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© Roberto Frankenberg
Features

My Life in Plates: Yannick Alléno

The French chef tells us about his best food memories.

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Food writer Élodie Noël talked to French chef Yannick Alléno about the dishes and flavours that have marked his life. 

Yannick Alléno can claim a spot at the table of the most renowned chefs in the world. At the helm of two three-Michelin-starred restaurants, Alléno Paris in the Pavillon Ledoyen, and Le 1947 in Courchevel, the French chef initiated a culinary movement called Cuisine Moderne, which thrives to combine the techniques of traditional French cuisine with real creative ambition. After L’Abysse, a one-Michelin star sushi bar, earlier this month the chef opened a third restaurant in the Pavillon Ledoyen, a contemporary brasserie named Pavyllon. On this occasion, we talked to Alléno to learn more about some dishes that have made him the chef he is today. 

What is your first memory of taste? 

If I say my mother’s breast, are you going to laugh? I dare hope that I remember that, it’s so heartwarming. I think it’s such an essential, forceful gesture when the mother gives her child this notion of shared pleasure. These are really buried memories but I think I can remember. 

What is the plate that made you want to be a chef?

It was a stuffed ewe's stomach (a sort of haggis). My grandmother was from Lozère, and my cousin Jean-Marc was a marvellous cook. I imagine it’s the same in Ireland, on a farm you don’t waste anything, so the ewe’s stomach was stuffed and the juices, the alcohol, it made the most exceptional dish. It triggered this need to please and seduce. Cooking is an act of seduction. Jean-Marc exudes positive energy and being by his side when he cooked, I was in awe of the ease with which he transformed matter and turned it into something spectacular. I wanted to be a chef when I was 8, I was very young. Once I thought I wanted to be a priest but that went away quickly. (laughs)

READ MORE: My life in plates: Anjali Pathak

What is the dish that could make you cry?

So many things. The other day in the restaurant we made a turbot skin gratin - we are trying to reduce our waste - and this dish literally gave me goosebumps, it was so good. I think it’s all these little gestures which can really change things and make a difference, changing the way we look at food, this will improve our planet’s situation. The turbot was cooked and the noble pieces were served to the clients, then we took the skins, we cooked them with a tomato extraction, they soak this juice and this taste,
we added shallots, a bit of white wine, a few girolles, parmesan and we placed it under the grill. It was
so good!

Do you believe chefs have a role to play in the quest for sustainability?

Of course. Earlier today I was on Instagram and I saw a video posted by a chef who works in a big Parisian hotel, he was covering the teacups for the following morning with cling film, rolls, and rolls of clingfilm. F*ck that! We have to completely rethink all these daily habits, it doesn’t make any sense. We can do differently. And there is a lot that can be done. 

What is the dish you don’t understand?

I’ve never understood molecular cuisine. I tried it however, I was curious, and there are real strokes of genius there, but I believe that nature is beautiful enough without wanting to transform it. What I don’t understand also is that everybody seems to work for Instagram. I think that as time goes, my plates are getting less aesthetic and increasingly tasty.  Thank God, I am my age, and I have the maturity which made me understand a lot of things. When you make patrons eat with pilot headphones on, when you put a bit of food in the palm of their hand, this whole show pissed me off. I was in a museum in Turin and an artist had thrown a pair of jeans on the floor, you had three pages to explain it, I mean what the f*ck? Right beside it, there was a work of art from Penone, who is a fantastic sculptor, it had no explanation, the art spoke for itself. I think gastronomy can fall into this trap sometimes. I think it’s a lack of culture and savoir-faire - we need to simplify things. Show some common sense. 

What is the dish you wish you had created?

Joël Robuchon’s cauliflower cream with caviar jelly. For me, Joël Robuchon was at the avant-garde of French cuisine in the ’90s. That’s the time I started working so he is a reference for me. Once in his restaurant I ate a poultry cream with foie. It was incredible, I’ll remember it my whole life. He once came to my restaurant and had a confit salmon from River Adour, and a lobster picked with verbena, with potatoes and girolles. He told me he wished he thought of it first. That was some compliment. 

What is the dish you can’t admit you love?

I’ve stopped eating crap, I can’t eat candy anymore! When you reach 50 years old, if you want to keep an acceptable belly, you need to stop everything that makes you put on weight, sugar, bread - I haven’t stopped drinking wine and there is not a chance I ever will. I try to be careful but it’s crap. I miss crisps! (laughs) Crisps are so good. 

What is the dish you could eat every day for the rest of your life?

I could eat chips every day. It never gets old! I love roast chicken as well.

What is the dish you are the most proud of?

The next one. I’m happy when something is good but this is how I am, I don’t keep track of that. When you are asked what your specialty is, it puts you in a little box. Look at Robuchon, everything people remember about him is his potato purée. It’s a start, but it diminishes his work. Maybe it’s a journalistic shortcoming to ask a chef about their specialty. But of course, we have created some cool things, I remember cooking a calf sweetbread one day and suddenly feeling like a chef. I was 40 and I thought to myself, you harness your cooking. I felt like I was in control of my technique, and getting there is thoroughly enjoyable. 

What is the dish that reminds you of your mum?

When I want to eat my mother’s food, I go and visit her. She cooks some exceptional stuff, a leg of lamb with loads of garlic for example, and many traditional family dishes. 

What is the last dish you had?

I had a green salad for lunch with a piece of cheese and a banana. 

What is the dish you’d make for the person you love?

The poulet à la bouteille (chicken in a bottle). My wife has been asking me to cook it for years so I’ll have to do it eventually. It’s a dish inherited from my grandmother. After the war in Lozère, there was a metal shortage - everything had been used to make bombs and stuff and it has become rare and expensive. So instead of using cans, she kept all the bottles, she was preserving all her sauces in wine bottles that she would sterilise like cans. For the chicken in a bottle, she would cook a chicken, place the skins inside the bottle, covering all the inner surfaces using knitting needles. She would make a stuffing with the flesh of the chicken, filling the bottle to create a galantine. Then she would cut the end of the bottle with a glass-cutting wheel to take it out of the bottle. I made this dish a few years ago at Le Meurice Hotel in Paris. It’s a dish that requires a real technique - but she had the time to do it, there was no TV back then.  

What is your death row dish?

Firstly, the question should be what would I drink. I would start by getting hammered with sublimes wines, a Chambertin from Rousseau, a Haut-Brion and a Hermitage from Chapoutier. That’s a good start. If you are dying, you may as well do it in style. Then, it’s about the company around the table, I’d like to be with my sons, my wife and a few friends. Then I’d cook some heavy stuff, with a lot of truffles, some ortolans. There would be a part of forbidden food, then something simple, like a truffle en papillote with marrow to go with the Chambertin. Then a cheese platter to go with the Haut-Brion. Then bye-bye. No dessert. 

What is the next dish you have in mind?

At the moment we are working on a lobster fillet. We work a lot on fermentation, extractions, which is a method to make a sauce. We are working on a garum of fish called muria (that’s where the œuf meurette comes from), we mix red Burgundy wine with the garum and cook the lobster in this sauce, it’s crazy. Sauces are crucial, that’s what made French cuisine stand out. I pay a lot of attention to sauces. If I can give a piece of advice to a new chef, it’s to work on their sauces - it’s the only element that can introduce modernity to a plate. It’s not herbs and all that crap, it’s the sauce. 

Author: Élodie Nöel

Élodie is a French journalist who relocated to Dublin about three years ago. She immediately fell in love with the island and its amazing food and has been writing about it on her blog Lemon Lipstick. You can follow Élodie's food adventures on  Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr.