Chef Interview: Pierre Gagnaire (February 2010)

Posted on: February 9th, 2010 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Pierre Gagnaire

Pierre Gagnaire (left) was born on 9th April 1950. Once considered by some as an iconoclastic trail blazing chef, this long standing holder (since 1993) of the coveted three Michelin Stars (spanning restaurants in St Etienne and Paris) cuts a respectful and respected figure in equal measure.

The Pierre Gagnaire website states ‘tourné vers demain mais soucieux d’hier’ meaning facing the future while respecting the past; a statement which gives a far more appropriate perspective of the contribution of this near legendary culinary genius.

Now with leading restaurant concerns across many countries and several continents, Pierre Gagnaire spoke with enthusiasm and flair as he sat down with Simon Carter and Daniel Darwood of fine-dining-guide to discuss his past, present and future.

Interview took place at Sketch Restaurant, London during February 2010.

Tell us about Sketch Restaurant in London?

So, Sketch opened in 2002. We have been here eight years and it is always changing. People may be surprised – it is a different kind of place, perhaps unique in London. This may be a positive reflection of the ‘spirit’ of London – I love the English spirit, sense of style and occasion and indeed met my wife in London (she had been living here many years).

My passion for this place, my passion for this city and my passion for the mentality and spirit of London comes from the joy of London being so different in Europe and probably the world – for example were Sketch just a nightclub or lounge it may not work but the mix of things – the giving of quality food; with the fun, fashion, sexiness, excitement and diversity is perhaps a positive reflection of all these great qualities of London. And that is why it works.

My business partner (Mourad Mazouz) and I look to achieve a quality experience for people in this kind of environment, with increasingly the food becoming more and more important: just today I have been working with the kitchen team on the menu; ensuring details are correct; the right dishes, the seasonality of the menu and the quality of produce and so on. So we are always taking care on the details to make sure we bring the best possible, consistent experience to our customers. Amongst all things the watchword is quality.

Would the Sketch concept work in Paris, for example?

Paris is very different, the culture and style is much more conservative and this is reflected in, for example, the make up of top end restaurants. In a way there is much more freedom in London to express yourself and be accepted in society and perhaps more – be part of a fashion or a ‘scene’ – this is something I applaud loudly about the culture in London.

Having said this, of course, I love France, I am French and my own passion, flair, style and interpretations of food have worked well in Paris (where the Pierre Gagnaire restaurant has held three Michelin Stars for many years). And perhaps this success in France could only have been sustained in Paris, because Paris is different again from other parts of the country. (Pierre Gagnaire held three Michelin Stars in St Etienne, France before moving to Paris).

Tell us about your new venture in Las Vegas – Twist at The Mandarin Oriental Hotel?

Yes Las Vegas is a big surprise – some years ago you may have thought that people only come to Vegas to play, to gamble and to eat steak (laughing). There would be no market for fine dining restaurants in this environment. Over the last few years this has been shown not to be the case.

I have worked for myself for thirty-five plus years and over that time have received many Americans in my restaurant (in France). In fact I was known much better in the United States before I was ever known in Britain (that has changed with Sketch and some UK television work).

So after all this time, I was opening my first restaurant in America and signed an agreement to open in Las Vegas. At first I was not sure, but now I am delighted. Twist reflects my spirit, my spirit is there, but the dining hits the right balance between informal/casual and fine dining and that is what is needed in a venue like Las Vegas.

We have been very pleased with the success the restaurant has enjoyed in the early months with positive reviews from the press and from the internet blogging community.

Tell us about some of your other global ventures?

Hong Kong is like two separate cultures and it is complicated to find the right balance to match the differing tastes over there – the restaurant is busy so I’m happy.

Dubai is a very small restaurant – just five tables and eighteen covers. I think of it as a little pearl where we can re-create something of Paris. This is a real top-of-the-range restaurant and it is very special; everything about it is top-end luxury. Funnily enough, most of the customers who go to eat there and write about their experiences are British. There is a strong British contingent and mentality in Dubai.

You know my first venture abroad was Sketch with the Gallery and Lecture Room & Library – I had spent many years before in the kitchen just focused on my plates.

Suddenly there was to be 40 chefs working several hundred covers a day in a new venture. In the weeks leading up to the opening I was terrified. And you know it takes time – time for everything to settle down, time for the restaurant to develop its own identity and time for customers to associate with what the restaurant has to offer.

And again, London is not Hong Kong, Hong Kong is not Tokyo, Tokyo is not Dubai and Dubai is not Las Vegas. So it goes, each venue is different and each is like a pearl where the jewels are of the crown in Paris. My continued focus will be to retain three Michelin Stars in the crown in Paris. Paris is also like the key of my credibility, a key that opens doors to ventures all around the world. I am very lucky that I have my health and a great and growing team around me who make it all possible.

Tell us more about your restaurant in Paris?

Perhaps a difference between Paris and abroad is that in Paris I can express myself on the plate and on the plate without boundaries – in the sense that there is available the finest produce available – fish, meat, vegetables. In addition, this is where I develop and cook my repertoire. When developing menus abroad I have to think in a different way and be more flexible to adapt to the location, maybe I become more conductor than composer abroad although my heart is still always with the cooking.

In Paris, like top end restaurants everywhere, the experience for the customer is about so much more than food – the presentation, the attention to detail, the service, the décor, the atmosphere and so on. This goes right down to how you present the plate to the customer; for instance, many customers do not want a long description of the food, they just want to eat, others like that piece of theatre. So being a special restaurant means you work on all these small details all the time to get the right balance of presentation to your customers.

What do you see as exciting about the future?

We’re opening in Moscow (with the same business partner as in Seoul, Korea) and in St Tropez. At the end of this year we will have ten restaurants around the world and that will be enough. I don’t see us consolidating beyond ten global restaurants.

We are always wondering where Michelin will be around the world as they appear to be expanding into new countries all the time. Of course I would like to retain the three stars in Paris and see one or two establishments retain and gain more stars elsewhere. Michelin has been important to my career and any recognition that comes from them is gratefully received!

And so it was time to leave. Monsieur Gagnaire had displayed a natural charm, a glint in the eye and an effusive nature.

Indeed his natural energies belied his near sixty years. As we retired to the restaurant (Lecture Room and Library, see Review) we were to catch sight of him again; periodically pacing in and out of the dining room, attending to guests, checking carefully on their needs, with beads of sweat falling from his brow to his aprons…a great man…a chef!