Meet Pierre Gagnaire, the ‘best chef in the world’
Pierre Gagnaire may be back in Dubai at Reflets to celebrate his ‘Best chef in the world’ award voted for by his peers whose restaurants boast two and three Michelin stars – but the humble maestro who has 11 restaurants around the world and will mark 50 years in the kitchen next year, is quick to dismiss the accolade, focusing instead on his team and new seasonal dishes. In this candid and revealing interview with FooDiva, he spills the beans on his favourite chefs, a new restaurant opening, Rene Redzepi’s Noma and bundles more. Voila…enjoy the read.
- So you’re in Dubai to celebrate your ‘best chef in the world’ win? [Pierre Gagnaire interrupts my question]. No. I am here to work with them [points to his head chef and restaurant manager sitting next to us]. I come here three times a year to support Francois at Reflets and Choix.
- You’re very humble. But what did you think when you found out you had won? I think it’s important to be humble. The award is only very important for me and the company because the team is happy with it. The award is about the attitude and relationship with my team worldwide. Let me share a small story from a few days ago. We engaged a young girl to work with us here in Dubai, and immediately she saw that the team is very strong, very close, and after a few days she said “but Mr Gagnaire is not my father” because for her it was unacceptable to work like that. I don’t pay these people [the owning company does], but they work for me with my philosophy and my attitude, and we try to do the best. I don’t forget that it’s the owning company who pays us and gives us the possibility to be the strongest. We’re building a small bubble, with real quality. We try to be ourselves and that is fantastic for them.
- What is that bubble and that vision? To try and do our best, whilst respecting the system. I work for InterContinental in Tokyo; Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas and Hong Kong. If you don’t understand each system, then you can’t stay in this line of work. They are big companies. There are some rules and processes which we must accept. When you understand that, you can be yourself, it’s easy.
- What advice would you give aspiring chefs? To work, to stay honest and be yourself. Find your niche. For some to have three stars it’s not a problem. It’s a job, they go fishing, swimming, take time with their family. We don’t learn passion at school. School was a disaster for me; I had to learn by experience. But school is a big chance. I have one regret, I started working too early, and I lost many years where you don’t have a normal life. I wish I had started later. Now I would tell a chef to go to school first, and then work, but not for the money or the TV.
- You have shied away from TV work, whereas many of your peers spend more time behind a screen, than in the kitchen. Why? For Gordon Ramsay it’s a big success, but for many chefs it’s a disaster. They do it for two to three seasons, and then its finished for them. Sure they pick up money. We obtained our third Michelin star twenty years ago, so I think only now am I in a position to speak [with authority].
- Who did you vote for as best chef? [each chef was allowed to vote for five chefs] I can’t tell you that [laughs]. Only 320 chefs voted from two and three star Michelin restaurants [not 500 as reported]. It’s a little strange as there is no one best chef in the world. Michel Bras, Ferran Adria, Joan Roca, Thomas Keller and Alain Passard are all excellent chefs. I love Rene Redzepi a lot but I didn’t vote for him because it’s not a cuisine, it’s not my taste. I met the guy; visited the restaurant; a very interesting experience. The guy is fantastic; very clever.
- So do you think that’s why Noma has not received its third Michelin star? Yes I think that’s why. But perhaps Noma can have three stars. He created a new style in keeping with his country’s tradition; local produce; the atmosphere; the quality of the plates; the presentation; and the taste. He brings something to the table. But for me, he is not the best. Nobody is the best. Take artists as an example. Is Chagall better than Picasso…than Rubens…than Cezanne…than Van Gogh? No. In food, it’s the same.
- What is more powerful – Michelin or World’s 50 Best? Today World’s 50 Best is very important, but it’s important for the awards, not the chef. It’s like the top musical charts – after a while you don’t remember the songs and their ranking. Where is Ferran Adria [whose restaurant El Bulli topped the World’s 50 Best list more times than any restaurant – 2002, and 2006 – 2009 until it closed down]? He is finished. He was fantastic but it was impossible to go to the next step. For me it’s difficult to speak to this, as I am in the system. All are important. There are many mistakes with the Michelin guide. I know people who only have two stars and should have more.
- Any expansion plans in the UAE or further afield in the Middle East? I am opening a new restaurant Acacia in the new Movenpick Riyadh in September. The general manager is a French man. He is a very good man, has lived there many years and knows the mentality.
- You see that with many big chef restaurant openings in hotels. Oliver Glowig opened a restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Bahrain because of the relationship with the GM. Yes. I am here [in Dubai] because of the first general manager Tom Meyer. He was fantastic, funny, loved the job, and a real supporter. It’s very interesting to be in Saudi Arabia. It’s the centre of many connections in the world.
- With local produce far more readily available than when I interviewed you in Dubai a couple of years ago, are you now beginning to source local? If so what? [His head chef Francois steps in]: No. We don’t get approached by the farms. Perhaps we should, but I think it’s more for home cooks. The scale and consistency would be hard to achieve.
In the seven years you’ve been operating in Dubai, how have you changed? We haven’t changed too much. Our clientele has been very loyal. For us the big problem is the location and we know that. I am lucky my team has stayed with me. The previous chef Olivier stayed six years. Quality of the plate and the relationship with the people is the key to success. The reason I can travel is my team in Paris. My chef has been there 35 years and my maître d’ 20 years. I have seven to eight people who have worked with me for so long. Francois has changed the cooking style in Dubai over the last year. Supply of good produce is much easier now than when Olivier first started and so he can now focus on being in the kitchen, rather than spending time finding suppliers. We have the maturity, the consistency and today the cooking is more precise. More simple and less complicated. I think we have found our style in this place.
Do you have an opinion on who is the best chef in the world, or if not that, perhaps just your favourite?