From Netherland to France. Alain Ducasse and Alain Passard.
Robert wrote a letter to Alain Ducasse in French, and I got a job offer as chef de parti in his 2 Michelin starred restaurant, La Terrasse, Juan Les Pins, Côte d’Azur.
But just after that, he became an executive chef of Louis XV in L’Hotel de Paris so Ducasse moved to Monte Carlo. Even if I went to Paris, I couldn’t work under him.
What did you do, then?
That was the only year that two chefs were awarded as “Chef of the Year” by Gault et Millau. The two chefs were Alain Ducasse and Alain Passard.
So, I thought of working under the other Chef of the Year, Alain Passard. Robert was very close to him because they worked together in Brussels. So he called Passard and he replied that I could work from the following week.
Thus, I packed everything and went to Paris. I need to get used to new surroundings quickly. It was a double challenge for me, to live apart from my family and to learn the French language.
Difficulties faced as a foreigner working in a French fine dining kitchen and how they had been overcome.
How did you get over these challenges?
At that time, it was very stressful to work in Passard‘s kitchen, especially for a foreigner. The kitchen staffs were mainly French, and they used the French classic way of coaching. That means, they looked down on me, implying that they were in higher positions.
“You’re not French, you don’t know how to cook. We are French, we will tell you what to do”. They had an arrogant attitude like this. For example, they never called me by my name, they only called me “la Hollande”. And always said, “Come, La Hollande” in a very arrogant way.
I had been preparing French cuisine in my career and I was awarded because of my French culinary skill. But, I decided to take a humble attitude. My purpose there was to learn and I knew that it was not my fault to be put down. So, I endured and didn’t care about it.
How long did this situation continue?
Almost 3 months. There was a turning point that changed the situation. One day, a chef de partie called me “La Hollande” although I’m much more experienced than him. Working hours in Passard’s kitchen was long and I was working from 6 am until 2 am, I was very tired then. I couldn’t be patient anymore, so, as you can see I’m very tall and I grabbed the neck of the large built French chef and put him against the wall and said. “You need to call me Richard. I respect you, so could you do the same?” Since then, everyone called me Richard regardless of my Hollandais accent.
If you’re treated unfairly, it’s important to tell them the truth.
Basically, I’m not an aggressive person. After that, I didn’t have any problem. Not only because my skills were recognized, I made it clear that I couldn’t accept it anymore. I’m in an equal position and if you are trying to fight with me, I would take it.
A precious experience as a pastry chef under Alain Passard
And you were working as a pastry chef at that time.
To be honest, I was not that interested in pastries, but pastry chef was the only position they had. If you got a job offer from Alain Passard, it’s impossible to say “I want to go, but I don’t want to be a pastry chef”. Of course, I said “I want to work at the pastry section”.
Actually, most of the chefs only have experience in the savory kitchen, it was very good to have an experience as a pastry chef, and it opened up my future career. I baked breads every day and I learned how to make the famous mille-feuille and the signature tomato dessert. Without a doubt, it was a great experience. Even today, I feel that I have benefitted from this broad experience.
Can you explain further in details?
This experience expanded my understanding of the cooking better. Making pastry involves much more precision than cooking and you cannot compromise. If you had added 1g more of a certain ingredient, it may be acceptable for cooking but definitely not for making pastry.
All the sourdough for bread-making were made in-house. At the beginning, it felt complicated and very difficult for me to understand. The natural yeast had to be made from apples and took a lot of feeling and understanding. It was like taking care of a baby. When it rains, I have to put less amount of water. I understood these things one by one. Even now, when I handle flour or make bread, I feel that I am applying what I had learned from Passard.
Under high pressure, working in the kitchen of a restaurant just before it would get 3 Michelin stars
How was the kitchen like just after Passard received “Chef of the year”?
Not only that I am a foreigner, everyone in the kitchen was very competitive then. Everyone was trying to appeal themselves as “I’m the best in this kitchen” in front of Passard and put up their best performance.
Sometimes there were fights in the kitchen, so it was not a healthy work environment.
Is there any reason for that?
It was just before Passard had received 3 Michelin stars, and the whole kitchen was under high pressure.
Usually in France, the chef who is awarded “Chef of the Year” by Gault et Millau will receive 3 Michelin stars.
Therefore, the message from Passard was very clear — “We will get 3 stars”. Any tiny mistake meant a huge problem. So, the situation was very tough then.
I had never been under such kind of stress. For 60 diners, 14 staffs were working in that kitchen. It was very normal in Paris, but the kitchen was very small and the ceiling was low. There were four staffs, including the interns working at the small pastry section. We always bumped into each other’s shoulders working in that space.
It was very competitive like a small cage filled with roosters ready to fight. Even when we had new staffs, they’d be thinking about quitting within the first few hours of working on their first day. This is because everyone received pressure from Passard of getting the 3 stars.
I think Passard’s kitchen is different now. I’d quit after working there for a year and the lady chef who was my replacement had worked for 3 years. At that time, most of the staff stopped working within 6 months or 8 months. Not much people could survive there more than a year. Due to the highly pressured environment, the turnover rate was high.
How did you survive under such kind of the situation?
I think at some of the Michelin starred restaurants, the same thing is still happening now. In my memory, you can say that everyone was like a top sports athlete, “no pain, no gain”.
Those were tough days, but actually regardless of the age, if you set your mind to do something, you can accomplish it. I was determined to do it, so I did it.
Nowadays, I’ve heard that a lot of young people quit their jobs very easily.
Yes, we need to encourage the young people now.
The team won’t be sustainable if you are just trying to get rid of the weak. We need to support them and the support they receive will become their power to continue. If not, this industry wouldn’t be sustainable.
Of course, it was competitive at Passard’s kitchen, but we were looking at the same target, the 3 stars. So, I have a strong bond with some of the chefs even until now. For example, Alain Verzeroli, an executive grand chef at Chateau Restaurant Joel Robuchon in Tokyo is a good friend of mine, I’m still in contact with him occasionally.
Passard was well known for his meat dishes, but he raised the revolution by having a vegetable-centric menu. What did you learn from him?
What I learned from Passard was simplicity and concentration of the ingredients. Passard didn’t use 20 types of different garnishes or ingredients. Sometimes he only uses 2 or 3 ingredients per a dish. That was before he started a vegetable-centric menu, but the vegetables were already playing an important role in the kitchen.
For Passard, this period was one of the logical steps to start a vegetable-centric menu. I was already making Passard’s signature tomato dessert and avocado soufflé. At that time, there were problems with consuming meat, such as mad cow disease, so vegetables took the interest of the people.