Photo by Ultraviolet
On going mad at summer camp and washing out of the kitchen
What happened immediately after school? Did you go right into kitchens in Paris?
Before military service, I went to summer camp, as a chef, in charge of the kitchen with my friend Claude, so the two of us were in charge of this summer camp for adults, kind of a cheap holiday place. You’ve never seen somebody taking so seriously his mission. And that’s where I understand I was mad. That’s where I understand cooking can drive you mad. I just came there with my Larousse Gastronomique (a highly influential cooking textbook) and my suitcase of knives from the cooking school. Very seriously, like a doctor. And for that month, we suffered in the kitchen 17 hours a day. The beach and the sea were 200m from our little tent — never saw the beach. We never had the strength to crawl to the beach.
I did a repertoire (a collection of dishes) in summer camp like no one had ever seen. (laughs) I was doing some cassoulet (a classic French dish of white beans and confit pork), but not, you buy the bean, you do it with dry beans, the pork we cook, the confit we do… I was determined to do everything from scratch because I wanted the experience. Of course, there were some failures. This big ham I wanted to do for a buffet — inject the ham, don’t buy it ready-made, poach it overnight, get the ham the day before — but what I did not know, you cannot put the puff pastry on a hot ham, it does not work, the puff pastry melts on the ham, this one was a complete failure! (laughs) And at the end of this hard sufferance, nobody could kick me out, because those holiday people were applauding, they were so surprised — food cost forget about it, hygiene forget about it, everything forget about it, but the food. So, nobody dared to kick me out, and we went through a very very very intense month. At the end of the time, they have the team of July and the team of August, the team of August came to replace us, and they came in with tins, tomato ravioli, all the basics, beans in tin, frozen or tin… I understood maybe we pushed the boundary a bit too far. Claude did not talk to me for a whole year. (laughs)
I suppose that one month did not exactly launch your career despite how tough it was.
There was someone close to the world of food, respected by everyone in France, and he knew my uncle. He found me a way to go into Alain Chapel’s kitchen. But first I had to prove myself at the local restaurant of Perpignan, the only Michelin star restaurant in Perpignan. And so it was set in stone, I was supposed to do my military service and after this supposed to present myself as a commis, the last of the last. I never went. I just decided to skip it. I didn’t want to go to Perpignan (a city in southern France). I wanted to go in the La Maison Blanche in Paris. (A famous restaurant on the roof of the Champs Elysees Theatre in Paris, overlooking the Eiffel Tower.) The chef he was making a lot of waves, he had for me still today one of the best eyes for food that I have seen as a chef. Everything he was doing was very beautiful at the time. So, I decided to go there, to present myself at the door, and to say “can I see the chef?”, and say I want to work for you.
Flattery works in this industry. It’s the best motivation. When somebody comes from south of France, comes to see you, asks for a position, you say why not? What I did not know, it was one of the hardest kitchens in Paris, and there were a few hard kitchens in Paris. I will learn, the hard way, my position as a commis. (laughs) I would stay only three months.
I was washed out. Washed out. It could have been discouraging to me. It was starting at 8am, finishing at 1am, 1.30am, one hour only during the day to have a meal, one hour. All the other time you were working, then you just had time to go to the room, vaguely wash, and come back, and the days were passing like this. For a first experience as a chef, that was…. That was tough. Very very tough. We were not so many in the kitchen, and he had a Michelin star, and we were running like 80 seats, and I was the last one to come, and the last one to come does all the shit. And that’s where I learned the professional world is very different to the school. You are not there to learn anymore, but to learn and produce and perform. And eventually, if you deserve it, you will learn more. My mission was to fill up buckets of brunoise (diced vegetables), a big bucket of carrot, man, even today that’s hard work. Then turnip. Then onion. All the shit people didn’t want to do I was doing for them, and as there was no more space in that kitchen, they decided I would work outside.
There was a little garden, I would take my board, I would go there. I remember ending in that restaurant because I did not know how to do quenelle (a type of oval scoop). You know why I can do quenelle much better than anybody else today? It’s because of this. C’mon, the guy gives me a bucket of chocolate ice cream to finish the desserts, I was not really good at it, and there was not much in the pot, and he was watching me, and I was sweating… (laughs) He got so upset with me, really discouraged me, and I was washed out.
Photo by Ultraviolet
Finding the inspiration and confidence to continue
For a lot of people, that would be the end of their career in cooking, and they would take that as a sign to get out of the business. But you continued.
I met a chef, he was a good chef, he worked for an irrelevant restaurant, no Michelin star, nothing like this, he was an old celebrity in France. His restaurant was packed every night, so much ambiance it was crazy. We were doing some food, I learned a lot, because I had a lot to learn. For example, how to fillet fish. The guy who taught me to fillet fish was the stewarding guy, he was a Pakistani, and he was a fishmonger. In the stewarding in Paris you have some people that are working very hard and really doing the base of the preparing work. This guy was the king of fish, even today I wonder if I’ve seen anyone as good as him. He would take the salmon, and he would take a big knife, one time, he would go clack, clack, turn, clack, clack, salmon done! At least this place taught me things. Sometimes when you’re a young chef it’s interesting to go in a high-end place for the attention to detail, but it’s also interesting to go in a smaller place where you learn more things and are given more opportunities to do things and be a bit more complete. And at least he restored some confidence, because in three months, despite my passion, I lost a lot of confidence with the other guy.
From there, you ended up at Daniel Ballester
There was only one chef who influenced me, outside of Paris. He was doing something extremely interesting, he was a very very good chef, probably one of the best. He was doing a restaurant that was extremely successful, one of the first to democratize the gastronomic restaurant, with a shorter a la carte, one single price, very very good price, three or four times cheaper than a high-end restaurant of one Michelin star. We were packed, 150 guests. On Sunday, we had to refuse hundreds of guests. I’ve never seen such a steady restaurant, a successful restaurant, since. So here I learned a lot. There was a good team of people, there was both speed and quality to do, and that was the best training… at the end when I left, he found me a position in Paris, at guess where, La Maison Blanche, as chef de partie, where I first started. Of course, I did not go.
Finally I found a position in Duquesnoy, a very good two-star, but that’s one of the little regrets. By myself I said, I will take my things, and where I want to go is Alain Passard, because Passard was up and coming, he was in the ex-restaurant from Alain Senderens, then he became Arpege, and I had lunch and then a dinner there, which was very expensive, and his cooking for me was the most interesting in Paris. And then I went there at the end of the service, I remember he always had a long apron, and he received me at the end, very nice, we discussed a little bit, he said, “look if there is a position, I will let you know.” And it happened that one week after my fate was set to go to Duquesnoy, because there were so many recommendations behind me I could not say no. One week later I got a call saying they had a position for me. It’s always been one of my regrets, not to go in the kitchen of Alain Passard.
So instead you went into the kitchen of Duquesnoy.
The chef had just stopped smoking, it was not a good ambiance. I was 25, 26. I was a good chef de partie, and so I took the call. I wanted already to express myself, it was a very strong feeling, so I said I’ll do Duquesnoy and then get a little position for myself. I left in six months, because he send me a pan, I’m talking the triple-ply copper pan, the thing you take it in the head, you kill somebody, and I took a hot pan, close to my head, like this, ZOOM! (laughs). As soon as we had 20 covers it was a f*cking revolution. We were 6 or 7 in the kitchen, because he did not want to do anything ahead, ok, asparagus a la minute, everything a la minute… Later at Robuchon I would learn the limits of precision, ok, you would blanch the asparagus just before service…
All this to say that because I did not know how to do a scrambled egg… I didn’t know, you didn’t teach me! I don’t know how to do your scrambled egg! I learned in the hotel school. The guy was so upset with my scrambled egg, that’s why I left.
From other people’s kitchen into the first chef position
That led you to taking your first chef’s position at la Table d’Harmonie in Paris.
This has been extremely tough, my first experience as a chef. I regret I don’t have my first menu anymore, I have my book from the first restaurant, where I decided which recipes I would do. I did a menu that I would not necessarily disavow today, it was actually pushed by the fact that we were only two in the kitchen. I could not do the things I would do afterwards in Hong Kong, where I had a team…
Based on the restaurant that I was most linked to, Daniel Ballester, I aimed for a short menu and not too complicated. I had a translation of a dish from a famous chef, he was doing a parmentier, parmentier du bouef (the French equivalent of shepherd’s pie) in a kind of non-stick mold for brioche and he was putting, beef, mashed potato, very flavorful, beautiful, intense, influenced by northern Europe, and he would take that guy from fridge and put it in a very strong oven, like 250 degree oven, and he would leave for maybe 20 minutes, and take it out, and then you had a beautiful cake of potato and very simple, so I had something very inspired by this.
Was it rewarding?
My first reward was at Ballester when I cooked for the staff. Cooking for the staff is already extremely interesting. And at the time I cooked something that is still memorable, at least in my mind, probably everyone else has forgotten. I cooked a parmentier of beef tongue. And all the staff was raving. And that day I was considered a very good chef, at least in that kitchen. That’s still a memory. So, in one of my first menus, I decided to make a cross between that famous dish and my parmentier of beef tongue… One day maybe I will do one at Ultraviolet in memory of this.
There was an andouillette (a French sausage filled with pork intestines). At least in Ballester, I was making them from scratch. A truffle andouillette, with everything, three days, it took me three days, he trained me to do this with one of the best charcutier in France, cleaning all the intestines, bringing them together, braising them for long time, making a consommé to make the jelly to keep the andouillette, a hundred andouillette, I don’t even remember why we make the consommé and the jelly, the andouillette sold, one service, bingo, finished! 100 andouillette, three days, one service, no more andouillette! (laughs) That’s the thing, the beauty of cooking.
But back to Table du Harmonie, you mentioned it was an extremely tough time.
I remember I was crying, not out of rage or sadness, I was naturally crying from all the pores of my body, the exhaustion, I was crying of exhaustion, at the end of the day I was like, I had the tears going out with the sweat, that’s my memory of the thing. I had my little motorbike, one day I crashed I was so tired, in the Rue de Commerce, it was rainy, I with my bike, I was tired, it was the end of the night, I slid on the ground to avoid a car, I went spinning around, high speed, in front of me, I killed my bike… it was a tough time.