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Why French People Need a Culinary Makeover

Don’t ever fuck with French people or their food. It’s a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way.
August 4, 2016, 5:00pm

Don't ever fuck with French people or their food. It's a lesson I've had to learn the hard way.

To be honest, at first I didn't really want to stay in Lyon. I came to Europe to do a sort of culinary pilgrimage. I wanted to go to every country, eat at all of the Michelin-starred restaurants, and see what's interesting out here. In the end, life never really works out the way that you planned.

I had a really hard time finding a job. I sent my resume literally everywhere in France and no one would take me. At first, it was because I didn't speak a fucking word of the language and also due to the fact that we don't have the Michelin system in Australia. That's the French mentality: If you don't work in a Michelin-starred restaurant, you're not good enough. That's a whole crock of bullshit. It's not where you've worked; it's what you know and can show.

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Photo by Nicolas Villion.

I eventually managed to get a job at one of Lyon's renowned gastronomic restaurants, but the place was a huge shock to the system for me. The chef in charge yelled and threw spoons at people's heads. He pushed and punched his employees, who would then leave because they couldn't stand the pressure. But I thought OK, this is the stereotypical, hardcore French kitchen, and stayed anyway. I started out as a commis because I didn't speak French, but I quickly climbed the ranks and became sous chef.

The people I worked with in that kitchen were seriously stupid. In Australia, cooks are actually switched on and know what they're doing. Here in Lyon, they are like blah blah blah and spend a lot of their time playing on their phones. It's as if you're talking to a wall. They're lazy and stuck in their comfortable routines. The menu reflected the kitchen's state of mind: it lacked coherence.

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In the beginning, I spent a lot of time making little garnishes that I didn't really understand, like the one where you use a pencil sharpener to make a carrot look like a mini carrot. Then you poke a hole in it and stick in a little herb in there. That was the definition of creativity in that kitchen. The chef's signature dish was dreamt up one day when he went over to the fridge, saw some lobster and a veal's head, and voilà—this is how his famous dish was born. This was the moment it hit me. Did I really want to be sweating my balls off 15 hours a day for this guy?

The thing here in France is that as a chef you are overshadowed by a lot of big names. The Michelin system is a big underground mafia. This is why the bistronomy movement was born in Paris and lives on here in Lyon; a rebellious cuisine in which many young chefs are opening up their own restaurants. They're fed up with the stuffy service and white tablecloths. They want to please themselves, be creative, have fun, and experiment with food. I have been cooking ever since I was 13, and have spent more than half my life in the bloody kitchen. In the end, if you don't like what you're doing, then why bother?

After a while, the chef asked me to take over one of his restaurants that wasn't doing so hot. There was a great deal of resistance from the customers from the very moment I started doing my own thing, making food that tasted like it wasn't from here. I wanted to surprise people with unexpected flavors and fuck with their minds by modernizing the traditional recipes, making them in a more creative way.

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Take for instance riz au lait, rice pudding. Normally when people think of it, they think it's white. I took it in a Japanese twist and served it with black sesame seeds and black sesame cream. When I mixed it with rice the whole thing was black. I served it to a lady, but before I could even explain the dish, she goes, "It's black, I'm not eating that." And I said, "Madam, you haven't even tried it. Would you like to just try it?Otherwise I can do something else for you." She then replied, "Take it away from me. I'm not eating that because it is black."

They showed me that you can't always serve what you want. You are limited by the place you're in and you have to really observe and study the people you are cooking for. We are in Lyon, a traditionally bourgeois city and people here were not ready for this kind of food. A lot of them liked what I was doing, but I always met customers that just really didn't want to eat this kind of food. So I started all over again with a more cautious menu. I decided to test the waters to see how far I could push the barriers.

Today I work at La Bijouterie, a 100-percent hands-on restaurant. Arnaud, Noé, and myself are the collective that does everything together, from cooking to choosing the wine and the beer, and the producers we want to work with.

We don't give a fuck about Michelin anymore. We're here to experiment. We want to branch out and be as creative as we possibly can, but with respect to what's going on in the world ecologically and economically. We use whole animals and serve raw, locally grown vegetables. We serve food that's always interesting, because we're trying to educate people and show them that they don't always have to have caviar or foie gras for it to be fancy. This is what bistronomy is about; it aims to look at French food from a different perspective.

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Photo by Nicolas Villion.

Yves Camdeborde, one of the granddaddies of this culinary wave, came to our restaurant once. He sat by the counter with his girlfriend and kept on talking and watching what we were doing. After our shift, we went to grab a drink together. He got so wasted that he and his girlfriend started sleeping on the bar counter. And when the woman fell off her chair, Yves was like, "oh well" and went back to sleep. We left early because we had to work the next day, but they stayed until closing and then stumbled back to the hotel at 7 AM. The next day, we got a text message from him saying, "Guys, that was amazing. I love what you're doing. Keep on going."

For me, French food is always going to be reinventing itself. It will always have its historical dishes deeply rooted within the cuisine, and because of the generation gap, there will always be some sort of resistance toward everything that's new. It's good to have these traditional things in the mix because they always give a reference of how we've progressed.

But what I like and what I hope to see—not just here in France but all around the world—is more open-mindedness and multiculturalism.

As told to Alexandra Kuderski