Now, he runs his own gastronomic restaurant, Origines, in rural Auvergne.
He discusses the challenges he faces
Do you think your generation is changing French cuisine?
I think we bring a new open-mindedness to cooking. We do not have fixed rules about what goes with what, you just have to find the right balance of flavours.
My generation of 30 to 35-year-old cooks have carried out our training with some of the greatest and most-respected chefs who have taught us our skills, and we add a touch of modernity to tradition.
Part of my family lives in London and when I visit it makes me realise that, in France, we do find it difficult to get away from tradition.
When I eat in London restaurants I find there are no barriers and I find chefs mix with ease traditional English cooking with cultures from all over the world.
And what is modernity in French cooking?
Modernity is marrying new flavours together, but also choosing our products differently. Before, no-one worried about eating green beans from January to January. We could get them from Kenya and no-one questioned that. The new generation is much more sensitive.
I only work with food producers from my department and, for example, I would never include sea fish on my menu, because I live in the centre of France.
Is this also what the customer wants?
I think so. Local people who come to eat here rediscover food from their own region which they had forgotten about. Those who come from outside the region like to discover what is typical here.
I love the fact that we have gone back to what it was like a 100 years ago.
If you went to Lyon then, the chefs had a great talent for making dishes out of the offal the city was renowned for – and that is what people want now, to find the authenticity of the region in a chef’s cooking.
If I eat green beans in Marseille, Clermont Ferrand, and in Paris, they will be the same and any chef can cook them, but an Omble Chevalier (a speciality fish in the Auvergne) fished in the rivers of the Auvergne and made into a fish stew by a chef in the region, will have a completely different taste to a bouillabaisse in Paris, or one in Marseille.
Many years ago the automobile clubs organised gastronomic trips around France. You would go to different places for the pleasure of finding different food in each region. And I think we are coming back to the possibility of a gastronomic trip.
What are the specialities in the Auvergne?
It is rich in variety and quality. We have food producers, who have kept on the savoir-faire developed over the past 150 years, and whether they are farmers, market gardeners or fishermen, they are all incredible at every level.
We are very rich in river fish. We have pike, trout, char, crayfish... The charcuterie is also fabulous: our pâtés, saucissons and hams are famous worldwide.
We have Aubrac beef and foie gras and we have more than 40 labelled cheeses. It is magnificent here.
You were born in the Auvergne. How did you become a chef with your own restaurant here?
Very simple. I began when I was 14. I worked exclusively in Michelin starred restaurants all over France for 16 years. I learned from the great chefs.
When I was 30 I decided to open my own restaurant in the Auvergne and I found a property in a tiny village, Le Broc, just south of Issoire, with a view over the mountains.
It is called Origines, because the idea is to go back to my local roots and the traditions of my region. We make everything here, including bread.
I buy everything whole. If I want beef I buy the whole animal, and make sure there is no waste.
Usually nowadays a cow is slaughtered because everyone wants to eat steak. And what do we do with the head, the neck, the shoulder, the feet?
I choose my animals and work with a very good butcher and all of the animal is used. One cow can then feed 100 people. This is my philosophy for everything.
Sometimes I find myself with no fish at the restaurant, but I will not over-fish the rivers, just because the client thinks there should be fish on the menu all the time.
And when we serve game during the hunting season, it is the same.
Are Michelin stars still the ultimate award for a young chef?
Yes. This is my personal opinion.
You must not forget that when the Michelin Guides decided to create the stars nearly a hundred years ago, it was to give value to gastronomy at the highest level.
And if today, in 2020, the world of gastronomy is as it is, and Michelin stars are given to chefs all over the world, in New York, in India, in China, in Tokyo and France, it is because a century’s work has gone into creating and spreading these very high standards.
I think it is very important, above all in remote, rural areas, to reward restaurants which work every single day to produce the best they can.
Michelin stars reward skill and hard work for a high level of craftsmanship.*
Do you think Michelin stars recognise the way in which you work now?
Yes. I think so. I personally am not working towards a Michelin star at present. I have worked in Michelin restaurants all the time up to now. I know the judges are very experienced.
They eat every day in top restaurants so have a huge gastronomic knowledge, and they know how to recognise the qualities and the work of a chef.
You entered the Top Chef competition. Why did you decide to do that?
I did not contact them. They came to me to ask me to take part. I said yes because I was at a stage in my career where I had worked for 16 years for other chefs, and I wanted to test myself, to see how much I had learnt.
I had realised it was perhaps time to work for myself, rather than for others so I wanted to know if I was capable. So to get to the semi-finals gave me the confidence to do so.
Did you have to do a lot of preparation to be on Top Chef?
I think my preparation was done in my years working in restaurants.
The challenge was to use my experience to cook in a situation which was very different and to see if I could get through all the different tests.
Often the winners are the chefs who have the most experience, not necessarily the ones with the most talent.
Was it difficult cooking in front of the cameras, or did you manage to forget they were there?
The six-month TV series is filmed in just three weeks and there are two challenges every day, so it is very intensive.
It was very stressful, and you have to be strong psychologically. I was incredibly nervous for every test.
I find competitions difficult because I like everything to be prepared in advance. For every new recipe I create I need two or three months’ work to perfect it, so to have to make a dish from a surprise collection of ingredients put in front of me, within a time limit, was extremely difficult for me.
How have you found the experience of running your own restaurant?
It is great to be at the head of your own business. However, the present social and economic situation makes it difficult and this is a bad period for gastronomy throughout the country.
Very few people go to eat at a restaurant now. Over the past 10 years, gastronomic restaurants have come to be regarded as a luxury and people only go when there is a special event, such as a communion, a baptism, or an anniversary.
Before people went to eat on any day, either at lunchtime or in the evening.
Instead there is this huge rise in fast food delivery services.
People will pay €22 for a pizza or a hamburger, often tepid and of poor quality, to be delivered to their house three times a week, rather than spending €60 once a week, to eat quality food.
If you make a hamburger and sell it at €10, it has probably cost just €3 to make and you can only buy cheap bread, tomatoes and beef for that price so it cannot be good food.
We are trying to change our image to show that gastronomic restaurants should not just be for exceptional outings.
So the world of French food is changing?
Yes, we are losing our culture to eat well and to meet around a table, the art of eating à la française and I have the impression that we are becoming Americanised.
The clients we see tend to be rich and we no longer see the ordinary people who used to come regularly.
But is that because it is expensive to eat in a gastronomic restaurant?
We have menus at €30 so it is not excessively expensive. People also have this image that they won’t eat properly at a gastronomic restaurant.
I don’t know how many times I have heard people say – but we will eat nothing if we go to a restaurant. That the portions will be tiny. They only think of the food aspect. But you are also paying for the service, and the art de la table, and those values have lost their importance.
When I started at 14 years old I experienced lots of traditional ways of cooking which no-one does anymore. In 20 years the mentality has changed massively.
If you speak to 50-year-olds and 30- year-olds you will hear a completely different story.
And are chefs changing?
We try to change. To run a restaurant, you have to be committed with strong convictions about cooking, when all around there is a lowering of standards.
When I see people make a quiche with ready-made pastry I find that horrifying when anyone can make their own pastry in a maximum of 15 minutes.
People prefer to get in their car and drive to the shops and pay more, rather than make it themselves at home.
That is scandalous. Young apprentices do not know the basics anymore. If I ask one to make a quiche for the restaurant staff they don’t know how. I think we have lost 50% of French cooking skills over the past 20 years.
We were known the world over for our rotisseries. As a young chef I used to spit cook chickens, venison etc. and that doesn’t exist anymore. There were a lot of skills involved. They are gone.
In the past the head waiter would cut meat at the table, or flambée dishes, but that no longer happens. No-one wants a crêpe suzette prepared before them. They do not have time.
Only price and speed are important. We are having to produce a starter, main dish and desert that will take 45 minutes to eat and no longer.
There are changes which are positive though?
Yes, we are working with other products now. Micro-greens which did not exist before, for example.
We are working on healthier food. People do not want to leave the restaurant bloated and sweating.
That is good and to eat local, seasonal products is good, but we must also work to preserve French traditional cooking and not lose the skills which go with it.
It is not simple to be chef in a one-star restaurant today, where you have to get the balance right between what we want to do and the demands of the customer.