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Articles de La Guinguette - 2003 - mars - société

Titre Nicolas Le Bec - nouvelle étoile de la cuisine française
Année 2003
Mois mars
Catégorie société
Traducteur Alistair Mills
Dernière mise à jour10 January 2010

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Nicolas Le Bec, new star of French cuisine

I do not like the work genius. I believe that we all get to the point of doing something with personal motivation and then work at it. I kick myself on the bottom perhaps every morning to get up and then its work, its unremitting work providing a service and the commitment which you must have to the customer, to the last detail. Anticipating the customer, I believe it's a bit like..., it's a sort of like the highway code in fact, you learn the basics then it's up to you to avoid accidents and then not to have unhappy customers. Well then, it's a bit like that, that means that everyday you must pay attention as well as keep watching the rear view mirror, the right, the left and not jumping the red lights, not causing accidents and then, there's the quality, that's hard work, that's it. It's work everyday in fact.

Well, as Nicolas Le Bec reminds us, the job of being a top chef is not for lazy-bones. Everyone has seen perhaps the opposite of a medal for service with the tragic suicide of the great chef Bernard Loiseau, apparently fatally wounded by the loss of two points in the assessment in the Gault & Millau guide.

But the career of M Le Bec is upwards and his life is rosy in his restaurant La Cour des Loges. At the age of 31 he has just received his first star in the Michelin Guide. He already has a rating of 18/20 in Gault & Millau. It is a notable achievement for a young man and looking at the agreement of all the critics, he is well established as the big star of a new generation of French chefs. Such praise, but he takes it with charming modesty:

An award like that is always good for the team. And then... a surprise? Yes, certainly, because there are some who have been waiting years before getting a star, or then not getting one.

That has filled the few remaining spaces because the restaurant has been showing two to three weeks of full bookings for quite a while.

M Le Bec is only 31, but already he has 18 years of experience behind him. He tells us about his way to the top:

I started at hotel school when I was thirteen. I finished at sixteen with a diploma in my pocket and I went to the United States, to New York working for a year with my family. I am originally from Brittany and many Bretons left at the beginning of the century to build New York as much in gastronomy as in construction. My uncles stayed, they built their businesses, so I stayed a while, not for the culinary know-how but for the culture, to see various things. I returned to France, I worked in some great kitchens which were very hard and have practically all three stars because in the end you have to commit yourself body and soul to get to the top. I was in these kitchens where there was a big turnover of staff, where there was a lot of changing around, where there were a lot of things and which today have these three star chefs; so each time was another step for me to make my book of knowledge and know-how. I was learning the best methods in the best places and that led me to a job at the age of 22 in the Reserve de Beaulieu in Beaulieu sur Mer [1] as chef. So that was the palace of the 1970s, the most beautiful palace of the 1970s, the most prestigious with a team of some thirty people. And then later, I was approached by the Sibuet group who are the owners of the mountain group of hotels with Les Fermes de Marie at Megeve [2] and who came to propose to me this job seven years ago, as chef. There were seven people in the kitchen, there were eighty meals per day and three years later they were serving seven hundred meals and there were 70 lads in the kitchen and in the end I trained a whole battalion which exploded a little into all the places in Megeve since there were five restaurants and one in Provence [3] which was opened in 2000, and then Lyon. Why Lyon? Because that was a partnership with the PDG [4] of the group who said to me, "listen, if you invest, if you partner with me in the Cour des Loges, I'll buy it back, otherwise I'll let it go", because there wasn't a restaurant in Cour des Loges. The hotel was fourteen years old but there was no restaurant within the Cour de Loges.

We signed in July 2000. The restaurant was opened in November, beginning of November, and then in February 2002 there was my award as chef of the year in Gault & Millau, so that was already a big deal and then, this year there was this star in February 2003. In fact, every year there is something important and that means very quick development of the restaurant of the Loges, there you are!

The Cour des Loges is itself one of the marvels of Lyon, a building from the 15th century which makes you dream of the magnificence of the city at the crossroads of the trade routes of the Middle Ages. The restaurant is located in the middle of a court yard on which they have put a glass roof. The decoration is rather modern, a bit in the Japanese style, but it is a combination of styles which works well. Whilst, as for the recipes of the chef:

Delicate cuisine, simple, full of flavour, aromatic and light, because that is part of the deal, when I came to Lyon two years ago I said that I would not make cream chicken in fact.

It went off at the double because as it happened it was almost a new touch in a city which seemed difficult and which was very stuck in tradition. However the people of Lyon travel a lot all over the world as other people do. So they need to be open-minded. I think that cuisine is becoming cosmopolitan and similar and that you can neither say that the French are the best, nor that they have the best ingredients and I think that we can take stock of that as we do a lot of demonstrations or meals abroad where we see that in the whole world there are talented people, there is excellent produce, and you can eat well all over the world this very day, and not only in France.

For M Le Bec, the keys to success are not to stay fixed in his services but listening to the wishes of the customers:

Everything depends on where you are, if you are in a city, if the people are business people who are there for a business lunch, all depends on if they are on vacation, if it's summer, if it's winter, if they are going skiing, if they are about to lie down on a sun-lounger in summer in Provence, so the balance of the food rests on that and the exercise of the customer and their activity, all that moves around a lot and that's why every time you must pay attention to that and that is a big part of the keys to success, I think.

I don't watch the big chefs around me. I think that I have my own cuisine, right across eight restaurants because today I have eight restaurants in place - so it is not simply a single product - the restaurants are different but have a single thread of quality and service. But apart from that they find their own direction.

Cuisine is now a direct sales business in France. The great chef Paul Bocuse [5] started this trend with his frozen food products - and now "related merchandising" is part of the game. M Le Bec has not yet announced his next step but what is clear is that eight restaurants do not yet satisfy a very ambitious man.

There are still projects besides; simply there were a lot of things to do in just three years. It is necessary, this very day to consolidate, to see these things which are not interesting, to eliminate them. When we were wanting to learn we changed things every day. I am better, I think, than last year and next year I will be better than today. So later, there will be many things which will open in my professional life because what remains in my fife, in France, abroad, only we don't go off in any old way. It is necessary to have people to, it is necessary that there be some things which are sure. I can keep my image of a name where people know that they are going to get value for their money and especially that we are not going to disappoint them and we are really giving it all our energy, you see. We don't want restaurants which are all appearance and no substance.

[1] Beaulieu sur Mer is on the Mediterranean coast of France between Nice and Monaco.

[2] Megeve is in the French Alps between Chamonix and Albertville, and close to Mt Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe.

[3] Provence is the area of France in the vicinity of Marseilles close to the Mediterranean.

[4] PDG is the abbreviation of président-directeur général, usually CEO (chief executive officer) in the US or MD (managing director) in UK.

[5] Paul Bocuse [5] is one of the great French chefs who also has his principal restaurant in Lyon.

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Notes

With questions or for more information, please contact Alistair Mills (alistair.mills@btinternet.com)
Updated 10 January 2010

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