x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Chef Pierre Gagnaire: the subtle genius

The Michelin-starred chef talks about destiny, passion and the era of the celebrity chef.

Chef Pierre Gagnaire, owner of Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire restaurant at the Intercontinental Hotel in Dubai Festival City.
Chef Pierre Gagnaire, owner of Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire restaurant at the Intercontinental Hotel in Dubai Festival City.

Pierre Gagnaire can distinctly remember the moment he fell in love with cooking.

He was 18 and on a New Year break with 10 friends, high in the mountains in his native France. Evening fell before the group realised they had nothing to eat that night.

"No one had prepared anything and there was nothing in the fridge," he recalls. "So I went out, bought a couple of ingredients and threw something together.

"I was a timid, shy teenager and found it difficult to form relationships with others. But in that moment when they ate my food, I was the centre of the conversation.

"Food was all-important in that one moment - and I suddenly felt the power it had on people."

But if that realisation crystallised Gagnaire's future aspirations, it was more by luck than anything else.

For the Michelin-starred chef, who now runs 11 award-winning eateries around the globe, was born into the restaurant trade, his fate to work in the family business preordained.

And he hated it. How he hated it. Born in 1950 in Apinac in France's Loire Valley, it was made clear that as the eldest of four, he was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father Jean-Claude and mother Marie-Louise by one day taking over Le Clos Fleuri, the one Michelin starred restaurant they ran in Saint-Etienne.

Today he is heralded as one of the true innovators in modern cuisine with a philosophy of treating food as art - but with an understanding of food and its impact on the palate which is refreshingly gimmick-free. It is a rare combination of talents that has earned him 11 Michelin stars and a rash of awards to date.

But back in those early days, his enforced enrolment into the profession was an unhappy one.

Gagnaire has hinted at a "hard, dark side to my family". Certainly his father, who was brought up by a strict grandmother after being orphaned at a young age, was introverted and inexpressive. With both parents busy in the restaurant kitchen, they had little time for him.

"It is a difficult thing for a child to deal with," he sighs on a recent visit to Dubai to check on his venture here, Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire.

"You are constantly pushed by your family and when you need your mother and father, they are busy. It is very stressful for a child. My ambition was not to become a chef.

"I did not see my life in this work - but I was the eldest and the first boy, so there was no choice. It was my destiny."

So after spending a summer working in the kitchens when he was 14, he duly answered a call to an apprenticeship the following year and packed his bags for Lyon to work at Chez Juliette, a famous French restaurant run by Jean and Juliette Vignard.

"At that time, the chef was nothing. It was before the era of the star chef, but she was a real character and a great lady," says Gagnaire. "The first thing she had me doing was making beds and vacuuming. The kitchen was near a courtyard where people would sell silk from around the world, as they had been doing for centuries.

"It was like a microcosm of the globe in this small place. I have many memories from that time."

Did he enjoy it? "Non," he says decisively. "It was a stupid job with no tenderness, no creativity and no enthusiasm."

But it taught him the rudiments of cooking, despite him feeling stifled by his destiny. And so did a stint in the kitchens of Paul Bocuse, one of the founders of nouvelle cuisine; not to mention a call to national service in 1970, when Gagnaire worked as a navy chef whipping up meals for officers.

In his exquisite and ambitiously titled cookery book Pierre Gagnaire: Reinventing French Cuisine, his friend Jean-François Abert writes that in those early days: "He wore the chef's uniform like a full suit of armour and was about as keen to continue in the profession as he was to become a taxi driver or a commercial traveller.

"The brigades of classic French kitchens suffocated him more than crowds in soccer stadiums and as far as he was concerned, the immutable recipes in great cookery books by men like [Auguste] Escoffier offered an unspeakably dull future."

In the early 1970s, he had his first taste of creative cooking at Lucas Carton in Paris, where he worked for two years, and La Bastide de Tourtour in Provence, a "fantastic place".

Duty called, though, and as his father was tiring, he was summoned to return to St Etienne in 1976 when he was 26 and newly married.

"It was the usual story - father is retiring so the son goes back home," he shrugs. "I was working in a closed box."

This is typical of Gagnaire - ever-apologetic for his English, he sometimes struggles to express himself, with lots of dramatic arm gestures and piercing blue eyes flashing - then comes out with a pithy phrase which is no doubt even more poetic in his native tongue.

With his controlling father in the background, he was frustrated in his attempts to experiment with new dishes: "It was a mess. The clients were not happy."

So it was only when he opened his own restaurant, Aux Passementiers, in St Etienne in 1980 - the family diner closed when his father retired - that he began to truly indulge his talent and ambition, combining his love of art, music and travel to come up with innovative dishes such as squab gauthier with green figs and raw spinach juice.

"You do not set out to be creative - you have something in here," he says, beating his chest. "One day you realise you can tell a story with this work. I spent every day in the kitchen, trying to experiment and build different things.

"I had 12 staff but they did not understand where I wanted to go. I was in a dark tunnel with no light."

Restaurant critics, however, were full of praise for him, and a second, ill-fated restaurant in St Etienne followed in 1992. By 1993, he had three Michelin stars but was running into financial trouble. Within three years, he was declared bankrupt and had to close both venues.

"Problems arise when you yourself do not know where you want to go, when you want to do something different but you are not an artist, you are running a business and still have to pay staff and produce food," he says.

"When I speak about that time, it is like watching a bad movie. I was young, I wanted to push the envelope and do something with my life but I was in a small industrial city without too many guests who appreciated what I was trying to do and was trying to find my way; everything was against me."

He was determined his sons Jan, now a 34-year-old musician, and Felix, 32, who works in the movie industry, should not follow in his footsteps.

"I said nothing to them but it was unacceptable for them to do this kind of work because of my life, my problems," he says. "I went to work very young; I was always working - and yet I lost everything at 45. It was not a good example for them."

Did he feel he made the same mistakes as his father by not spending enough time with them as they were growing up? He looks pained: "Absolutely. My sons felt I had no time [for them].

"But I have a very good relationship with them now and the difference is, I am alive. My father is not."

As time has told, bankruptcy was not the breaking of Gagnaire but the making of him. He went to Paris in 1996, opened an eponymous restaurant and within two years, had earned back his Michelin stars.

"I never thought the problem was the way I worked," he says. "Like all artists, I am someone who is always in trouble; things are never perfect. It is impossible for me to work any other way.

"When success finally arrived, it was like a rain shower."

Since then, his star has continued to ascend. He cofounded the acclaimed Sketch in London in 2002, where his appreciation for aesthetics expressed itself in bold art and quirky furniture, all the more outrageous for its 18th-century setting.

Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul and a second Paris venue soon followed. His restaurant Twist in the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas, opened in 2009, was ranked among the top 10 eateries in the US by the French food critic André Gayot, while Gagnaire's ventures frequently feature in the world's top 50 list compiled by Restaurant magazine in the UK; this year his Paris outlet was in 16th place.

Reflets, which opened in the Intercontinental Hotel in Dubai Festival City in 2008, has its fair share of trophies and was this year crowned best restaurant by Time Out magazine.

Last year saw the chef opening in Moscow and next year he will have a site in Berlin but, he says, he will stop there, as he wants to focus on quality: "One more restaurant and then I will be done."

Nor is he interested in a career as a television chef: "Chefs today become stars immediately through TV and cookery shows. They are like football stars; there is more money than before and that is dangerous for quality.

"You have to put your life on show, your identity, and play another person. I prefer to be in the kitchen."

He instils the same sense of dedication in his staff, who "do not just stick around for six months - they have been with me for many years".

While he believes in simple dishes that pare ingredients down to their bare essence ("the turnip is the poor man's truffle, a product wrongly viewed as dull, which on the contrary brims with character if properly handled"), he is fascinated by molecular gastronomy and collaborated with its founder, Hervé This, on a cookbook.

Gagnaire is that quirky mix of old-school teaching and modern inventiveness: while his dishes are fresh and creative, he thinks there is little substitute for hard work and experience.

"When you have a child, he needs to learn to become a man," he says. "People want to scratch this element [of learning] from life but to achieve anything, you need time. Your dream is never realised."

Dubai interests him as "the story is still being written. In 50 years, it will be a real city. For now, the story is barely done".

He visits three times a year, spending at least a week in the kitchen coaching his chefs. His concentration is intense as he cooks, his skills instinctive: a pinch of seasoning here, a dash of herbs there.

His spices are imported from France, his vegetables from the French producer Joël Thiebault, a favourite of Michelin-starred chefs worldwide.

Together with the success of his restaurants, he has found personal happiness after his first marriage ended. He met his second wife Sylvie, 45, in London and married her in 2007. They now live with her three grown children in Paris, where she helps run his empire.

His father, who died three years ago at the age of 83, was never a regular customer in his restaurants; nor still is his mother, who at 83 is "happy, but she does not get it".

But it matters little to Gagnaire, who has long since banished his demons. Indeed, his creed on his website - "tourné vers demain mais soucieux d'hier" (facing tomorrow but respectful of yesterday) seems to give a nod to the rigours of his youth.

"I have a nice family, I love life, I love people, and I have passion," he says. "I do not have any regrets about my life. My ambition is simply to cook and to give pleasure."

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