On February 4, RMC’s Les Grandes Gueules (Les GG) interviewed Jean-François Piège, who has two Michelin stars at Le Grand Restaurant in Paris one of the judges on the French version of Top Chef (M6). French GQ readers have just voted him Man of the Year in the gastronomy category (see first photo here).
One of the panellists said that, surely, he must consider himself an artist. However, he replied — and repeated throughout the programme — that he is both a businessman and a chef. Out of all the RMC interviews with great chefs that I have heard, not one has called himself an artist. Whilst Piège refers to himself as an entrepreneur, others say they are technicians.
This is an important point for young people who want to become chefs. It is exacting work because the same ingredients must be prepared in the same way and arranged on the plate the same way day in and day out. If one wants to run his own restaurant, like Piège, one also needs solid business knowledge and a good mind for finance — or a trustworthy partner who does.
Piège runs his restaurants with his wife Élodie. He told Les GG that, when they started, they put a lot of money into their establishments. They are very pleased that he has held onto the two Michelin stars. The 2016 Michelin Guide came out on February 1. Michelin stars attract diners. The custom the stars generate helps the couple to recoup their investment.
Les GG asked him what importance he placed on Michelin stars personally. This question came in light of the recent suicide of Benoît Violier, the Franco-Swiss chef who held three Michelin stars as well as several other awards, including the highly-competitive Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF, ‘Best Worker in France’), which he earned in 2000. (MOFs come in many different categories but are at the top of the peak.) The panel also mentioned Bernard Loiseau who took his own life in 2003, just before the Michelin Guide was published that year.
Earlier in the week, Piège had spoken of his ‘immense sadness’ upon hearing of Violier’s death. He did not say anything more to Les GG on the subject. Instead, he emphasised the importance of working for your own pleasure and satisfaction. He said that life is more important than Michelin stars. Piège said that he himself never dreamt of becoming a great chef. He added that it is better to be happy being yourself.
Piège puts a huge emphasis on sourcing quality food responsibly, the closer to Paris the better. He buys his products from smaller suppliers and growers in and around the city. However, he also sources other ingredients from elsewhere in France. He spoke of his butter supplier in Brittany, a dairy farmer who is part of a small co-operative. Piège said:
Taste his butter and you’ll want to cry, it’s that good.
The panel asked him about the changing and diverse nature of food on offer in France, from the traditional to the Americanised. He said that he wants to be identified as a French chef and preserve the legacy of the food and flavours he grew up with. He has fond memories of meals he ate at home and with his grandparents. His rekindles those memories in his restaurants because people love reliving the flavours of their childhood, like Proust with his madeleines.
That said, he manages to successfully combine traditional tastes with modern twists. Elizabeth on Food shared her dining experience at Piège’s main restaurant, now called Le Grand Restaurant, where she and her husband ate in 2013. She has photos of most of the courses they ate from the nine-course tasting menu. I especially liked Piège’s twist on the mediaeval classic blanc à manger, which English speakers call blanc manger. Piège fills his soft almond and whipped cream moulded custard with crème anglaise, a very light vanilla custard. I would love to know how he does that. Check out Elizabeth’s photograph of it!
Back now to the interview. Piège places a big emphasis on families and friends dining together. Sitting around a dinner table brings people together through conversation and sharing. One of the panellists said that working women didn’t have time to cook these days. Piège countered that his mother, working outside the home and minding him and his brother:
managed to prepare a meal every day. She cooked out of love for us.
Piège is a man of few words. His answers were brief, compared to those of some of the other great chefs Les GG has interviewed.
When asked to describe a typical day, he simply said he had no typical day, but he is at his two restaurants even if one is closed for repairs or renovation. He always goes in.
He is one of the judges on Top Chef, which is an enormously popular food show in France. He said that, one season, 800 professional chefs applied for a handful of places. The French version of the show is very different to the American one. Each episode is nearly two hours long. The length and close-up shots help one appreciate the technique involved in each round of cooking and plating. Far from being a wimpy love-fest, the show is still much less adversarial and dog-eat-dog than the American version. The exacting judges also seem to be more involved with the contestants’ progress. Despite their ongoing constructive criticism, they are genuinely sad when elimination time comes round. (To be fair, that might also be true of the American Top Chef, although, if it is, those segments are not televised much.)
The panel asked him about how the French economic climate was affecting his business. He thinks that business taxes are too high. Otherwise, things are going well. He has 22 employees at Le Grand Restaurant, which he describes as gastronomique and 5 at Clover, which features cuisine du marché, or market-fresh cooking, in a relaxed atmosphere. A third restaurant, Clover Grille will be opening this Spring in Paris.
His base is in Paris, he said, and, for now, he has no interest in opening restaurants overseas, as some of his peers have done. He might consider opening branches of Clover elsewhere in France, but for now, he’s happy as he is.
Piège went to a professional cooking school and finished at the age of 18 in 1988. He started work straight-away. Two years later, at the age of 20, he moved to Paris to work as a chef de partie at Hôtel Crillon. This led to a job with Alain Ducasse, who was his boss for 12 years in Monaco and, later, in Paris.
In 2004, Piège returned to the Crillon, taking over Les Ambassadeurs restaurant. The Gault & Millau guide deemed him Chef of the Year.
In 2009, he opened his first restaurant, Brasserie Thoumieux at the eponymous hotel. The following year, he opened an upmarket restaurant which he named after himself. After that came l’Hotel Thoumieux, now run by Sylvestre who also holds two stars.
In 2011, Piège was named Chef of the Year by his peers and earned two Michelin stars.
In 2015, he relinquished his Thoumieux restaurants and moved Jean-François Piège to Paris’s 8th arrondissement, renaming it Le Grand Restaurant. It is his flagship establishment for the moment.
By competing with himself and not worrying about Michelin, Piège has achieved an enviable and rare success in the world of fine dining.