Even in an already stellar culinary career, 2014 was a pretty special year for Yannick Alléno. Aside from taking on the renowned three Michelin star Pavillon Ledoyen off the Champs Elysées (review here), he was also named 2015 Chef of the Year by the iconic French restaurant guide Gault&Millau. They acknowledged him as having led ‘an outstanding career in French gastronomy’. Coming from them, that’s really saying something. He has, however, flown somewhat under the radar when compared to more familiar names like Ducasse, Gagnaire, Boulud or Robuchon. But it’s not that he hasn’t been busy: On the contrary, he has built up an enviable portfolio of restaurants, books, methods and ventures. It seems that today, more than ever, his time has come.
Alléno was already a well-established culinary figure when he received his third Michelin star back in 2007 at Le Meurice, often cited as one of the great temples of classic French gastronomie. He’s considered by many as having played one of the largest contributions to the ongoing evolution of modern French cuisine, being particularly known for pioneering new research on modern sauces and introducing new techniques into his highly creative dishes. For a taste of his groundbreaking and maverick approach, try ‘Sauces: Reflections of a Chef’. It tells the history of great sauces through the ages, each marking different culinary milestones. More importantly, however, it reveals the secrets of Alléno’s extraction techniques which have genuinely revolutionised and shifted the paradigm and idées recues of French cuisine.
As he tells me, “Sauce comes from the world salt – they’ve defined cooking and without them, there’s no French cuisine.” He explains that the early 19th century saw the rise of the ‘sauce allemande’ from Marie-Antoine Carême, essentially a one-sauce-fits-all, something which served as the base for many others. “Like sauces with Chinese cuisine” he adds with a smile. Next the culinary demigod Auguste Escoffier refined it with something more akin to a modern stock that could be based on different flavours such as chicken, vegetables or veal. The third stage was the rise of nouvelle cuisine in the 1970’s and the inexorable rise of the jus. A shorter cooking time was required, meaning a taste closer to the original ingredient. The fourth stage belongs to Alléno himself, the terrifying-sounding ‘cryoconcentration’. Essentially it involves cooking food under a vacuum for a specific time, before then removing the liquid that comes out, an extraction process that happens through freezing. What’s left is a super-concentrated flavour, liquids which can be poured and tasted like the finest wines. They are, frankly, a culinary epiphany. There are no greater shoes to fill than those of Carême or Escoffier, but Alléno has seemingly managed it. If you’d like to know more, this cartoon (in English) explains the history far more succinctly:
Aside from revolutionizing the way we eat, in common with so many global super-chefs, Alléno also redefines international multi-tasking. He is chef at the 1947 in Courchevel and helms restaurants including the Royal Mansour in Marrakech, the One&Only The Palm in Dubai, the Shangri-La Beijing and the 101 Tower in Taipei.
Another of his restaurants is Le Terroir Parisien, opened four years ago in the Latin Quarter with a mission to bring back classic dishes using produce grown in and around the city. He explains that it’s: “The spirit and products that define true Parisian cuisine. You’ll find historic Parisian recipes such as eggs with tripe, croque-monsieur and gratinée des Halles – French onion soup. It’s kind of like my own nouvelle cuisine movement.”
The actual catalyst for focussing on locally-produced ingredients was an article written by François Simon, Le Figaro’s influential food critic. Simon described 10 haute cuisine dishes from the 10 most famous French chefs and defied anyone to be able to guess which chef had created each dish. As Alléno explains, “This article was a revelation – I wanted to stand out from the crowd and do something different. Besides, it was time for me to do something else as I know the haute cuisine world too well and it always follows the same theme.”
Q: What has the recognition – the chef of the year, the Michelin stars, meant to you?
A: “I don’t cook for awards. Cooking is a way for me to express myself. Winning a third Michelin star was the start of my freedom, in fact. Often three stars is the ultimate goal for people – yes it was an objective, but winning them allowed me to emancipate myself, in a certain way, to come out feeling more free. So it marked a start.”
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
A: I was 8 years old – it wasn’t a fait accompli but a gift. I was put on the planet for a reason!
Q: What’s the first dish you cooked for a paying customer?
A: Not for a customer, but I remember making an omelette norvégienne (A Baked Alaska, not an omelette with salmon as I assumed) for my cousins. It was terrible. And I knew it, even if everyone said it was good, I knew it wasn’t!
Q: Who was your most important mentor?
A: There are lots of them. I love the ‘freedom’ of Pierre Gagnaire and Alain Passard. Passard has a sense of ‘fire’ and was the first to really, truly talk about and work with vegetables. Michel Bras. I love him. It’s a difficult question because there are so many of them!
Q: Which cookery writers do you like to read?
A: Jean-Claude Ribaut, the restaurant reviewer for Le Monde.
Q: Which one utensil do you use most at work?
A: A chef’s fork – la forchette.
Q: What’s your guilty food pleasure?
A: Haribo bears! And potato chips.
Q: Who would you dine with at your last supper?
A: My sons, my wife. We’d have truffles, grives (thrushes) and a bottle of Haut Brion – a ’67 Chateau D’Yquem.
Q: What’s your favourite vegetable?
Q: Where did you have your most memorable meal?
A: Alain Passard
Q: What did you have for dinner last night?
A: Snake! For the first time. At China Tang.
Q: What’s your favorite street food/snack around the world?
A: Le veau chaud (Literally ‘hot veal’, but actually a hot dog style sausage Alléno created made from tête de veau, cooked calf’s head. It’s served in a baugette with a sauce gribiche – for more, check it out at the NY Times here)
Q: What’s your favourite restaurant?
A: In Paris or around the world? Well there’s a place I go all the time when I have the chance – Din Tai Fung.
Q: What’s your kitchen management style?
A: Demanding but fair. (NB In March this year Alléno was accused of ‘harrassment’ and ‘violent behaviour’ by a number of staff at Ledoyen. In response, his team said: “Yannick Alléno is deeply hurt by the accusations against him in the article by M. Kocila Makdeche, which first appeared on the FranceTV Info website, not only because these accusations are false, but because they undermine the values, professional integrity, and commitment of those who work with him and, more generally, the dignity of the profession. Yannick Alléno fully intends to defend his honor and restore the truth, and has instructed his lawyers to engage in legal proceedings without delay against the perpetrators of these heinous allegations.”)
Q: Ever felt intimidated cooking for someone?
A: Paul Bocuse.
Q: Tell me something not a lot of people know about you?
A: I’m allergic to aubergine!