While walking to Sardine, a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant around the corner from London's Old Street roundabout, I'm simultaneously trying to translate—via the power of Google—a French phrase: la grande bouffe. It's the name chef-owner Alex Jackson has given to his restaurant's monthly dinner event, which aims to showcase classic French dishes.
The first thing popping up on my search results is the IMDB page for a 1973 film of the same name about a group of guys who decide the eat themselves to death.
"There are also quite a lot of prostitutes in the film," laughs Jackson when I finally reach Sardine ahead of this evening's dinner and ask: What's the bouffe?
He continues: "The literal translation is 'the big food,' or 'the big grub.' I thought it fitted well with the theme of the dinners. It's an amazing film."
As Jackson leads me through the restaurant, he hastens to add: "Obviously it's inspiration but the evenings are slightly less sordid and a bit less gluttonous than the film. Well, hopefully … you never know what might happen."
Peering into the Sardine kitchen, I find the source of the rich, meaty aroma that hit me as I walked through the door. Four huge vats of broth are bubbling away on the cooker, filled with fatty beef short rib, herbs, and onions.
Tonight, the iconic French dish in the spotlight is pot-au-feu.
Jackson explains: "Pot-au-feu literally means 'pot on fire.' Here, I have a restaurant in London so I don't have a pot big enough to feed 60 people, so it's like a gastronorm on an electric hob. But it's the same idea."
"It's the kind of food you want to eat in the winter," he continues. "At its most simple, it's a plate of boiled beef and some vegetables, with a bit of the broth over the top. It's comes from when peasants kept a pot over the fire and just kept the broth bubbling, simmering forever. And on a Sunday, when people could afford a chicken or bit of beef, it would go in. You could definitely call it the national family home dish of France."
Pot-au-feu epitomises the style of cooking that got Jackson into the restaurant game in the first place.
"Home cooking is what I do, that's all I'm interested in. I'm just trying to do it really well, in a restaurant," he explains. "Doing a set menu wouldn't work all the time in a restaurant because people like choice. But doing this style of dinner once a month makes what you're serving feel different."
He continues: "Suddenly, it is like eating at home. Because that's the way you cook for people at home—you just cook one thing and everyone eats the same thing."
While Jackson tastes and seasons the broth, he reminisces about a restaurant he came across once in Provence: "It was this really simple place called Le Bistro du Paradou and they just do a different set menu every day. So, on Wednesdays they do rabbit with rosemary and new garlic, Thursday is tête du veau [calves' brain], Friday is aioli, and Saturday is agneau du pays [country-style lamb]. Everyone from the mayor to a group of firemen, students, and families sit down and eat together."
He hopes that tonight, Londoners will similarly embrace the conviviality that comes with eating the same dish as your fellow diners.
"The first thing people will do is come in and smell it and know that the dish has been cooking for hours," says Jackson. "You feel like you're eating dinner at someone's house."
Of course, there's no getting away from the fact that we're at Sardine—a restaurant that has received rave reviews since opening last July—not a provincial French farmhouse. The humble pot-au-feu has been given a bit of an upgrade by Jackson and his team.
"As well as the short rib, we're also adding in some chicken and Morteau sausage, which is a smoked sausage from Jura," he says. "And to start, we're going to do bone marrow (which is usually just served on its own, in the broth) in dumplings."
And then come all the condiments.
"So with the meat, potatoes, carrot, and cabbage, are all the sauces," explains Jackson. "We're doing mustard, green sauce, horseradish cream, cornichons, and Auntie Mary's pickled red cabbage. That's a bit more Welsh than French but it will be nice with it. You have all the sharp, salty, vinegary things alongside the boiled meat and veg for a bit of piquancy."
It seems fitting that a piece of Jackson's family is included in the ultimate home-style meal. And talking of family, I mention to Jackson before I leave that I'm bringing my French mum to the dinner later on.
Jackson laughs: "Oh no! The pressure is really on now. I hope she likes it."
When I walk into Sardine again that evening to take my place for the La Grande Bouffe dinner, the meaty aroma has intensified. Bowls of dumplings swimming in rich, thick broth and plates piled high with glistening meat and vegetables are making their way to tables, and the heartening clinking of glasses can be heard above the buzz of conversation. Food for a cold winter night this most certainly is.
And, I'm pleased to report, it even got my mum's seal of approval.