My cuisine is a reflection of my life, my roots, my background, my story
How did you build your personal culinary worldview?
I look within for things I want to express.
Cuisine is telling one’s life story — it is an expression of one’s cumulative experience. I have no objection to incorporating within me new experiences I have with others. My interest centers on incorporating the techniques and flavors I have found in my travels back into French cuisine.
Looking back on the history of French cuisine, it has always been this way. Throughout the ages, French chefs have looked to overseas cuisine for inspiration. Take tomatoes and potatoes — these were not originally from France. They were brought in from South America. Great explorers like Marco Polo or Parmentier brought back foods from distant places. France had colonies and still has overseas territories. Places like Tahiti and Réunion, for example. When we talk about acra from the Caribbean, it’s part of French cuisine. The influence of the Arab world in the pastries. The influence of Russia, dating from the time French chefs cooked for the tsars, Caviar or blinis for instance, are not of French origin. Canard à l’orange also gets its inspiration from Asia.
In this way, these classics of French cuisine were things subject to overseas influence centuries ago. Therefore, I see myself as merely continuing that process of incorporating foreign foods. It’s actually quite a good stroke of luck to find that French cuisine has these identity and roots.
People say that Astrance had a major impact on French cuisine today.
What I tell cooks is to not think about things in terms of absolutes and standardization. Just because someone decided to stew chicken in dashi broth does not mean everyone should. Jumping on the bandwagon and thinking that fish should be served with a dill granita or sherbet, or a yuzu gelato is not my point. For instance, a Moroccan chef might have his story and his background that reflects his upbringing as a Moroccan, and he can bring that to the table. Being a cook is about bringing your background, your hometown, and your experiences to cuisine.
As with Japan, France’s provinces have very strong local flavor. Argenteuil’s Asparagus, salads and watercress are deep-rooted in Paris terroir, in Milly-la-Forêt there is mint, and then you can look to places like Alsace, Brittany, and Auvergne to see their traditions in chicken, seafood, mountain products, and so on. These are all very deep-rooted in the respective identities of each locale. Each region has its own great products and dishes. Think about how Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Osaka have their own specialty in Japan.
Creating a restaurant that remains packed noon and night by keeping it small-scale
Astrance is not a large restaurant. Was this deliberate? Were there certain concepts you had in mind when creating the restaurant?
I did not want to take on a loan from the bank, so I did not do anything that would not break even. I wanted to not be avaricious about things and commit to providing high-quality food and be at full occupancy noon and night. Therefore, the place is 101 meters square, and we originally had only 2-3 people in the kitchen and two floor staff. There are only twenty-four seats. That’s part of the reason we’ve managed to stay at full occupancy for sixteen years. We didn’t want to have the stress of thinking about how many seats we had to pack in order to repay loans.
Life is not just about money. You can be happy even without that much. We are focused on manning this restaurant and we’re happy. We continue to make high-quality food and move forward.
So Astrance reached full occupancy shortly after opening even without getting the word out?
We hit the ground running with full occupancy from the start. Figaroscope and Fooding (restaurant magazines) came to scoop us right away, and we took off from there. We were then featured in Michelin and Gault & Millau and the overseas media.
Linking up with producers is one key to success
What challenges have you faced in running the restaurant?
The hardest thing was building up procurement routes for the ingredients. It took ten years to find the right providers in Paris. Astrance is now in its seventeenth year. The biggest challenge when launching a restaurant is meeting and working with the right producers, building up a network and creating a climate in which you can work together, building up that procurement route for ingredients. We started with two, then three, sources, and built up from there. Not including wine, we work with 140 producers while the restaurant has just twenty-four seats. For vegetables, we work with Mr. Yamashita or Mr. Lasserre; in summer, I went to Mexico and brought back some seeds, which I gave to a specific producer to grow crops for us exclusively.
Citrus fruits we obtain from Agrumes Bachès, we also receive wild plants from la Reine des prés. The poultry is from Canard de Challans. Pigeon also comes from two select producers, for game we also have a specific provider. For beef, we work with Mr. Duriez and nine other providers, we import some from Galicia. In terms of fish and seafood alone, we work with fifteen providers, among them on Noirmoutier. We also work with between five and seven producers of Japanese ingredients.
How did you gradually add to this circle?
We go to meet them in person. The restaurant is closed three days a week, so I go to meet a range of people. Sometimes I learn about things through a sample that comes in, or I might get an e-mail about something. I go to the Marché de Rungis every week. When I find things that look good, I contact the producer.
In France, seasonality is very important. We have the advantage of being able to procure items from many different producers. I had a call in today saying someone had caught a four kilo red mullet. Last week, someone reported a twelve kilo turbot. These are very rare finds!
They catch them and call us right away. “Do you need this?” “We’d love it! Bring it over.” Or we might say we don’t need something at a given time. It’s essential to work with producers in this intimate fashion.
Having a fixed menu is a challenge. You might have one thing on the menu but then struggle to get good turbot one week. Therefore, producers contact us to say what they have — it’s like kaiseki cuisine. We provide what is the best for the season. There are also some techniques similar to the ikijime where the cook can control the taste of the fish if he knows when the fish was caught.
If you know where and how a fish was caught, the chef can then control the ingredients to best effect. You could have sashimi on day one, sushi the next, then gradually cook the item into other dishes. Controlling the temperature depending on whether it is whitefish or blue-scaled fish is important. Chefs draw on this bag of knowledge. Similarly, if you know when a pigeon was caught, you can control for the flavor.
One producer grows fruit for us, and I consider it a must to know exactly when the fruit is picked. If pears were picked two weeks ago, they should be chilled for two weeks and taken out six hour before degustation. This produces the best flavor. You’ll get truly delicious pears.. When pears overripe, they turn black from the inside out. This fruit requires precision.
We buy mangoes from a French producer in Réunion, an overseas region of France. There are more varieties of mango than there are of apple. Astrance carries a variety of mango. Their ripening peak differs, and the best way to eat them does, too. Knowing this allows you to better cook with them.