Ultraviolet as the pinnacle of a career
We are sitting at Ultraviolet, which won three Michelin stars last year, and is in some ways the culmination of all your travels, your techniques, and your ideas about cooking. I wonder if maybe we could start here, and then move backwards through your career and influences?
Ultraviolet is the crystallization of all my experience, through a single project. It’s the project of my life. It’s everything I believe in, with flawless execution on par with the concept. You can say that is the dream when you are a chef. You have to have perseverance to go through all the steps — that are more obstacles than steps, more hurdles than steps — to do something that you really want to do. It’s a combination of luck, hard work and determination, right, and stubbornness! If I make a mark on the restaurant world, in cooking, it’s with Ultraviolet. It’s not sad at all, unlike the famous feeling when you receive a lifetime achievement award, you feel like you’re old in one day. On the contrary, it’s the beginning of everything I have today. And with my experience, I know that things can stop tomorrow.
That’s one of things in this world of food, and investment and restaurants — you’re always on a string. The money, the time, and the energy required to make a restaurant is something of another time. It’s not on par with the society of today. You need patience, you need very secure investments, you need a lot of things. Not to say there is not a commercial project that can work straight away, a pizzeria maybe, but the effort to open most places is immense.
What do you mean?
Being honest in this industry, which means good value for money, you have to give more than you receive. That is the reality of this job, which makes it a beautiful job! That’s one of the things that makes this job a job of another time. Who is working 16 hours a day? C’mon! This is still a physical job, it’s not anodyne, in terms of what it takes from your physical and mental energy. It’s a tough job.
Has there been a point when you wanted to give up on this job, or the goal of opening a place like Ultraviolet, which is very unique, even among the elite world of three-star restaurants?
At the end of the day, there is a time in my life that I could say man, where are you going? Are you going to make it even halfway to what you think you want to do in this job? That’s why I say luck plays a role in all this, even if you are here to make luck happen.
Ultraviolet is a crystallization of all the mistakes I’ve done, all the goals that I had in mind. It’s a crystallization of my travels, my errands, from being in France, getting lost in Hong Kong, going to Australia, passing by Indonesia, coming back to Paris to end up in Istanbul, okay? All those things combined could add up to what defines me as a global chef, a global traveler, yes, French spine, but definitely open-minded, I hope so. I hope I have at least proven this.
There is nothing such as a minor agenda for me in cooking. Everything is interesting if you apply your energy and thought to it. I could have succeeded in something else and been very happy, and it would have some of the DNA of what I am doing today. But to finally realize this project that I’ve been working on since 1996, I am happy I had that determination and faith in it, and today Ultraviolet is giving me back a lot of things, which is good. We could have done that project, but we could have not had that impact which allows you to go further and to sustain this project. Today we have that impact, so that’s not too bad.
Seeing the world with the “baby’s eye”
There was something that always struck me when I worked for you, and in the decade since then, about your complete egalitarianism when it comes to ingredients. You call it having the “baby’s eye” and we’ve talked before about how you don’t feel that a canned or tinned sardine is any less valuable than a fresh sardine, only different.
The reason why, for instance, I still have in Mr. & Mrs. Bund, this canned sardine, or sometimes mackerel or tuna, it’s my peanut, you know the salted bar snack, which is addictive. It’s difficult to have a good meal opener. A good meal opener, physiologically, is something that triggers your saliva and makes you hungry and doesn’t cut your appetite and this is one of them. But it has a lot of meaning because it’s something you can share at the meal, not like an amuse-geule (a small bite from the chef given early in the meal), which I don’t find very relevant in the context of a meal.
All this to say that it’s also a representation of the way I conceive products. There is nothing that is a non-interesting product. As an example, the tin of sardines. In that case, I’ve always said, the tin of sardines is not a lesser ingredient than a fresh sardine. It’s very easy to consider that the fresh sardine is more noble because it has bones, it has not been through a conservation process or whatsoever and it’s not coming from something that is industrialized — that’s the reason why we consider it a lesser product, but it’s a very interesting product, it’s just a very different product. There are a few things like this that we are using. When we are using President brand Camembert in the Ultraviolet Menu A, the idea is to transform a product that is readily available on every shelf in France.
So, theoretically, could or would you create a menu out of these commercial products that you’d find at most supermarkets in France?
I have the utmost respect for supermarkets. I understand we are trying to make the things more natural, less artificial, I understand and agree on this one. But we tend to forget very much what has been the role of those supermarkets, to feed the masses at a very decent level. If everyone today had to grow his own cows, c’mon, let’s get real, that’s impossible!
Not everybody has access to the best products that you can find in some fine dining restaurant. These expensive products, you know what is the cost of that animal? To raise it to a certain age, to feed it, to kill it at the end, it’s out of the price range of most people. So, utmost respect in terms of the capacity of the supermarket to be able to feed the masses at a very decent level of quality. Of course, we can still discuss the way some of the products are processed, yes, you can always do things better, but the point is that any product is worth consideration.
Besides the tinned sardine, are there other dishes that you think show this approach to cooking, to look at an ingredient for what it offers, and not what it lacks?
I remember I had a lemon chicken in Jakarta. It was a from Chinese restaurant, because I was working in the café in the same hotel, and I was supposed to do a western restaurant. There was a Cantonese restaurant, and one time the chef, because he was giving me some food to try every day, one time he gave me some lemon chicken. It would have been a chicken sauté but he treated it a bit in the crystal apple way, where you sauté the chicken, you put the sugar, caramelize, stop it in the ice and serve. Right. Except he comes to see me, he says, the chicken was ok? I say yea, it was good for dessert. (laughs) I think he took it badly. Wrong! It was good… for dessert. And that could have been the ultimate compliment.
Photo by Ultraviolet
When did the concept of having the “baby’s eye” take root in your mind?
It’s probably from my regular education. I’ll give you a different example. I think you need to be a little mature to acknowledge your likes that are shameful to the eyes of your peers. I give you an example. Music. I always like Claude François, but he is ridiculous, he used to be ridiculous. (Claude Francois was a French pop singer, popular in the 1960s and 1970s.) But then, when someone asks you, what do you like? “I like Claude François.” It takes courage to say I like Claude François today. So, it’s the same thing for the food.
If you like a burger at McDonald’s because it provides you pleasure, regardless of the context of gastronomy, then why not acknowledge it? From this you can say there is a value to something that seems meaningless to the elite of the trade that I’ve been engaging in. When this confidence in me developed, I don’t know. When it happened that I can publicly say that I like Laughing Cow as a cheese, I probably have liked it more than any other all my life, I still love Laughing Cow, it’s probably one of the most processed cheese — I’m paying an homage to it on Ultraviolet’s new Menu D — when it happened, I don’t know. (Laughing Cow is a highly processed spreadable cheese wedge sold all throughout Europe and North America.) But I think it’s logical to say there are things that you like, that other people dislike. I don’t want to be out of the box, I’m not trying to be out of the box, but I’m not trying to fit in the box, because there are a lot of boxes. There are a lot of boxes of being politically correct every day in every trade and particularly in food. If you look at it closely, it’s an extensible box that changes every year and you will need to fit into a new mold every year.
Even though most of the time I agree with the trends. I agree with locavorism. Why not. Fantastic. Bonne. Now I’m in Shanghai. Locavorism of what? In Shanghai. Maybe if I ask you to search all the products around here, I will find something, but you know how much effort it is to do something locavore with a 5km perimeter around us? 5km around here is McDonald’s, but that’s about it. I agree with those things. Trends always carry a reason that is meaningful; so, trends are not bad. But to try to fit in the trend, it means that you are already taking the caricature of the trend, so it’s better not to try. But when something good comes along, you try not to be a defector every time, try not to say “I’m not interested.” So, judge with your own likes and dislikes.