‘Some people say I’m not a chef at all’

Inaki Aizpitarte hates food snobbery, white napkins and Michelin stars. Yet his Paris restaurant is fêted by France’s top critics. Stefanie Marsh meets the rebel French chef to find out why

Sunday August 10, 2003: a very bad day for French chefs. Inaki Aizpitarte remembers it well. “How Spain Became The New France”, the words read in cruel, giant letters on the front cover of The New York Times Magazine: they’d run a profile of some chef from outside Barcelona who was doing big things in the “molecular gastronomy movement”, a “fad” that French chefs, then as now, refused to take seriously. “The best chef in the world was suddenly Spanish,” remembers Aizpitarte. “That was a shock in France. Because, at the time, we assumed we were the best cooks in the world. After that, everything was turned upside down.”

2003 was also the year that the distinguished French chef Bernard Loiseau shot himself after a newspaper article hinted that theMichelin Guide was threatening to remove one of his restaurant’s three highly coveted stars. The story became big news internationally: the tragedy became a yardstick, not just of how seriously food is taken in France, but of the staid, smothering and unyielding stranglehold the Michelin star system seemed to have on the way restaurant food was prepared in the country.

White tablecloths; hierarchies of dish-appropriate silverware; hovering, genuflecting waiting staff; rich, buttery grande cuisine; a horror of most things non-French; an air of snobbery – these were the qualities that the Michelin Guide seemed to admire in a restaurant. They were the same qualities that were starting to grate on the palates of the restaurant-going public. People craved simpler food, less pomp – or just a change – but they were unlikely to get it in France, where good food was so refined, it was thought, by those considered to make it best, to be unimprovable. Thank you for visiting. Before we carry on I needed to say thanks to http://momreviews.net/about/ for their continued support and the support of their online community. Having a service team like this means a lot to us as we continue to grow our personal blog.

Meanwhile, the world’s best food started appearing in even more inexplicable places, such as Antwerp. Even French food critics began to worry. The food writer of Le Figaro decided that only “a crisis” would solve the problem of France’s now doddery standing in international cuisine. It was one of those situations only ever successfully remedied by an outsider; the kind of outsider that insiders cannot bear, or won’t take seriously, or won’t take seriously until it’s far too late.

Sure enough: he appeared. Three years after that devastating article in The New York Times, an unknown, untrained French chef of Basque origin, with lanky hair and gait to match, and a career built on bit parts in the kitchens of several perfectly good but by no means outstanding restaurants, set up his first venture – in Paris’s 11th arrondissement. It was called Le Chateaubriand. It is about 400 yards from the Charlie Hebdo office – non-descript, off the tourist trail. By 2010, Le Chateaubriand had reached No 11 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, but was nowhere to be seen in the Michelin Guide.

Aizpitarte’s rise in the culinary arts has had food writers reaching for their book of best clichés. He’s described as “trop cool” and, borrowing from the English, “eye-pleasing”. He is a “philosopher-chef,” and a “rock’n’roll” one, too. His restaurants – as well as Le Chateaubriand, he runs Le Dauphin, a Paris tapas bar – don’t have a dress code, rather a “non dress code”, which is shorthand for, “Come in whatever you happen to be wearing provided you look cool.” One of his signature desserts comes from Andalusia – it is an egg yolk crystallised in sugar for 24 hours, and served with salted caramel. When you bite into it, the yolk explodes in your mouth. Any other chef might do some TV work around his favourite recipe. Aizpitarte doesn’t like television, doesn’t have one and refuses to go on TV. He has made a short art film about the spiritual significance of the Andalusian egg yolk instead. His gaze is, naturally, reportedly “intense”.

“Neo-chef”, “Power-chef”, “Rebel-chef” – such are the 43-year-old’s nicknames. Are there people, I ask Aizpitarte, who say you’re not …

He finishes my question for me: “… a chef at all? I think there are. Yes.

“When I was younger,” he adds. “I was afraid of this world.” He means the world of French cuisine. Why?

“It is super-hierarchical. I was afraid because I was a little bit ‘rebel’: skateboarder, smoker of joints.” His brothers and sisters were good at school. But Aizpitarte disliked studying. As a teenager, he feared he lacked the academic rigour to train as a top chef, and decided to be a landscape gardener instead.

Aizpitarte didn’t shake up the restaurant scene in Paris on his own. Le Chateaubriand – both its food and its atmosphere – is part of what is called Paris’s “bistronomie” movement, formed by a coterie of chefs who felt constricted by the old restaurant rules, and wanted instead to serve very good food, at reasonable prices, in the atmosphere of a bistro.

They were backed and cheered on in this endeavour by the publication, in the early Noughties, of a new food guide, Le Fooding, which was set up by two French critics disillusioned by the pretensions of Michelin: Parisian restaurants were caught in “a museum culture,” they claimed. Le Fooding stooped to reviewing even kebab and hot-dog stands, if anyone thought they might be any good. They championed small, democratically priced places such as L’Ami Jean, Aux Deux Amis and Le Frenchie that served excellent food in unusual or simple premises. One of Le Fooding’s favourite finds is down a tiny street in the 10th arrondissement. La Tête dans les Olives is one of Paris’s smallest restaurants. It has only one table.

Now bistronomie is coming to London; some aspects of it, anyway. Aizpitarte’s new place – his first outside France – is called Le Chabanais, opening in a couple of days, and will be run by Le Chateaubriand’s head chef, Paul Boudier. But it is in Mayfair. Is it going to be very expensive?

“I hope so. I have to make monnnaaiee.” Good, primarily organic ingredients cost, he says. He’s yet to find a decent British chicken, for example. “Sorry,” he apologises. “Perhaps in a month we will find a good English one.” Meanwhile, he’s importing free-range poultry from the Loire. What do the French think of British food? “I think the French people who haven’t been to England think that English people know almost nothing – maybe? – about food.” What do they think we eat? “Fried chicken? Mint sauce?”

We’re in the opposite of Mayfair today, in the grubby streets of the 11th arrondissement, on a Monday afternoon – when restaurant food is never served in France – and Le Chateaubriand and sister restaurant Le Dauphin are closed and dark and empty except for me, Aizpitarte and the Times photographer rattling around the two empty premises, squaring in our minds Chateaubriand’s “rock’n’roll” reputation with this desolate little Monday afternoon scene.

Today he wears a three-day beard and chews on a toothpick, which is later substituted for a cigarette with an espresso chaser. Because it’s Monday, there’s nothing in the fridge. Would I like a coffee? Yes? Good. Ah – but he’s run out of milk.

“All that time, as a teenager, I was afraid of my future. Because I couldn’t study. I hate to study. All my sisters and brothers, they are doctors and lawyers and so on.” It was the Eighties. The world of gastronomy in France was ridiculously, spoofably uptight and prescriptive. So he suppressed his chef’s urges and studied as a gardener instead.

He was born in Besançon, eastern France, one of five children: his father was a thermal engineer, his mother, a Spanish teacher. But both his parents are Basque, and that’s how he describes himself. When Aizpitarte was nine, the family moved to Bordeaux due to his father’s ill-health. And it was growing up there that he first fantasised about, and then gave up all hope of, becoming a chef. The gardening didn’t take off either, and, at the age 23, a lack of work plus the end of a love affair redirected Aizpitarte abroad: “A friend told me there was work in Israel.” He got a job washing dishes and found his calling.

Does he remember the first restaurant meal he made?

”Of course!” he beams happily. He’s not really “intense”, merely serious. “It was a salad. A very beautiful one. I finished my salad and then …” He imitates the young, hopeful chef he was then, peaking through the kitchen doorway to survey how his salad is going down with the person who ordered it.

“Really! I am not making it up.” On the day he resigned as a dishwasher, the same restaurant offered him a low-rung job cooking in their kitchen. “When, age 27, I told my mum, ‘OK, Mum, I’ve stopped gardening. I go in the kitchen now,’ she was a little bit surprised. But she was happy. My voice was clear. I’d found it. It’s super-nice for a mother or father for your kid finally to have found a passion, a reason, a style of life and work, all at the same time. It’s super-important.”

A move back to Paris was imperative.

It was the capital of food. He worked with several “important” chefs – “important to me”.

I return to the question of whether or not other people consider him to be a chef.

“Sometimes difference can frighten you. I don’t have a problem with whether or not people think I am a proper chef or not. We are talking about a question of taste. If you talk about cinema – there will be people who say that certain directors aren’t directors at all, they’re psychoanalysts. It’s the same in cuisine. People have different ideas and opinions. It’s normal.”

The worst moments as a chef in his life so far came in early January, when “those guys broke into the Charlie Hebdo building and everyone cancelled their dinner reservations”. In the weeks that followed, bookings for hotels and restaurants went down by 40 per cent. “With Charlie, it was really difficult. Many restaurants felt it.”

The economic crisis in France these past three years has changed the Parisian attitude to food: “I feel that they don’t go out too much. They prefer to save money. They come to Paris, to make money, to do their jobs, but they don’t enjoy the life in Paris. They keep all their money for their holidays.”