The Chefs & Their Restaurants
The best chefs in France opened up to us about
their struggles and triumphs,
their years of training,
their hopes and their dreams.
Chasing Stars tells their stories.
The Michelin Man
Chef Frédéric Robert, Paris
"I've always worked in Michelin-star restaurants. I don't like simple cooking." Chef Frédéric Robert shuffled through a pile of paper on his desk.
We were in his office at La Grande Cascade, a classic restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne, where he is the Chef de Cuisine, the big cheese, the man in charge of holding on to their one Michelin star. Previously, for a decade before his tenure here, he had been right-hand man to esteemed chef Alain Senderens at the three-Michelin-star restaurant Lucas-Carton on Place de la Madeleine in central Paris.
"Senderens is the most cerebral chef I've every known; the person who thinks most about the food," Chef Robert said, "In the time that I worked for him I never saw him touch a plate."
Robert showed us a sheaf of diagramed plates, sketches of how he wanted new dishes to look when they were served. "Senderens creates recipes by conceptualizing them; he invents recipes in his head and then writes them down, complete with drawings of how the plates should look. He passes the drawing to his team to produce it. I use the same approach."
It was during Robert's tenure at Lucas-Carton that Senderens famously renounced the three Michelin stars that he had held for twenty-eight years, creating a sensation in France, where Michelin chefs have the status of elite athletes. At the same time Senderens closed Lucas-Carton and reopened under his own name, with a simpler and cheaper menu. To Frédéric Robert it was an unwelcome change.
"I liked creating haute cuisine. I was also at the point in my life when I wanted to do my own cooking as a head chef." He paused to look up at the ceiling. "I decided I would give it a year under the new regime."
He didn't last the year. Frédéric Robert was lured away to La Grande Cascade, a lavish restaurant in a restored Napoleonic hunting lodge – a restaurant with a Michelin star and the hopes, dreams, fantasies of maybe, just maybe securing a second star.
What would he would do if he was to win a second star? With his chin cupped between his forefinger and thumb Chef Robert considered a moment. "I would get drunk on whiskey and champagne."
“Michelin is the only guide that is important. All the rest do not matter.”
The Kitchen Can Be a Cruel Place
Chef Christophe Renaud, Provence
"Losing a star would be like bloosh." He made a crashing motion with his hands, starting above his head and ending at his waist, as if a bomb were falling and exploding. "It’s my life, my baby. I would be triste." Sad.
The leaves on the vineyards surrounding us were huge, fat, and grapey-green; the sky was that impossible blue you only see in Provence in the summer. Through a rose-trellised archway we looked onto the resort and restaurant of La Coquillade, near Gargas in the Luberon, Peter Mayle country. We were standing in le potager du chef – the chef's garden – with the chef himself, Michelin-starred Christophe Renaud.
Renaud has been cooking professionally since he was fourteen years old and he's been around – working in three-star kitchens in France and even a stint at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco. But, winning his own Michelin star three years ago was the pinnacle for him.
"I was surprised when I learned about it. A friend called to tell me the news, I didn't expect it," he said, reaching down to pick a leaf from the garden bed. It was an herb from Mexico, he said, passing it to us to smell, one that he put on his plates for its aroma, not for eating.
Now that he held a star he would start getting nervous ten or fifteen days before the new Michelin list was announced each year in January. He had already told us how important Michelin recognition was to him.
We don't like to think that our question put a curse on Chef Renaud, but the next edition of the guide would contain bad news for him, and for his career.
“I think we will be able to gain a second star. But I don’t work for Michelin, I work for the guests. That is my most important thing."
The Other Legend of Lyon
Chef Pierre Orsi, Lyon
It's not often that you get to meet a legend, but there he was, dressed in chef's whites from head to toe, welcoming us into the three-story historic mansion on Place Kléber in the center of Lyon, where he has lived, cooked, and been feeding people for decades.
Lyon, halfway between Paris in the north and Provence in the south. Lyon, the place Anthony Bourdain called the culinary capital of France and perhaps the world. Lyon, where you could find two of the legends of French cuisine – Paul Bocuse and Pierre Orsi.
Of all the five hundred odd one-star chefs in France, Pierre Orsi has perhaps the most accolades and achievements. He was certainly the oldest one, at 75, still working in the kitchen everyday. He'd had a Michelin star the longest (since 1977) and he'd seen more talented young chefs pass through his kitchen than trains through the Gare du Nord.
"Sit down," chef gestured to two chairs in the old-fashioned bue elegant lobby, "I will be back." And he scurried out, through the door to the kitchen, to give some instructions to the brigade, the cooking team. When he reappeared, he plunked down in a chair across from us, leaned in, cupped his chin in hand. "Okay, now you ask me questions."
Braaang. Before we can open our notebooks or our mouths the phone rings and Chef jumps up to answer it. "Oui, bonjour, c'est Pierre Orsi...oui, samedi soir...à quel nom?...d'accord, we'll see you Saturday night." Chef is taking reservations.
We finally began our interview, but Chef jumped up every few minutes to answer the phone – to take more reservations, to talk to his buddy in Cape Cod ("J'adore Cap Cod," he stage whispered to us while he was on the phone), to transfer another call to a line upstairs.
Sixty years behind the stove and Orsi was still involved in every aspect of this large and famous restaurant. At one time it held two stars, but now we were to learn that he was uncertain about the future and about holding on to his star.
“I was sent quite young on an apprenticeship to a man called Bocuse. The demands, the perfection, the sureness of touch, the rigour of Chef Paul motivated me and gave me the courage to continue in this profession.”
The Disappointed Chef
Chef Bruno Monnoir, Beaune
"I wasn't the man who takes the train. I was the man who stays at the station and watches the train go by."
"I'm Obelix," chef declared. "I fell into a magic elixir and it gave me cooking powers."
Bruno Monnoir was referring to the iconic French comic book series, Asterix and Obelix, that features two ancient Gauls who, time and time again, foil the occupying Roman legions thanks to a magic potion connected by a Druid wizard that gives the pair superpowers – particularly Obelix, who fell into a vat of the stuff as a baby. Monnoir even looks like Obelix – blocky, broad, strong – a guy who can manhandle the huge blocks of stone the comic calls menhirs. We weren't surprised to learn that chef had at one time been a rugby player.
"I know how to cook," he reiterated. This was no idle boast. Le Benaton, Monnoir's restaurant in Burgundy wine country, would be the only restaurant we would recommend to famed chef Eric Ripert when we talked to him about Michelin.
For Chef Bruno the path to Michelin recognition was littered with obstacles. (Menhirs, perhaps?) It wasn't until sixteen years after he opened Le Benaton that the restaurant was awarded a star. Even nine years forward, when we talked to him, he was bitter, disappointed, and unable to understand how certain other one-star restaurants deserved the accolade.
Every year, in January, Chef Monnoir's hopes would rise. Time and time again he waited for the release of new Michelin list of starred restaurants. Time and time again he was disappointed.
"I wasn't the man who takes the train," he said of his years in the Michelin wilderness. "I was the man who stays at the station and watches the train go by."
Finally, after a four-year period when not a single Michelin inspector paid a visit to Le Benaton, Monnoir's wife Isabelle, who ran the front of the restaurant, called Michelin at their head office in Paris. "We're tired. What's going on? Why are we passed by? Why are so many young chefs getting the star, but not us?"
In early 2006, after sixteen years, Chef Monnoir heard rumors that there might be good news for him in the upcoming edition of the guide. He didn't believe it until Isabelle read it in the newspaper and burst in the kitchen shouting, "We have the star!"
Then, one day in 2007 the regional director of Michelin arrived unannounced for dinner. Chef was in the kitchen when he was told a customer wanted to see him. Monnoir's jaw dropped when he saw who it was. "Bravo," the director exclaimed, "Good for you, getting a star after being opened for only three years."
The comment was bittersweet, Monnoir groused, as was his tardy recognition. "The star came too late for me."
A Japanese Island in Burgundy
Chef Laurent Peugeot, Pernand-Vergelesses
The restaurant oozed Japan. From the bamboo garden and waterfall at the entry to the virtual koi pond guests passed over on their way to the dining room. It was a surprise to look out the windows and remember that we were in the heart of Burgundy. In fact, restaurant Le Charlemagne was named for one of the districts of the world-renowned Côte d'Or wine region.
Chef was waiting to show us to our table. Laurent Peugeot was young, handsome, tall and dark with a trendy and permanent two-day stubble, stylish black chef's coat and pants. Later, when he sat down to talk with us, we were struck by his impressive hands, using long fingers to grab chunks of the the air around him to emphasize a point.
The dining room was stunning; every aspect Japanese-inspired and carefully coordinated; the table setting all glassware and white ceramics, including white ceramic water glasses. Each bowl in front of us had LP monogrammed on it, for chef Laurent Peugeot. Combined with the vineyard views and some soft, hidden lights – changing subtly from red to green to blue – it was restaurant as theatre and the most interesting room we'd seen in France.
The meal started with a cool wet towel to wipe the heat of summer from our hands and necks. Our server, who was also the sommelier, poured a champagne aperitif that had a taste akin to beer – yeasty, fizzy, very dry. With the first course we learned that the LP on the plates was not part of the ceramic but rather a flavour-wipe to mop up with a seaweed "sponge" that was served with girolles and a tomato sauce with onion crumble. The sommelier instructed us in how to wipe the seaweed course, then how to eat the bread.
On the table was a tall, narrow-necked bottle containing olive oil with, she told us, a nori infusion. She lifted up the bottle to reveal a hollowed-out bottom in which sat a petri dish of sea salt infused with matcha tea, a sandy brown colour. We were meant to pour the olive oil into a dedicated bowl next to our plate, sprinkle on some of the salt, then dip our bread in it. This was the only Michelin-starred meal we'd experienced that came with instructions.
"I am outside of the French system of chef training. I get my inspiration not from books, not from other restaurants, but from the food I find at the market, from my travels, from my brain."