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London calling

It was as much of a shock to London as it was to Brisbane. French chef Bruno Loubet had a successful career in the British capital in the '90s before moving to Queensland in 2002. He then ran a succession of critically acclaimed restaurants - Bruno's Tables in Toowong, Berardo's in Noosa and Baguette restaurant back in Brisbane, where he stayed until 2009. It looked as though Australia was Loubet's new home - until he made the surprise move back to the UK earlier this year.

Back in 2002, the Bordeaux-born chef's London career was stellar, with a string of accolades and well-regarded restaurants behind him, from Bistrot Bruno to L'Odeon. But Loubet was burning out. "I was doing everything; like a lot of chefs, I had to change my life before I killed myself or went crazy," Loubet tells me. His last project was the ill-fated Isola restaurant, which went hugely over budget and never drew the high-spending Knightsbridge jet set it needed to break even. "I wanted to walk away, and Brisbane seemed like a good choice because it was a city on the way up. I think the pound was worth three dollars at the time, so the exchange rate worked in my favour. Instead of working very hard to pay for a private school and big mortgage, I ended up running my own business, with a beautiful house with a swimming pool and a sports car, in Brisbane. Australia gave me this opportunity."

Loubet clearly loved his time in Brisbane and misses "everyone being friendly and laid-back", so the 48-year-old chef's move back to London came as a shock to some observers.

"London has far more diversity, far more competition than Brisbane," says Loubet. "Of course, Sydney and Melbourne have nothing to be ashamed of - there are 10 world-class restaurants in Sydney alone." But with his three kids almost grown-up - the eldest is 24, the youngest 12 - he felt it was time to take on a new challenge, and the offer of taking over the kitchens at designer hotel The Zetter was too appealing to turn down.

"It was hard at first for the kids to move to London and make friends, but it's getting better now. It takes two hours to get to work and back every day, and things happen fast, fast all the time," he says.

But he's enjoying the change, not least the positive reaction from the critics, who have hailed Bistrot Bruno Loubet one of the best new restaurants of 2010.

When I visited Loubet's new restaurant, the chef was there in the open kitchen doing something you don't see chefs do very often - smiling, looking remarkably relaxed, and joking with the other staff at the peak of service. He looked justifiably pleased as he gave the nod to signature dishes such as the boudin blanc of guinea fowl, or the lièvre royale, a slow-cooked hare dish of the old school, as they went over the pass to the diners.

Bistrot Bruno Loubet is not the kind of pressure-cooker environment the chef has previously worked in; the emphasis is on affordable modern French food, not chasing Michelin stars. Yet the chef's precision and finesse, the product of a haute cuisine background, can be seen in details such as ravioli rolled so thin it's translucent, or pretty little pots of panna cotta served with succulent madeleines. Truly, Brisbane's loss is London's gain.

Bistrot Bruno Loubet, The Zetter Hotel, St John's Square, 86-88 Clerkenwell Rd, London EC1M, +44 20 7324 4455.


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