By Elsa Baxter
Michelin-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire on the path back from restaurant bankruptcy
Pausing the interview half way through to admire the sun setting behind the Dubai skyline, it is obvious that simple pleasures are important to French chef Pierre Gagnaire.
Sat next to the bar in his Dubai restaurant, the three Michelin-starred chef describes Refletts, romantically, as his “story”. Gagnaire is in the emirates for six days to work with his team, spending every night in the kitchen, and even squeezing in a couple of cookery masterclasses for the few people lucky enough to make it to the top of the long waiting list. While here he doesn’t leave the Intercontinental hotel where Refletts is based, and instead spends every waking minute working on perfecting his brand.
“The problem here, we feel the people have big, big expectations,” he tells me. “But the restaurant is new. We need time to tell this story. When people come they want the three-star Michelin stars. We do our best, but we must pay attention to not go too quick,” he says.
Gagnaire’s restaurant empire is far-reaching and includes multiple-Michelin-starred establishments in Paris, London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. In December last year he opened his first restaurant in the United States — Twist in Las Vegas — during what was one of the worst global recessions to date. So why choose then? “We don’t choose the time,” he smiles. “The ride is going, you must leave. You have an opportunity, you go, and you see.” Will it work out? “We shall see. It’s impossible to know, we don’t decide. What we decide is the quality of our work and attitude. But after, it’s the clients who decide,” he says.
Refletts only opened two years ago, so as a fledgling business had to endure the recession without truly solid foundations, but has managed to emerge the other side intact. “In Dubai it was difficult,” he admits. “In Paris no, not really. Business was difficult here because it was the opening, no one knew about this restaurant. The area wasn’t fantastic then, but now it’s better, better, better. It was quiet but now it’s busy.”
One of the world’s best chefs, Gagnaire became known for stretching the boundaries of French cuisine, combining clashing flavours, tastes and textures. Because of this creative flair and his passion for food he has been likened to an artist. His creativity sparks dishes like gateau of fois gras ‘Bigarade’ with marmalade of fresh dates, griolle mushrooms and daikon á la croque au sel. Sounds complicated, but Gagnaire says his food is “simple enough”. “It’s good or it’s not good, and you feel comfortable or you don’t feel comfortable,” he says.
What his inspiration is, is a more perplexing question for the chef. How he creates a dish is impossible for him to describe, and a problem that he says has tortured him all his working life.
“It’s not easy to be creative. You must work, you must concentrate,” he says. “It’s a big question for me because all my life I’m here with this problem. For example, this morning we had a cooking class, and to be honest the first 30 minutes I was disappointed because I had the produce, I had the guests, I had the chef. I had a little idea, but for me it’s like a boat going on the river. I must find the best way to afford something with my style.”
Unlike the UK’s molecular chef Heston Blumenthal with his snail porridge or Michelin-starred Gordon Ramsey and his vanilla froth, Gagnaire doesn’t have a signature dish. What is more important is staying true to himself and letting his personality infuse his cuisine, he explains. “It’s my way. When you have a personality people think who you are, how you have answered the question, how you see your job. For me I can’t explain. I do my job that’s all. I try to be myself always. I have worked for myself since 1977 and my food is changing over time. It’s not always the same, but it’s not the fashion. My way to eat isn’t the same today that it was ten years ago. And my way to see life, to see the food I demonstrate that in my work.”
So if he was to make a dish that summed up Dubai, what would it be? “Vegetables. Here it is very hot and you must pay attention with the food because it can be dangerous, with oysters or produce like that.” This is a surprisingly practical answer from someone so imaginative. But, he explains, these aren’t just any old vegetables, but those grown in France by his own gardener for his Paris restaurant and flown in to Dubai for Refletts.
Sourcing the right produce and handling it correctly is one of the challenges working in this part of the world, he tells me. “But, not only the products, it’s also the work. This kind of work is intense. Every day you must pay attention. The key of the success of this kind of work is to concentrate,” he says. “It’s not very easy for my team because they are alone, the hotel is the hotel. And they are basically working with themselves, they must pay attention. The boss is not here. The father is not here.” This idea of family is an important one for Gagnaire, and probably one of the keys to his success as a restaurateur. “My team is very confident together. It’s like family. And when they feel comfortable, they feel comfortable with the customers,” he explains.
Like all things in life it’s not always been a fairytale for Gagnaire. He went bankrupt in 1996 while running his first restaurant in St Etienne in France. “It was not a mistake, it was my life,” he says. “I made the choice to stay in a city that was not fantastic, no clients, no-one there. It was impossible to continue. You have your experience, you don’t pay attention, you learn. It’s part of life.”
Now, however, is a different story as he continues to cement the success of his global restaurant empire. Is he planning more restaurants here in the Middle East? “One is enough, I think,” he says. “The problem is energy, it’s my sensibility, it’s my life because I am very involved in this story and for me I have two hands and one head.”