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The Interview: Helen Everitt-Matthias, Co-owner, Le Champignon Sauvage

Published:  23 July, 2008

Your recent redesign of the restaurant should help the push for three stars.
I don't know about that. Why, because we have more space, should Michelin prefer it? Some people say you need more flunkeys in the dining room or lavish decoration to make them happy. Certainly buying next door has given us the room between tables that you don't often get these days. Or if you do have the land mass, then the tables are turned.

What other changes have you made?

Our glassware is now from Schott, and we've bought some new curtains, too. I didn't want wooden floors. I remember years ago, while I was eating at Aubergine, the staff literally sliding to their station. Those who didn't have rubber soles just skidded away. David designed the new look with a local designer.

What's it like working with your husband?

It's been like this for so long that I can't imagine anything different. We don't interfere with what the other is doing. I have absolutely no idea about cooking, so I'm not in the kitchen saying, Why don't you do this, or that?'; and David has no interest in walking round the tables and talking to customers.

Which you presumably love doing?

Yes, although when we go away on holiday David is always surprised that I just want to bury my head in a book. He'll say, Why don't you go and talk to those people over there?', but I feel that I don't have to be nice to people - I'm off duty.

Were your parents involved in restaurants?

Not at all. My mother was a terrible cook, and we only ate out if it was someone's birthday. Once I met David we started going to a lot of places, so I picked up things from watching other people, but it was still very testing when we opened here. We were in our early 20s and very green behind the gills.

So your education started with David?

Very much so! Before Cheltenham we lived just round the corner from what is now Chez Bruce, in Wandsworth, and just caught the end of Marco's Harvey's. That was our local. You hear about all the fiery incidents there, but we had three great meals, as we did at Chez Nico when it had three stars.

Was Le Champignon Sauvage modelled on those kinds of restaurant?

Well, we had those wicker chairs that were bowing in the middle at first, which made it difficult. Then the recession came, so we stuck some foam on the seats! It was very hard, but there was always the consolation that everyone was in the same boat, and we never faltered on our fine-dining route. We introduced a menu of 27 for three courses, so that people who might not be able to spend the full amount, could still think, God, I need a treat,' and come in.

Trade must have grown after the stars.

Not after the first one, although we got more people from within the industry eating here following the second. You see some chefs thinking, Why has he got two stars, while I haven't?' But the mistake that the younger ones make is to have too much on the plate. David's food is quite minimal - it doesn't have over-the-top garnish because it doesn't need it.

It's also very gutsy. How do you pair that?

We go for the Rhne - wines like Rostaing's 1992 Cte Rtie (47). It's not a great year, but the declassified La Ladonne is added, which makes the wine very good.

For a two-star restaurant, the wine list is remarkably short, though.

There's only so much space to store wines; and with the redesign, I lost even more space - to David's kitchen. We don't have a cellar, so I have wines dotted in rooms around the place, which can mean a mad dash during service if we need to get a wine out. People say it could be stopping us getting a third star, but Le Manoir has 28 Chassagne Montrachets in a huge list, and they still have only two stars from Michelin. We've had some top Bordeaux sitting around for a long time, and they're still sitting there waiting for someone who's had a big day at the races.

What about the future? Do you have children to take over the restaurant?

I admire anyone who can run a business and do things like the school run, but that's not for me. We have dogs, and I can just about cope with that. We had a Rottweiler for 10 years; she was lovely, although obviously very aggressive with other dogs. And when the delivery men came we had to put her inside. Now we've got two boxers that are a bit calmer.

Le Champignon Sauvage, 24-26 Suffolk Road, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 2AQ, Tel: 01242 573 449

Helen was born in Yorkshire but moved to Horsham, Sussex, at the age of three. She was working as a receptionist at The Four Seasons hotel in London when she met David Everitt-Matthias. They married in 1985, but it was while on a three-month stage at Le Tante Claire that David decided he wanted to run his own restaurant. Helen worked as a waitress to gain more experience, and the couple finally settled on Cheltenham, opening Le Champignon Sauvage in 1987. It took nine years before Everitt-Matthias won his first star, but the second came in 2000. In July 2005 the restaurant shut, after the couple bought a shop next door. They used this to extend the dining room, taking covers to 40.

Main suppliers: Thomas Panton, JC Karn & Son, Churchill Vintners, CG Bull & Taylor, and Yapp Brothers.