When chef Yannick Alléno turned on the gas at the Pavillon Ledoyen on July 1, 2014, it was poignantly apparent to all early visitors to his new restaurant that he was exultantly relieved to be cooking again. After all, he’d been without a Paris kitchen of his own for over a year and a half since January 2013 when he left Le Meurice, the opulent dining room at the Hotel Le Meurice where he’d won three Michelin stars. And for anyone who’s known him as long as long as I have–we first met after the excellent dinner at the Hotel Scribe in 1999 that pricked my curiosity about who’d cooked it–he’d seemed a bit at loose ends during the well-earned sabbatical he’d claimed for himself after a decade as chef at Le Meurice. The reason is that despite some reasonably successful efforts to coin Alléno as a celebrity chef, he’s still much more of a feet-on-the-ground cook’s cook than he is anything else. Or at least for the time being anyway, although I very much doubt the world will ever bear witness for the full Kardashianization of Yannick Alléno. It’s just not his style.
If Alléno backed away from his job at Le Meurice, however, it was both because he needed a physical and creative respite from the ardors of running the huge culinary plant of a major Paris luxury hotel, but also, I think, because of an inchoate ambivalence about the way in which his job duties were evolving beyond anything to do with making a perfect beurre blanc, to say nothing of inventing a new recipe. In this eccentrically mannerist age where the trope of celebrity dictates that it’s more important to be talked about than to actually even have anything interesting or important to say, much less a real talent, the metier of Parisian chef has been awkwardly caught up in the nets of celebrity and the social media that fuels it, too. Suddenly, just being a great chef is no longer enough to land a spot running one of the most glamorous dining rooms in Paris. No, now you also have to be a persuasively charming, seductive, photogenic media personality to boot. You should also show up as often as possible in the people pages of the glossy magazines and beam from the screens of high-traffic websites. You should pen opulent cookbooks, get a TV gig, make your own wine, endorse all sorts of probable and half-probable products, and think of dozens of reasons every month that you and your restaurant warrant a sound-bite or a Tweet. A Kim Kardashian shaped cupcake? Hey! That’s a great idea!
The problem here, of course, is that many of the men and women who are drawn to this physically punishing and relentlessly hard-working metier do so out a real dedication to their craft rather than as a vehicle to fame. To be sure, almost none of them would fly-swat a Michelin star or three if it came their way, but the passion that drives a love of bone-achingly hard work and constant repetitive stress day in and day out isn’t a desire for creative expression, although this certainly becomes part of the metier of any fully evolved chef. Instead, it’s a behind-closed-doors love of great produce, the precision of culinary chemistry, the camaraderie of the kitchen and a collective quest for excellence that begins all over again everyday when the lights go on in the kitchen. This is the world that beckoned to Yannick Alléno as a shy fifteen-year-old apprentice to chef Gabriel Biscay at the Hotel Royal Monceau, and it remains beloved ballast of his career in the same way that it does that of any seriously talented chef.
So it was exciting to go off to Ledoyen on a soft summer night for dinner with a very witty and food-loving colleague from London. For openers, I couldn’t wait to see what Alleno would be up to, but I was also eager because Ledoyen is one of the loveliest restaurants in Paris. Just a few minutes from the heaving traffic circle that is the Place de la Concorde–it suddenly strikes me that this beautiful but automotively encumbered square offers up an obvious opportunity to retool Paris towards being a greener and more pedestrian friendly city in the 21st century, since it’s an absurd extravagance that the whole square is given over to cars–Ledoyen is a romantic white wedding cake of a building tucked away in the gardens at the bottom of the Champs Elysees that offers a surprisingly instant respite from the aural and mental roars of city life without leaving town.