My time is running out. 49 weeks ago there I was scrubbing the floor of a brewery, distracting myself from the hard graft by day dreaming about what the following year may hold in store. Now just three jobs remain. This calls for a grand finale. Paris calls.
For many chefs there can be few more crowning achievements than cooking in a 3 Michelin starred restaurant. Not so long ago I was one of them. But as my travels progressed I met a number of young chefs who when I mentioned my ambitions looked at me with deep filled dread. They urged me not to make the same mistake that saw them learn only little while they worked and were treated like dogs. I’m pretty sure this isn’t true for all kitchens. I did hear of some positive experiences, but you see all that pomp and ceremony makes me feel terribly uneasy. As a Northern lad I would only end up making a ‘reet twat’ of myself by mispronouncing ‘Chablis’ or when asked to ‘cut the veg julienne’ assume that they were bestowing on me a new nickname.
Make no mistake, I’m sure time at such an institution would’ve been an unforgettable experience, but such staid restaurants feel so out-dated against the way in which the world fine dining scene is moving. Out go the shiny cutlery, linen tablecloths, and bank breaking bills and in comes haute cuisine in casual settings at affordable prices. Good food should be accessible not intimidating. I have asked many a chef who they inspire to be. Rarely do they say the Passards, Gagnaire and Ducasses of the kitchen. Instead it’s the Redzepis, Atalas and Dave Chang leading the way. Young chefs want to be seen as rock stars not Michelin stars. With this in mind, there’s only one place in Paris I really should go, Inaki Aizpitarte’s Le Chateaubriand, the highest rated French restaurant on the S Pellegrino Top 50 list.
I’m sure Inaki cares little, but critics were quick to label his at Le Chateaubriand as ‘bistronomy’ – haute cuisine in a bistro environment. The menu consists of a 6 course taster menu that changes daily, with optional booze pairings. The food is based on French technique but draws influence from international cuisines. It costs just €65. If you don’t want 6 courses, those queuing around the corner for your seat definitely will.
Stepping inside the LCB kitchen at a leisurely 2pm (gotta love the French working hours), there is a youthful vigour in the air and a party like atmosphere. Coffees dished up, hangovers shaken off and whites slipped on; it isn’t long before some classic hip-hop anthems blast from the kitchen stereo. The chefs are laughing and joking as if they were mates prepping up a supper at home. Inaki struts in pulls out a scrubby bit of paper, dumps a bag of greens he’d foraged on the way to work and reads out the day’s menu.
I have no idea how the chefs are able to change the menu daily. I sit there trying to recall the menu with some difficulty. Ingredients dart about from course to course over the week, which despite extensive notes confused me no end. Thankfully some consistency was kept with the amuse bouche and starters with cheese gougeres, followed by deep fried shrimp in raspberry powder (I know, I hated the sound of it too but it worked surprisingly well), a ceviche; sea urchin with cucumber, samphire and seaweed, and finally a cleansing cup of hot bouillon with radish and coffee flakes.
But the more substantial courses rarely stayed the same. Astoundingly, each plate, despite being new to the chefs, is cooked to perfection (and I’ve seen a fair few disasters caused by menu changes on my travels). The chefs are constantly creative, always adapting and always learning. This gives for a kitchen education like no other. Take these dishes: a lightly confit piece of skipjack (a cousin of the tuna fish) with onions, potatoes and dill; pan fried cod, with sorrel emulsion, broad beans (lovingly peeled by yours truly) and fleur d’accacia; and guinea fowl, with red orach (a type of red spinach) and rhubarb. There are restaurants that would’ve taken a long period of time to evolve dishes of such quality and yet here they are read out on the morning and perfected a few hours later.
One dish is so bloody good the chefs at LCB were forced to keep it on the menu for fear the French diners may go on stirke. And after a nectarine sorbet with finely sliced beetroot, comes that dish – Inaki’s tocino del cielo. This dish meaning ‘bacon of heaven’ is a classic Spanish custard dessert that originated in Andalusia, when there was need to use up yolks after the whites were used for clarifying wine. Inaki’s has a modern twist. He soaks the egg yolks in a sugar solution that forms a skin on the yolk. It is then placed on a meringue with a caramel sauce, before being coated in sugar and blow torched. Diners are instructed to eat it in one. As soon as you bite in, the yolk oozes out a richness that dances with the sweet caramel and crunch of the meringue. There are few greater desserts I have encountered on my trip.
On my last night I was dragged out of the kitchen to help Colin behind the bar. Little did I know that this involved Colin playing his favourite party trick of getting you drunk on the wine pairings all while trying to dry delicate glassware. Drunken bull in a china shop springs to mind. But working on the bar gave me a rare treat: to see life beyond the kitchen walls. The restaurant was raucous with diners having a good time. I have seen nothing like it. The dining area feels like one big party. I turn to the kitchen to see the chefs, cranking up the volume and opening up some beers. Colin starts to pour me a large glass of 20-year-old calvados and the good times continue to rock n’ roll. Who needs 3 starred restaruants when you could be enjoying this?