Interview : Laurent Lemal
“The Bocuse d’Or is a competition about innovation; you must not be afraid to surprise”
The young chef of the Domaine de Riberach, who likes breaking codes, will fly the colours of the Team France, of which Les vergers Boiron are partners, during the very prestigious international final of the Bocuse d’Or. This Provencal by adoption is aiming at only one place – the very top!
How were you bitten by the passion for cuisine?
As far back as I can remember I’ve always had this passion deep inside me. I’ve never wanted to be a fireman or astronaut - unlike other boys. No, my special dream was to have a toque on my head and concoct nice little dishes. This astonished my parents all the more as we had no professional cook in the family. They often tell me that when I was at nursery school a lady came to teach us how to make cakes and when I came home I talked of nothing else!
Indeed, you started your career as a pastry cook?
At fourteen I took a CAP/BEP* and then a professional baccalaureate with a specialisation in patisserie. But after three years working as a pastry cook I wanted to discover new horizons. I then turned towards the profession of cook and I congratulate myself for it every day! I then worked in lots of restaurants to perfect my training. I always preferred the little addresses with a human size – warm family businesses. Establishments that are like me in fact.
Why, in your opinion, is your cuisine described as surprising – or even anti-conformist?
I like going against conventional wisdom and making my clients discover ingredients and flavours they wouldn’t have known naturally. More than a state of mind: it’s a conviction! At the moment for instance in my menu I propose a Mediterranean mackerel cured like a ham, accompanied with ceps, eggs and herbs in the spirit of a stroll in the forest. But also a rather astonishing dessert, the Vermell, which brings together raspberries, peppers, polenta, and coriander. Recipes in which I very often use the products of the vergers Boiron who propose a constant quality of purées very close to fresh fruit.
You come from Lille. However, the main part of your career has been in Provence.
First it’s the choice of a certain quality of life: the first time I discovered this region I literally fell in love with it. But it’s a question of lucky encounters too. When I was chef at the restaurant La Villa Morelia (1 star in the Michelin), in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, I entered into relation with the owners of Domaine Riberach where I’m happy working today.
How did you come to take part in the very prestigious competition of the Bocuse d’Or?
In 2014 with my teams at Riberach we won one star in the Michelin. I was extremely proud, of course, and I rapidly felt the need to give myself a new challenge. That was how I decided to take part in the MOF, the competition for the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Worker in France), for which I reached the final. It was on this occasion that some of the judges let slip that my cuisine was perfectly suited for the Bocuse d’Or. I put myself down for the French event which I won. It’s still my best memory today. When the judges announced I’d won I remember looking at my assistant chef to make sure he’d heard the same thing as me! This victory qualified me for the European stage of the Bocuse d’Or at Budapest. I arrived fourth. All at once I was a bit disappointed, but as Nelson Mandela said: “I never lose. Either I win or I learn”. And above all, this place qualified me for the big international final to be held at Lyon on 24 and 25 January 2017.
What turns out to be hardest in such a competition – often compared to the Olympic games of cuisine?
The timing! Everyone who prepares for this type of competition knows that time is like a Damocles’ sword with which you have to come to terms with permanently. That’s why two or three days a week, with my assistant chef, we repeat our ranges. We’re already working on the theme for the world final, "Bresse chicken and seafood", based on an interpretation of the famous Lyon recipe "chicken with crayfish". On the day of the competition you must have no hesitation to succeed in producing the best dish in only 5 hours & 35 minutes! Of course, you’re never safe from a stroke of bad luck.
For the European final for the market event to accompany the sturgeon we’d planned to make an accompaniment and sauce 40 % composed of peas and cress. But in arriving on the spot no stallholder had any on his stall! After a short uncomfortable moment we improvised and didn’t do too badly. Your nerves need to be solid when you take part in this sort of competitiond!
In what state of mind do you approach this thirtieth world final of the Bocuse d’Or?
I do hope to win it. We’ll clearly be the team to beat: the competition takes place in France and we’re French… What’s clear is that I’m not going to play safe. I’m quite daring. The Bocuse d’Or is a competition about innovation; you mustn’t be afraid to invent. And victory is sweeter when it’s won with panache!
What have you planned for after this grande finale?
To go on holiday with my wife and children! What with the MOF and the Bocuse d’Or I haven’t had a single day off for two years!
* CAP/BEP – French secondary education vocational qualifications