Amaury Bouhours: “The chef of a palace is a souvenir seller”

Amaury Bouhours, how does one become an executive chef of a palace at the age of 33?

As a child, I had no idea that I was becoming a cook. I grew up in the Paris region then in Compiègne. I was a hyperactive, impatient, if not rowdy guy. Impossible for me to stay at school all day. The first shot for food trades takes place at the age of 14 during an internship at a butcher. It was concrete, manual and eventually led me to attend the Soissons hotel school. This world immediately fascinated me. I did a six-month internship at Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV at the Hôtel de Paris in Monaco, where I met two great chefs, Pascal Bardet and Franck Cerutti. I was offered to stay even before school finished, but I preferred to finish the course and wanted to stay in Paris. Pascal Bardet called Christophe Moret in Plaza Athénée. He was my first CDI. It was tough, with a lot of intensity but I liked it.

Is it in Plaza Athénée that you really become a cook and then a chef?

One day, in Munich, Franck Cerutti asked me: “who are you? I told him: “I am a cook”. To which he replied: “no, a cook is one who has been around the kitchens”. I got the message. And so at the Plaza I did all the work to become a cook. Only later did I tell myself that I wanted to be a chef. When you’ve spent more than ten years in two- and three-star hotels, you tell yourself that you didn’t do it to be nothing more than a hotel manager. And I was lucky to be there at the right time. Christian Saintagne, at the Plaza, gave me confidence and luck. With him I knew who I was. I evolved very quickly and at 23 I became a chef de partie. Then there was the arrival of Romain Meder. In six years at the Plaza I have had the opportunity to meet these three great chefs. After two years as a sous-chef in Lasserre, I came to Le Meurice in 2016 as assistant chef to Jocelyn Herland. There I learned how to manage a kitchen, how to become a chef … And when Jocelyn left for Taillevent, I took up her position as executive chef … three days before delivery!

So you never left Alain Ducasse’s orbit. Isn’t he too overwhelming, the protection of such a strong personality?

Maybe when I started, it might have intimidated me. But there, in Le Meurice, I am completely free. Today the rehearsals are not the same as before. Every time the chef comes, I introduce him to new dishes, we discuss them, we discuss them… Chef Ducasse has always given young people a chance. In Le Meurice, the room manager Olivier Bikao is 33, the sommelier Gabriel Veissaire 34, the pastry chef Cédric Grolet, who has been there for many years, is only 36 … And I think that the chef Ducasse is a precursor from the mists of time, always one step ahead. Example, naturalness. He was one of the first to offer an all-vegetable gastronomic menu at Louis XV a long time ago. Today everyone does it. Ditto for chocolate, coffee, ice cream … It goes all the way. That’s why I never left him.

Your first steps as an executive chef coincide with your first confinement, a sudden stop. Is it frustrating for a hyperactive person?

It’s strange, really, but paradoxically it gave me time to think, to ask myself. And with chef Ducasse we did many things for the carers too, we gave lessons to isolated women, the disabled… And in the kitchen, he allowed me to start from scratch. We have established relationships with producers in difficulty. A cook and houses like ours have a role in relation to them. I was aware of it but it was necessary to go further. We have launched take-away sales, baskets to support producers. And we pushed sourcing further, enriched the network, deepened human relationships. When it reopened, it was a real boom. The producers did not know when it would start again, they had not anticipated, sowed, planted… I overturned the problem with a seasonal cuisine. Indeed, it is nature that tells what to do, not the other way around. If you push it too hard, you lose the value of taste. So the producers send me what they are in full maturity. It requires more organization but is much better. We work with suppliers, Grégoire and Isabelle, who search all over France all year round. So we get our supplies from the last vinegar maker in Orléans, a city that was the capital of vinegar at the time when the wine came from the south and which they transformed. I met the Gauthier butcher’s shop in Clermont-Ferrand, the historic capital of veal… I am very attached to the French heritage and we young chefs have a duty to keep it alive. In our factories we have the opportunity to touch the most beautiful things firsthand, to have the most beautiful products. It is true that it has a cost and if it is often said that the gastronomic restaurant of a building is not profitable, it must also be said that it is the showcase of the hotel.

Lobster, nasturtium, Buddha’s hand with Meurice Alain DucasseDR

How do you define your kitchen? For which taste experience?

It is the French cuisine that, as I was saying, highlights the producers. But when I say French cuisine, we have a contemporary approach. We bring him freshness. As did Stark in the room. In concrete terms, it’s a cuisine that is quite focused on tastes and I’m not obsessed with design. My cooking is not meticulous, it is rather raw visually and remains focused on the products, those you see indicated in the menu. It is an incisive cuisine with very pronounced markers: bitter, sour, smoked, spicy, iodized … When we work with endive we do not add sugar to round off the bitterness but rather we push it using the root, even more bitter. Those who love bitters will gladly opt for that, others will be advised something else… For this reason the customer elaborates his menu as he likes. We decided that I wasn’t making a menu but that each customer chose 5 or 7 dishes from 4 starters, 3 fish, 3 meat and 4 desserts.

So is in-room advice essential?

Yes. The room is an extension of my hand. He has to measure the customer’s expectations, put him at ease, make him feel at home. It must accompany, guide, explain. In the menu the titles are simple, with only three markers per dish, for example lobster, nasturtium and hand of Buddha. The room is not there to declaim a poem but to be a real guide in creating a great customer experience.

Are there still things to invent in the kitchen?

On the one hand I would say that everything has already been done! But we can start from traditional cuisine and update it, as others did in their time, like Bocuse and his friends. Cooking is a profession of passion, every morning with my assistants we try things out. We must not stop, if we stay on our goals we are dead, creativity is a muscle that must be worked every day. I get a lot of inspiration from other people’s techniques. At the gourmet restaurant I don’t use vacuum cooking and even if I find the extractions interesting, we don’t do them. Roasting, braising, we must continue to do so, we must also be a school for young people. But you have to try not to be closed. For example, we use a Japanese barbecue that attacks the products less than traditional barbecues, we do a lot of conservation of seasonal products, fermentation … In fact, let’s go back to Nordic cuisine, in the days when people did not have a refrigerator, where fish were cooked under salt…

Do we care about food-related health today? And she ?

We pay attention. We can no longer cook yesterday, with butter, cream… We use it but with wisdom and we still manage to make tasty but not too greasy sauces. Better for the gastronomic experience because otherwise we fill up quickly and from mid-meal we no longer like to eat … quite fresh and slightly sparkling welcome based on dried plants, grapes, lemon, honey and water, a little sparkling that washes the palate and opens the taste buds, an oyster with a gin and tonic granita with algae, which prepares the fish, a hot broth to cleanse the palate after the meat and digest before the cheese, a little ice cream to move on to desserts …

In the end, what is a successful gastronomic experience at Le Meurice?

Today many chefs cook very well. But to create more value, to stand out, you have to create emotion. This is the successful experience, when you create emotion for each of the guests. We are actually souvenir sellers. When you get up from the table, when you pay, you take nothing but the memories that we could have allowed you to create.

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