. ‘It’s bonkers; completely unique,’ praises Clivaz. Beside the far door, gradually planed to a jagged kilter over 274 years, is an empty wall where a brash acrylic, orange in the main, and quite unlike anything original occupant the Duke of Portland might have wished upon this room, clung until both Clivaz and I decided we didn’t like it. ‘And look at that door,’ he orders. ‘The whole room slopes. If you put a marble, it literally rolls down the floor! Believe it or not, this room didn’t have a ceiling when we took over.’
Did today’s polished ‘mine host’ always want to mastermind cultured culinary residences? ‘No, I was the fat boy with thick glasses reading history books all day long in the library,’ he says. ‘I got a place to read history at Oxford and would probably have become a history professor, although I originally wanted to become a monk.’ Clivaz’s father, Tony, former worldwide director of catering for British Airways, offered just one tenet. ‘He said, “I don’t mind what you do as long as you don’t get into catering.”’ However, one guest attending a family dinner in Italy prompted a Damascene decision. ‘Ping! Jacob Rosenthal, Principle of the C.I.A. (Culinary Institute of America) took a big buffalo tomato off the vine and ate it, rhapsodising about how good it was before smoking a cigar. This catering malarkey isn’t bad, I thought! I’m sure I smoked the stub later.’
“I read a snail can have same-sex sex for 16-hours without realising it.’ Clivaz draws breath. ‘How do scientists know that?’”
Clivaz promptly uncovered catering courses at Surrey and Strathclyde. ‘But my father said I had to start as a commis chef and work my way up, so he got me a job at the Dorchester. Trembling, I went to see Head Chef Eugene Koffler at his desk with his very, very tall hat on, because he was very, very short. And Mr Koffler just looked up at and said, “Okay my boy, you want to work here? That’s fine.” That was it.’ Issued with uniform list, Clivaz and his mother, Glynne, went to Denny’s of Dean St, buying six pairs of chequered trousers, six neckerchiefs and six aprons. ‘The salesman, seeing this fresh-faced young man said, “I suggest you just use two for the time being because then you can bring the others back.” Then we went to Ferrari’s to get knives which mum refused to let me carry because they were “far too sharp.”’
Despite the salesman’s reserve, the kitchen milieu thrilled Clivaz. ‘I remember on day three asking John, Chef de Partie on hors d’oeuvres, “What’s your ambition?”, because of course I wanted to be Managing Director of the Dorchester and take over the world, and he said, “I just hope I can keep my job until I retire.” He was 28! He then became head of the union and caused so much trouble…’ Meanwhile, Clivaz alternated to the roast section. ‘I got talking to a terrible ruffian. “So, what do you like?” he asked, and I answered, “rock gardening.” He wasn’t impressed with that. “So,” he said, “Do you like horses?” I said, “Oh yes, I went to the gymkhana last week!”, quite missing that he meant horseracing. That was a terrible faux pas!’
After three years below decks, Clivaz remembered his masterplan was megalomania. ‘So I resigned and got a job with Trusthouse Forte, front-of-house. But then Anton Mosimann told me I couldn’t resign, getting me a job on reception a few weeks later. But the receptionists saw me as an oiky kitchen boy.’ Clivaz observed guest cards dating to opening year, 1931. ‘There were annotations like, “Treat with caution – very prickly!” However, happy guests were positive in providing Clivaz ‘regardments’. ‘One gave me a wodge of money. I counted £500. And we’re talking about the 1970s!’
“Suddenly, there were 200 in the queue and no food. And his words of wisdom were: ‘Let’s hide.'”
Now 21, and ‘wanting to get my French up,’ Clivaz moved to Paris, securing a day job at the Le Relais Plaza Athénée then working at the Don Camillo Cabaret Club, come the night. ‘When King Hussein of Jordan came and wanted an English waiter, I was moved to the floors. But I had a major disaster.’ Clivaz tantalisingly refuses to dish details … at first. ‘Well, in a nutshell, King Hussein had ordered a sachertorte to be flown in for his son’s birthday and I was delegated to serve it. So I went to present it to his Majesty then moved round to present it to his son. But I realised I’d turned my back on the King, which of course you shouldn’t do, and swirled back too fast … There it was, lying on the floor, having flown in at great expense from bloody Vienna. I just looked at it, and King Hussein just looked at me. “Well, pick it up! Pick it up!” he said. He was very forgiving though.’
Later, Clivaz secured a job at Le Meurice as concierge. ‘On my first day, the General Manager came over. “Oh, Clivaz! I know your father, Antoine!” The others hated me after that, including a man called Monsieur Claude who made my life a misery. So I decided I’d be the most irritatingly wonderful person ever. If he told me to empty the bin, I’d empty it and polish it. And I’d never go home until he told me to. In the end, he quite liked me.’
I ask Clivaz to share a life lesson. ‘My father and I ran Lingfield Park racecourse at one time. We had this massive marquee for 1,200 at the summer meeting for a big advertising agency. On the barbecue we had: pork chops, entrecote steaks, jumbo sausages, breast of chicken and lamb cutlets. The idea was it was a choice of three of the five items. The first lot were having one of everything though so of course by the time you’ve got through 900, you’re running out. Suddenly, there were 200 in the queue and no food. So I said to my father, what shall we do? And his words of wisdom were: “Let’s hide.” So we hid in a chemical store for about an hour, and when we came out it was time for afternoon tea.’
Clivaz says he has spent most of his career ‘below the radar, so to speak’, including founding, then overseeing that haunt of A-listers, Home House, for seven years, then seven years revitalising the Arts Club, ‘bringing in new investors, members and rules’. However, despite this modesty he appeared in two TV documentaries. ‘The first when we set up Home House, Trouble at The Top, came out really well.’ The BBC lured audiences with jeopardy, billing the £12m project to transform a crumbling Xanadu into London’s first five-star members’ club with this logline: ‘Sixteen weeks before the opening, his chances of finding 1,500 customers and opening on time look uncertain…’
L’Escargot’s menu is now in the hands of Oliver Lesnik, son of Mario Lesnik, former maitre chef de cuisine at Harrods and Claridge’s. ‘Oliver’s the most handsome chef this side of Greek Street,’ says Clivaz. ‘And the man who took three quarters of an hour to serve uber-critic Fay Maschler.’ ‘Those were very early days,’ counters Lesnik.
What motivated Clivaz to appoint Lesnik to the kitchens of London’s oldest French restaurant? ‘There aren’t many people left like Oliver and myself who know about really old French food. Even my generation have moved away from that.’ I throw in a curveball, asking how many burgers are shifted within these walls. ‘Strangely enough, the burger’s coming off the menu …’ In addition to the revitalised L’Escargot, Langan’s of Mayfair continues. ‘Now it’s profitable, so I’ve decided to leave it as it is; don’t kill the goose that’s laying the golden eggs.’ Clivaz mentions that the final column Michael Winner wrote was of another member of the Langan’s group, Shepherd’s Bar & Bistro. ‘He started off with a glowing review of me as a great restaurateur. Then a week later, he conked out.’
What keeps Clivaz awake, I nosily ask? ‘Grindr works quite well,’ he jokes. ‘Or snoring Doris the dog. Actually, I’m addicted to antiques programmes, from Bargain Hunt to highlight of the week, Antique’s Roadshow. But I’m very lucky in that I fall asleep quickly. Worrying doesn’t make things better; you need an action plan. You always get through one way or another.’ Clivaz smiles broadly before speaking perhaps not metaphorically. ‘I’ve been in two hurricanes in my life, both times locked in a restaurant…’ Words, Douglas Blyde.
L’Escargot, 48 Greek St, Soho, W1D 4EF. www.lescargot.co.uk. Follow Brian Clivaz on Twitter @BrianClivaz.