Making mistakes and developing self-confidence as a chef
What you’re describing is a very mature and self-confident approach to cooking and to developing your own voice that takes many chefs decades to develop. But you are talking about having it at a relatively young age, at, for example, Mosaic, the restaurant in Paris you were the chef of in the late 1990s. Had you already developed this confidence by then?
It was 1998 when I started at Mosaic, so I was 34 years old. I’m still 34 years old! (laughs) I don’t know how! (laughs) I think what is very important for chefs — I know it more now than ever — is to grow confident but not cocky. To grow in confidence, meaning you trust in what you believe in, I think it’s what you should aim at. It’s the only way that you can do what I said before. This is very important. Was I as confident at Mosaic? I think I was determined to do what I like, and that’s really the message for a lot chefs. You make a lot of mistakes when you are young, which I’ve probably done as well, but at least I had the idea in mind to do what I liked. It’s true that the first restaurant for a young chef is always overdone. You are trying too hard. You are trying to demonstrate something not to yourself but to everybody else. That’s a mistake.
If not at Mosaic, where did you get to make those mistakes?
I think I made those mistakes in my very first position in fine dining in Hong Kong. A few things were very good but I was overly technical, I was very influenced by the technicality from Robuchon, who I admired at the time, it was the beginning of Alain Ducasse on the scene, and I was probably spoiling some good ideas with too much technique. Even if I today I might still like some of the things I was doing, if they were cleaned up. The idea of “cleaning up” came after Australia.
Discovering the importance of editing an idea in Australia
You went to Australia after Hong Kong, at the urging of a close friend of yours, an Australian restaurant critic who was working at the South China Morning Post at the time, in Hong Kong.
Yes. The great lesson from Australia came from a lady who will never probably know how much she influenced me. I didn’t even understand exactly what she was saying at the time. That was Gay Bilson. She is a bit of an icon of Australian cooking. She was an old lady when I was lucky enough to meet her. I had still my vision, my Hong Kong vision of my “restaurant du France”, and I was still dotting the plates a bit Robuchon-style, but it was not really creation, it was just a pile of all the knowledge I had. She was trying to explain to me the sense of being natural, and the fact that of course you can have an idea but you still need to express something that is good, and, for this, you need to make it as simple as can be. That’s the summary of what she said.
What was her restaurant like? How did this influence you?
Her restaurant was one of my most memorable restaurant experiences, the whole experience. You entered a restaurant completely empty, all the tables were empty, so already it was over-modernist, minimalist, in my memory made of cement, and it felt a bit like an airport but the tables were empty — no glasses, no cutlery, no nothing — and as you were sitting down she would bring everything that you needed. So clever. From today’s standpoint, it’s something I’ve been talking about for years because of this experience.
We do it in Ultraviolet; that’s the concept of Ultraviolet, that you set the table as the people come. This whole experience was like this. She would do dishes sometimes, you talk about simplicity, but the application of simplicity is something else. Sometimes it was like forced simplicity, confusing that natural cannot be geometrical for instance. So, I remember where she was splashing a cream on the plate, and she would just plak!, splash it like this in the plate, because she would not think a quenelle would be natural. This is a yes and a no. Natural is not necessarily messiness, disorganization, because macro-nature is extremely organized and extremely geometrical. Take a leaf. A leaf is symmetrical, and when you look at it on the macro level, it’s incredible. On the other hand, why not use a quenelle? Because the aesthetic will also play a role. You can see the aesthetics of today are not the aesthetics of yesterday. The plastic aesthetic of Robuchon is not the trend of restaurants now. Today it’s more in line with what Gay Bilson was doing at the time, far more. She was so advanced about what she was doing.
And all this to say that this has been extremely influential in the way I evolved in cooking, in understanding that as much as I want to express ideas in food, or a taste combination, new technique, new concept or whatever, I will spend more time to clean the ideas up, so they are more clear in their expression. And probably sometimes I’m failing, but at least I’m trying. So, this action of removing things, concentrating things, does not always end up in being minimalist.
I think one of the threads that runs through your dishes is this tight editing that you talk about, verging on essentialism.
It’s true that the thing that I love is essentialism, meaning you have nothing to add and nothing to remove. I wanted to express that idea, with Ultraviolet Menu C. There’s a good example with the shrimp and its shell. In the dish, there is the shrimp and its shell and there is one counterpoint that plays on the sweetness of the shrimp vs. the high acidity of the shell (made from a beet-based sugar glass), the texture, which is the same texture as the shell vs. the firm texture of the shrimp. All of this with two ingredients. You get nearly four contrasts and it says everything I want to say.
Is it something you aim for across all restaurants, like Mr. & Mrs Bund and the new Chop Chop Club?
You could say this but maybe a little less at Mr. & Mrs. Bund, because sometimes I pay homage to a lot of existing recipes. So, when they are existing recipes, they are not all essentialist. To be honest, a very good baba rhum with cream is quite essentialist. (Baba au Rhum is a French dessert, made with a yeasted cake that is soaked in a sugar syrup spiked with alcohol.) Essentialism is not always minimalism. You can have a lot of ingredients, even if I tend to have not a lot of ingredients.
Photo by Ultraviolet
The early days of being in school and deciding to cook
Can we step back a bit and talk about the early part of your career? Australia came after Hong Kong, and Hong Kong came after Paris, right? And before all of this, you had a more academic background.
Hong Kong was in 1992. So as a chef, I had just started. I had already gone from commis (the lowest position on the classical French kitchen hierarchy) to chef de partie (a mid-level position, in charge of one station in the kitchen) but I did it a little later than some people. I was still in school, because of what my parents wanted. I was doing a baccalaureate with a mathematic-oriented background. It was my parents will. So I had a scientific background with Latin and Greek, plus literature – don’t worry, I forget all the Greek instantly! (laughs) The horses are running, that’s all I remember. You could not do everything. Be good in science, have Latin and Greek, and play rugby as I was doing. The thing is at this stage you don’t really know what you want to do, you don’t have that year of taking distance and learning what exists in the world that you could make a job with. In one day you need to decide which study you’re going to do, based on your personal taste or your parents taste, to do what, you don’t even know? So I had that flash, to decide I’m going to do at least one thing I like for my job. I had three things I thought I was interested in: I was interested in sport, but I was not really good in sport; interested in photography; and interested, vaguely, in cooking. It was something I knew vaguely I could have a taste for. All this to say, I registered for a three-year course, and I chose chemistry, because chemistry and physics were one of my fortes at school, and I didn’t want to work too much. I didn’t want to work at all, actually.
It was the first time I split with my parents. They divorced around this time, so I felt a bit more free to decide by myself. In fact, I was not going to school. I was going to train for the sports teacher competition. My dream was to be a sports teacher. So, I needed to train. The year before when I wanted to do the study for being a sports teacher, I failed the entrance competition. And I remember it because I had scores in collective sport, but the weakness of the weakness was gymnastics and swimming. Despite my training, I failed miserably. We were supposed to jump in the water, go underwater, 50m to other side, then jump in the swimming pool, take a duck on the bottom of the swimming pool, and go back freestyle. I was out of breath, out of everything, when I arrived at the other end. I made a mistake, I changed lanes, and I took the freaking duck from the guy who was on my left, who was fighting with me. The guy was mad, I failed, and I made him fail, and so we both failed the exam. (laughs) This would have changed everything!
So after the sporting failure, you decided to cook instead?
Luckily, my safeguard was to go to hotel school and the hotel school accepted my application. I kept practicing how to do an omelet, because a friend of mine who went to the school told me it was important, and I was thinking there was some competition to get in, like the sports school. But they just accepted my application. (laughs)
And it was there that you had your famous encounter with the carrots and the water.
My first lesson was with such a bright man, a bright teacher, probably the brightest teacher in France at that time. We came in for the first time, and he had three carrots in three glasses of water. In one the carrot was shredded, so the water was completely dark orange. The second one was a cut carrot, light orange water, and the third was a whole carrot, clean water. And through those three glasses, he took the time to explain to us all the processes of exchange between liquid and solid. And he was so in tune with the scientific background, that I felt that there is a path in cooking that will be about extrapolation of knowledge, and learning to discover new worlds by yourself. I linked it very much to a kind of poetic chemistry, which is really the right definition of cooking, even today. It was so interesting, so well done, I called my mother the same day, and said “that’s exactly what I want to do”. And from there, the passion has never left me.
A lot of chefs speak of encounters with other chefs, but this person sealed my passion for cooking in one shot. Freaking good. I was nearly 20, because look, 18 you pass baccalaureate, 19 in the chemical school and failing in the water, 19 or 20, something like this.