"If you ever get the chance to get a seat at Septime," MUNCHIES France editor Léo Bourdin tells me, "you will probably be overwhelmed by the simplicity."
I'm picking Léo's brain on Bertrand Grébaut: the graffiti-artist-turned-Alain-Passard-trained-chef and man behind Septime. Lauded as a "neo-bistro," the 11 arrondissement eatery has become one of Paris' most hyped restaurants, thanks to its extremely chill approach to French fine dining.
And I have a sudden urge to jump on the next Eurostar.
"I'm not saying that Grébaut's cuisine is what you'd expect—it's surprising, depending on the time of the season but very elegant," Léo adds. "Grébaut managed to make a Michelin-starred venue look like a wonderful restaurant de quartier [neighbourhood restaurant]. And isn't it that what everybody is looking for in Paris right now: a very local and reassuring joint where you can eat and drink like there is no tomorrow?"
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I think that's what everyone everywhere is looking for right now. And with a wine list centred on small producers and menu spanning dishes like chicken foie gras and smoked tuna ceviche, Septime certainly fits the bill. As well as being awarded a Michelin star, it also holds a place on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list.
Luckily, I didn't need to book a last minute trip to Paris as Grébaut was in London this week, cooking as part of London restaurant Lyle's' esteemed Guest Series dinner events. I caught up with him to find out more about his neighbourhood take on Michelin-grade dining.
MUNCHIES: Hi Bertrand! Your background isn't in food at all, can you tell me a bit about what you did before you were a chef? Bertrand Grébaut: I was a graphic designer. I enrolled in a graphic art school because the only occupation that inspired me was graffiti, especially on trains and metros in Paris and elsewhere.
That's quite a leap. But it seemed to pay off because L'Express went on to dub you part of "Generation New French Bistro." What do you make of this? French media likes to categorise, to put everyone into a predefined mold. In this case, they were dead on. "Generation New French Bistro" refers to a generation of uninhibited cooks that are achieving a cuisine very personal to them in a laid back, easy-going atmosphere. They are directing it at a larger public.
It's our opinion that yes, there are very nice grand restaurants but you can do astonishing things in a modest frame, with accessible pricing and in a non-elitist way.
But it's generational. Who knows? Maybe in 20 years I will want a white tablecloth and silverware in my restaurant.
You earned your first Michelin star as head chef at l'Agapé. How did your time working there impact your style of cooking? L'Agapé was my first experience as a chef—my very first steps. It was an interesting exercise, I had less freedom but those barriers are what forged me and I made my mark. It was actually during my internship at l'Arpège that I really started to construct my own vision of cooking. A sensible and natural perspective, rather than an ultra-technical and systematic one.
And was this your vision when opening Septime? It was OUR vision. Everything was thought up in collaboration with my business partner Théo Pouriat. The original idea was to try to unite everything we loved about bistros, three star [restaurants], and all our discoveries in France and elsewhere into one unique place.
Septime is praised for merging fine dining with a bistro atmosphere. Is this an unusual thing for restaurants to achieve in Paris? Today, it is no longer new. One of the greatest assets of French cuisine is its diversity. Now there are grand restaurants, auteur restaurants, quality wine bars, auteur pastry shops … The gastronomy scene has never been so diverse. The people who paved the way and democratised cuisine were Yves Camdeborde and later on, Iñaki Aizpitarte.
Septime was awarded a Michelin star not long after opening. Were you surprised at how quickly the restaurant became a success? It's impressive how fast everything happened but we are not solely responsible. It's a media-amplified phenomena. I suspect Septime was answering to an already existing demand!
What are the main differences you've noticed between the food scene in London and in Paris? I am unfamiliar with the British food scene but I think there must be a similar phenomenon in London as in Paris, with restaurants like Lyle's and The Clove Club or chefs like Nuno Mendes. Contrary to Paris, London seems to have a more authentic and varied cuisine. It's less anchored in its tradition, which offers more opportunities for young chefs to express themselves.
Thanks for talking with us Bertrand!
All photos by Liz Seabrook.