Yannick Alléno on Sauces, Breaking the Rules and ‘STAY’ Seoul

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Yannick Alléno likes to question things. Why stick with one way when there is another that yields far better results? Then begins the inexhaustible research that he is known for, pushing the boundaries of tastes and textures as far as possible.

Alléno, simply put, is a revolutionary. He breaks the rules, and along the way, sets new standards. His current obsession is “cold extraction,” a new cooking technique that enhances the flavor of food beyond comparison. “Sauce is the heart and soul of French cuisine. It always has been, and it is time we brought it back to make French cuisine great again.” The celebrated French chef is on a quest to modernize French cuisine. It is his way of paying homage to the rich culinary heritage of France.

Yannick Alléno. His name may not immediately ring a bell to many Koreans, but he is among the some of the world’s finest chefs of our time. In February, he became the only chef in France with two 3-Michelin star restaurants to his name when ‘Le 1947’ at Cheval Blanc hotel in Courchevel was awarded its third star in the 2017 Michelin Guide. His other restaurant, ‘Alléno Paris au Pavillon Ledoyen‘, has maintained its 3-Michelin-star status since he took over from Christian Le Squer in 2014.

Twice honored by the influential French restaurant guide Gault & Millau as “Chef of the Year” in 2008 and 2015, respectively, Alléno also operates numerous restaurants of varying concepts in his native France and in cities around the world including Marrakesh, Dubai, Hong Kong and Taipei. His chic ‘Bistrot Terroir Parisien’ in Paris, with an outpost in Hong Kong, features pedigreed local ingredients from Île-de-France and updated French classics.

Earlier this month saw the grand opening of the 123-story Lotte World Tower and, with it, Signiel Seoul, a six-star luxury hotel that towers over the city. Occupying floors 76 through 101, the hotel is home to ‘STAY,’ Yannick Alleno’s modern casual French restaurant, which also has locations in Paris, Taipei and Dubai. In addition to overseeing the restaurant, Alléno is collaborating with Lotte Group as the executive director of Signiel Seoul’s food and beverage operations.

Short for ‘Simple Table Alléno Yannick,’ STAY is perched on the 81st floor of the newly-opened hotel, offering a stunning panoramic vista of the city by day and night. The restaurant showcases modern French cuisine that comes with an affordable price tag. It currently offers breakfast, lunch and dinner services with a brunch buffet service coming soon. Lunch and dinner menus each consist of three prix fixe choices as well as à la carte options.

The ‘pastry library’ is one of the principal features of STAY and heaven for those who have a weakness for all things sweet. Guests are invited to help themselves to a tantalizing assortment of ready-made confections as they watch the pastry chef prepare desserts à la minute. Although the restaurant takes a casual approach to French cuisine, it goes all out in terms of service, offering the diners an experience of old school French dining at its finest, such as the ‘cart service’ where select dishes are prepared table-side.

Alléno says he feels an utmost sense of gratification whenever he sees his customers happy. The best compliment anyone could ever give him? Three simple words: “We’ll be back.”

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Tell us about STAY Seoul. What kind of restaurant is it?

STAY is a restaurant that offers an experience of great French food. It takes a more casual approach to French fine dining that reflects the modern lifestyle. French food is often perceived as being too complex, too expensive and the service unnecessarily long. With this restaurant, I want to break down the walls. I want young people to come and have fun! I want to show them refined French food doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. I also believe the vibrant energy of the young chefs that work in the kitchen will also be reflected in the food we serve.

You said you want to break down barriers and prejudices. How do you plan on doing that specifically at STAY?

Adding a special touch to even the most familiar ingredient is everything to me. For example, I know that Koreans love to eat shellfish. My aim is not just to offer an oyster on a plate, but to serve it with a pearl. Food has to be memorable. I am serious about my techniques and my vision, but I want my customers to have fun, too. A good example is our Pastry Library which not only offers customers a beautiful array of French confections to choose from, but also a live demonstration of the pastry chefs prepare desserts as the orders come in. I really wanted the guests to see the pastry chefs in action, getting their fingers sticky and lighting things on fire like our crêpes Suzette. It is a testament to the fun atmosphere that we aim to create at STAY.

The same goes for the cart service. The ‘Grand Soup Service,’ for instance, has the waiter assemble different elements of the soup in front of the guests before serving. It’s something very French and it is something that the diners can appreciate.

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You are all about using local ingredients – your restaurant ‘Bistrot Terroir Parisien’ being a good example. Why is this important to you?

I opened ‘Bistrot Terroir Parisien’ in 2006. I was the first chef to attempt using only local ingredients from the Parisien region. Now, there are easily 160 chefs in Paris using local ingredients and products. It’s become a big trend.

I believe chefs yield an enormous amount of power in making the world a better place to live. I really want to make the world better. I want to inspire people to think they can play a part in preserving the planet with a great sense of responsibility. Things were not how they are now 20 years ago. But, that generation is now working hard to preserve the planet for the next generation.

In terms of local ingredients from Korea, we have a lot to be thankful for. Korea is a peninsula so it has a lot of seafood. If we can help the local producers—farmers, fishermen, you name it—that will be an extra bonus for us.

You have multiple restaurants overseas – Marrakesh, Taipei, Hong Kong and now Seoul. What kind of story do you hope to tell through your food across different cultures?

If you look at the history of civilization and food, rarely do you find a culture with a food culture so unique it can call it its own. The food we eat today has–more likely than not–been influenced by other cultures near and far over hundreds of years. French cuisine is no exception. France shares borders with Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Belgium and that is why we have such a rich culinary heritage because we have been learning from them. Geography is so important when it comes to food.

Whenever I open restaurants overseas, I find myself constantly learning new things. I believe that is the only way to evolve. I am learning many things from Korea as well – fermentation, for example, which I have a deep interest in.

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Why is it so important for you to break the rules and how do sauces come into play?

My parents owned a bistro and I’ve been cooking classic French since the age of 15. When you get the basics and the classics down, that is when you can look toward the future and start breaking the rules. It is the only way to evolve. In my case, once I got the basics down, I started working on creating new sauces.

I always say that sauce is the verb of the French cuisine. With the sauces, you can write the past, the present and the future of French food. Sauces tell the story of our food history and food evolution. Take, for instance, Garum and Muria, the fermented fish sauces Europeans went crazy for in the time of ancient Rome!

In recent times, French chefs started avoiding sauces, saying it was too rich or that it made the food too heavy. Of course modern French cuisine uses sauces, too, but I think it is time to bring the sauces back to French kitchens, including this one. If you want to modernize French cuisine, you have to change the sauces.

What is “cold extraction”?

Traditionally, French chefs would throw all of the aromatics and ingredients into a pot, add water, cook for a certain period of time until they end up with a jus. They would then reduce the jus to make the sauce. But every element has its own unique character and nature. A carrot is not a pea and a pea is not a celeriac. I simply wanted to find out what would happen to each of element when cooked individually. Through my research, I found an ideal cooking time and temperature for different ingredients. A celeriac needs 12 hours in an 83-degree temperature while peas need four hours in 64 degrees.

Once I obtain the jus, I don’t heat it again. Instead, I reduce each liquid via a method I call “cold extraction” (or cryoconcentration to be more technical) which is similar to how ice wine is made. I cool down the jus just before the freezing point, remove the water, and separate the essence which is packed with flavor. It really is incredible. With that, I blend and compose my sauces.

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 How often do you plan to visit Seoul?

At least four times a year. I am also in charge of the food and beverage operations at Signiel Hotel and I try to offer solutions worthy of a six-star luxury hotel with very high standards. For example, the food served at the champagne bar ‘Bar 81’ next door is also prepared by my team.

Please introduce your ‘STAY’ Seoul team for us.

The team is made up of professionally trained chefs who are extremely passionate and dedicated to what they do. The kitchen is helmed by chef de cuisine Elie Fischmann with two sous-chefs Thais Challet Fischmann and Justin Mauté. We also have Frédéric Bastin as our pastry chef.

As a chef, what would you count as your number one priority?

Everything. The quality of ingredients. Good ingredients will always show you how they should be cooked. The dexterity of the chefs who really know their ingredients well. The relationship I share with the young chefs in the kitchen also means a lot to me. When I received my latest Michelin star, I was personally overjoyed, but when I looked into the eyes of the young chefs, they looked so proud and happy. I was incredibly moved.

What went through your mind when ‘Le 1947’ received its third star?

The latest star was really important to me because it was the first time I felt that my vision and what I am doing was right. I got the confirmation that I needed. Extractions and my sauces are what got me here. In fact, Michelin Guide International Director Michael Ellis told me the same thing, that I got my third star because of my sauces. He said the inspectors found something new and something advanced, something pure and something distinctly French in my dishes. For me, that was exactly what I’d wanted to prove. So, I was very satisfied.

How does a chef with two 3 Michelin star restaurants motivate himself every day?

I’ve been communicating with fire since the age of 15. I don’t have any secrets except to get up every morning with the same passion I’d had 35 years ago. For me, cooking is a way of living. It is something I do every day. I love to cook and I love to make people happy with my food.

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As a chef, what makes you happy?

The smile on my customers’ faces. The best compliment I could ever receive is hearing that they will be back. I never get tired of hearing it.

What would be your ideal meal on your day off?

I have a holiday home in Italy and I love visiting the local market. It’s fantastic. I also love to spend time in my garden. The tomatoes that have ripened under the Italian sun is amazing. I love to cook with those tomatoes. It’s the best kind of food.

What did you eat recently that blew you away?

The extraction of celeriac I made. I have never had that kind of taste in my mouth before.

Do you have any advice for young chefs out there?

Know your ingredients perfectly. Understand the food deeply. Taste and experience the level of cuisine that is out there. When you’re not working, try to be in the customer’s shoes. During your break, sit down at a table and have a proper meal. That is so important.

Contests are important, too. Compete and learn. Finally, find the right team to learn because cooking is a long learning process.