The Icelandic years. The transitional time. Winter 2007 Reykjavik, Iceland.
Iceland 2007, I am 29, have been cooking professionally for almost a decade, in many restaurants in different parts of the world. I have experienced the different aspects of the profession, from the 2 michelin stars restaurant to the ”ferme Auberge” , from the single chef handed kitchen to the 16 chefs brigade. I am going to turn 30 years old and a feeling of responsibility is growing stronger. I have been a vegetarian for a few years, and i know it doesn’t really make total sense. Dairy and eggs is representing a big part of the many problems that a vegetarian diet and ethic want to avoid.
The Icelandic winter is renown to direct once focus to self observation, and toward introversion. The grandiose and powerful Icelandic nature have this special and straight forward way to remind us of how little and insignificant we are as humans. I look at my professional achievement and realise that i still have to define my personal concept of cuisine. I want this concept to include my values, considers the modern challenge of our society, the ecological challenge, the ethical ones also. I question myself about the idea of feeding people, reconsider the simple concept of ”food” and ”good food”, how to source it, the different impact of one food choice as consumer, the work of chef and its duty ; how i can make good use of my profession and time in order to have a positive impact in my community and environment.
I work in a very busy restaurant , an Icelandic institution, call “Laekjarbrekka” in the heart of Reykjavik.
I second a very jolly and energetic head chef ,Gúste Garðarsson. The tempo is really high and i spend my 14 hours working days pilling and working boxes full of amazing fishes , lamb filets, lobsters to prepare the evening service. I work all of Icelandic products, all the treasures from the Icelandic arbour, from fish cheeks big like a 33 tour vinyl to fresh cod roe, from 15 centimetres thick halibut filet to milky whale steak and a few Icelandic exotic meat products such as pony meat, puffin chest , and off course lamb, a lot of lamb. In the frenzy, I enjoy the product and to cook them, it is a treat and a privilege for a chef to be able to cook quality and exotic products but i know that this is not in line with my convictions and the filling of disagreement is growing stronger to the point of disgust.
A few months later, i take the decision to follow a purest vegetarian diet, no more eggs, no more dairy product, no animal products what so ever. I feel good, almost liberated from a inner sense of guilt. i feel in line. I then decide to live ”Laekjarbrekka”, and to work for a restaurant offering a concept that will include a more healthy, vegetarian vision.
I found a position as second in the fancy and hip ”Apothek”, a Japanese fusion style fine dinning with a menu influenced by the very popular and trendy Chef Nobu’s restaurants.I discover the Japanese concept of simplicity and authenticity, less meat , more healthy Japanese traditional ”treasure” food, we work around the technics of sushi,tempura, grilling,steaming, we make big use of tofu, miso, seaweed, dashi.Even though the menu is way cleaner from animal products, i know that i am only in the way to find my perfect concept.I want changes.
Finally, i live Iceland a week after i turned 30 with a fixe idea in head :Going to San Francisco and learn from the best what is a modern vegan cuisine, becoming a specialised vegan chef ,working a concept of fine dinning vegan cuisine using seasonal, organic and local product.
I feel then that i am on a new way.
Zurich’s ”Hitlt” , and San francisco ”Millennium ”experience.
After a month of wonder and retreat in Thailand ( vegans needs sun!!), i take a plan ticket for san francisco, with 7 weeks to achieve my goal, find the establishment where i will dedicate my work to learn about vegan fine cuisine and find a way to work there for a long term period. The first week is the hardest time, i learn a big deal about American immigration and think many times that my plans and dreams are fading away but i dont give up. Finally I succeed to work as a volunteer in the 2 best vegetarian restaurants in San Francisco and the Bay Area. I do so for almost 5 weeks, morning shift in Millennium, evening shift at Greens, 6 days a week. I have what i wanted when Annie Somerville , the head chef at Greens, agreed to sponsor me for a J1 working visa ( a one life time opportunity for 18 months of paid training in USA).
I come back to France, apply to the immigration service , but don’t get eligible for the program, (i was declared overqualified by the immigration services.) I search all over Europe for a position, and after a month i move to Zurich, Switzerland to work in the prestigious ”Hiltl” restaurant , the oldest and busiest vegetarian restaurant in Europe.
The restaurant’s organisation is fascinating, not less than 35 chefs are working days and night in a 3 x8 hours shift to produce vegetarian food from all over the world for up to a thousand guests a day in a perfect harmony, making the swiss precision myth a reality. I am chef de party saucier, cook from 6 am until 12 a dozen huge batches of curry base from all diverse culinary part of the world , dhal, etc. Then jump on a 350 customers lunch service and bike home at 3pm.
But i am decided to learn pure vegetarian cuisine and don’t feel satisfied yet.So I try and apply again for the J1 visa with chef Eric Tucker from Millennium as sponsor this time, and finally get granted for a 1,5 years of visa by the immigration services.
It take me 7 months but i have what i want, a working visa and the possibility to work where i still consider the best vegan restaurant in the united states.
This experience at Millennium is intense and eyes opening. So is my experience of California.California is the perfect location for such a wonderful and unique restaurant, with its diversity of culture, the abundance of choice in the fruit and vegetable kingdom , and the special set of mind of the bay area inhabitants that will show there appreciation and support a restaurant such as Millennium.
Eric Tucker and his team are joyfully enjoying all palettes of tastes and seasonal harvest with an assurance and skill that man can only build after a decade and half of serious dedication and passion.I felt for the first time that i had found what i was searching for, an ethical and visionary cuisine, powerful and vibrant , modern, daring and free, healthy and epicurean at the same time.
I work in the production first , and then take a line chef position , finally handling the hot station , a really fiery and intense position to hold every night for 6 hours of busy service.
The food at Millennium is very seasonal, we worke with the latest harvest. Eric will select the products at different level of maturity, will make use of uncommon part of the plant, as well as many variety of the same fruit, vegetable, grain, pulse, propose a wide range of exotic mushrooms. We are offering chilli tasting menus, tomatoes testing menu, mushroom testing menu etc..I learn every day, i starte to understand the potential of the vegetable kingdom to feed us and please our very need for deliciousness.
While in California, i discover other aspects of food and new alternative diet or consumer behaviour, i volunteer for organisation such as ”food not bomb”, that recycle food waste to feed homeless poeple, or ”gardening for peace” that allow me to learn basic gardening skills.I learn also the principles of raw food, macrobiotic food, the importance of organic product and locally source ingredients.
The year and half passed really quickly and it is time for me to live Millennium and California.My Plan is to help to the opening of a raw fine dinning restaurant , a social project in a poor area of Bogota , Colombia.( the project get avorted a few month after.)
Norway, Stavanger. ”Resept” and ”Naked lunch”.
I am back in Europe and is invited by Oystein Ohna Lunde to assist him in the opening of the first organic vegan cafe call ”Resept”in the west side of Norway in the little town of Stavanger.I help out to build up the concept ,organise the kitchen and create the menu.
Oystein Ohne lunde is a very gentle and determine character, a professional acupuncturist ,a yoga teacher, with a strong love and believe in healthy diet, asian philosophy , non violence and vegetarianism. Opening and running a vegan cafe in Norway is a real challenge and i decided that i will stay to support the project until it will become safe and sustainable.Norway is in the antipode of California. We have to literally win the heart of every single customers that is passing the doors and we can’t number the ones running away after understanding that no chicken will be available on the menu from now on. Allmost nobody had even heard about veganism at the early hours of the cafe.
I admire Oystein’s conviction and straight to not close down business and take example of it to back him up on the journey to success and financial sustainability. He count very much on my experience that he is lacking in the kitchen. After a year, the cafe start to be recognise and the local newspaper are writting about us. The secluded vegan, vegetarian, celiac, allergy related customers realise that there is now a place for them to eat, and a regular customership fill up the place. We do everything to increase the sell and recognition, providing take away for festival, catering for weddings, party, art exposition, teach vegan cuisine courses , and get involve in multiple green and humanitarian happenings, we hoste partys and dj’s in the cafe, concerts, speeches. The menu is purposely of a very good value for money, as our goal is before all , to convince the skeptic of the nutritional value and deliciousness of a meal free from Norway’s staple meat and dairy product.
During the last winter , i decid to use my free time to build up a little project of take away vegan and organic fresh salad. I associate with a formal college , Selom Amoa. The result is call ”Naked lunch”, and fill up the shelfs of the health food store and organic oriented cafe of the Stavanger area during the whole summer and a part of fall season.The production is done at day time in an organic bakery rented to Jakob, a danish baker and formal michelin stars chef. We do everything ourself, from the logo to the labels, we are cooking , portionning , packaging, delivering, chopping, accounting and promoting. It is a lot of work and fun, but my associate have to leave the country and live me with the ”baby”. I take care of it by myself for 3 months on the side of my head chef duty. Then i fill that time is come again for me to go for another challenge in life, Resept is on the way to a financial sustainability and i don’t fancy another hard winter in Norway, I want to purchase my goal of fine dinning.
I close ”Naked lunch” and live Norway after my 33 years birthday for a trip to Indonesia and japan. In Indonesia, in order to learn more about tempeh and indonesian cuisine, and Japan to experience the traditional culinary culture in the city of Kyoto.
Brighton England, Aloka centre of quality of life.
After my time in Japan and Indonesia, i come back to Europe again, a bit concern about the opportunity to find a interresting position in a restaurant. I am very eager in developping a vegan gastronomy, and know that the market don’t offer much opportunity and choice. I study european cities and growth on the vegan lifestyle. This is during this time that i found an announce for a position as head chef in Brighton in a Centre called ”Aloka” i never heard about before. I know Brighton, it is home to one of the best vegetarian restaurant in the U.K, ”Terre a Terre”. I send my resume and get a trial period’s offer.
The centre, in fact located just in front of Terre a Terre in a busy commercial street close to the beach front,include a vegan cafe, a very intimate fine dinning restaurant, a yoga studio, a massage studio , and a treatment room in a little building. It was the property of a big multinational company, ”Aura Soma”. It had been awarded the best vegetarian restaurant the year before i took position.
The vegan cafe propose a selection of hot food and raw food in a buffet , a display of raw cakes and treats, caffe, teas, smoothys and fresh juices, and vegan raw ice-cream at day time.
The fine dinning is open at night, to serve a selection of high end raw food.I am supposed to take the head chef position and responsibility of the cafe and fine dinning restaurant.The trial goes very well and the management propose me the position.i accept , honoured.
My first work is to correct the concept and change the fine dinning from a total raw food menu to alf raw /alf cook menu. Finally i have the opportunity to refine and work on a gourmet menu, and do so during the whole time at ”Aloka”.
I stay in Aloka for about 1,5 years, a time of research and experimentation for me and the team.The frequentation of the little fine dinning is getting higher and higher and the little kitchen more and more of a challenge forcing us to adjust our creativity to our need to produce.
This is during this time that i learned the most about raw food, quickly getting out of the raw standard and classics and searching for new technics and ingredients to expend the raw spectrum of recipes and creative freedom.The menu has purposely a limited amount of dishes but is changing every Thursday for at least an items or two, the team involve in the fine dinning have homework’s research and we brainstorm to create the next menu items.For this reason, thursdays are always exciting. Little by little we discover how to source the best ingredients from the Sussex country.
A few month after i take position , Aloka is awarded the best vegan restaurant in the UK from the UK Vegan Society, and is put once again under the spotlights. The growth is then going faster and another positive review come from ”the independent’ , a major British newspaper.
In september 2012 ,the manager informe the whole staff of Aloka of a devastating new, the centre will be close within 3 days, decision made by the owner of the Aura soma company, sir Michael Booth. For Sir Booth , Aloka have reach its limits as a window for ”Aura soma company” and is not able to expend in such a little building which i consider to be a very realistic view. He decides to close the centre at his best , and is thinking of searching for another building and new location for a future centre. The centre closed its doors and i never heard about another centre being open. The abrupt closing of ”Aloka” centre come as a chock to me and the rest of the staff.
I know it meant another relocation and a new start and i am not ready for that. So I concentrate in searching for another place to work and enjoy my free time in Brighton to finish my ongoing study on nutritional therapy. I get graduated by the non academic institute BSY as nutritional therapist in december 2012
Copenhagen, Denmark, ”Firefly Garden”.(Botaniq).
A few week after, i research on Copenhagen vegetarian restaurant scene, and discover a new restaurant, Firefly garden, that seems to need a new head chef. I contact one the owner , and fly allmost immediately to Copenhagen for a first visit and trial. The concept is the same as the fine dinning part of ”Aloka”, a part raw and a part cook, with organic ingredients. The owners admit the lack of background and experience in the restaurant business and are assisted by a consultant and soon manager Thomas Veber.
After a few days of trial and a few hours of interview , we agree on the concept and objective of the restaurant. Level is set very high , nothing less than creating a high end vegan restaurant , the best in Europe. I am hooked and so thrill by the idea to have another chance to work towards my personal goals. The first months are very busy , because of the change of concept and reset of the whole structure of the kitchen and front of the house. Refining the menu, is a task but changing the atmosphere of the restaurant and the quality of the service is even more challenging.
Copenhagen is a perfect place for pioneer business, as one of the Europe premier gastronomic capital , and the home of some of the best restaurants and visionary minds in the restaurant’s world.
I am excited about having the possibility to be part of the Nordic Food Revolution, leaded by Klaus Meyer.
I know that my search and wish for simplicity and authenticity match very naturally within this atmosphere and time of renewal of the food philosophy in Scandinavian countries.
Since February 2013 , ”Firefly Garden” have change name to ”Botaniq” and have open his concept. The fine dinning aspect had to be reviewed slightly as the restaurant owners wished to include at time a breakfast / brunch service, a cocktail bar at night.. we also had a test on street food with our own food bike.
At Botaniq , i have to constantly reset my objectives, i have learn flexibility and to include and prioritize the economic aspect to the creative one, in order to give a stronger reality to a restaurant concept that wish to set example in the field.
In July 2014 , the owners decide once again to change the concept of the restaurant. This time, they want to redirect the concept toward a more replicable one, and reproduce it in other parts of Europe. Their ideas tends toward a fully organic vegan salad bar offering a selection of 100% organic retail products and a buffet of carefully prepared cold and hot dishes.
I accept to review my position and take the responsibility to implement a 100% state certified production of vegan retail line of goods. I do so in a second kitchen totally dedicated to 100% organic production located in the suburb area of Copenhagen. I am also still in charge of the kitchen in the city center.
The legislation on 100% state certified items is particularly strenuous, and needs very precise, long weekly recording of productions data in order to create a system of total transparency.
I work in the new Botaniq concept until 0ctober 2015 when i decided to freed myself from my duty in order to make space for other projects.
My work and the evolution of my work happens to be very related to my own personal development and understanding. Working at ”Botaniq” and in this environment of new Nordic gastronomy is a great time of introspection and personal evolution , i have re-discover the importance of simplicity and reset my whole understanding of what should be a pleasant food experience and what are the needs in the vegetarian markets.
I refocus on fundamentals and basics such as product, producer ,source of the product, respect of the product, efficiency ,simplicity and honesty of the service, reconsider my relationship with the customers, and the dinner experience as a whole.
As I strip myself from the old egoistic head chef pattern and traditional head chef model, i can recognize a mirrored evolution in the new menu and creation.
I am now considering the different possibility that the daily growth of the vegan market and people awareness of it offers me.
I am taking time to further discover Copenhagen’s new emerging restaurant, and culinary alternatives, stage at my favorites ones, ( Relae, Dragholm Slot..), meet like-minded and creative people, allow myself a moment of reflection, before considering a next professional project.
Indonesia. Bali. “Fivelements.”
Only a few weeks after i freed myself from my duties in Botanic, came an opportunity i had expected for many years.
Chicco Tatriele, director and owner of “Fivelements” in Bali, Indonesia, contacted me and proposed me a position as executif Head chef for “Fivelements” new project in Hong Kong, within a high profile sport Academy. Hong Kong Golf and Tennis Academy.
Fivelements is an multiple awards winning integrated luxury wellness spa eco resort destination located in the countryside near Ubud , in the center of the Indonesian island of Bali.
Fivelements retreat is nurturing a plant based gastronomic cuisine including the principle of raw food and healthy cooking that wined many awards including “best asian spa cuisine” , and “world best vegan cuisine” …a remarkable achievement in only a few years of opening.
My good friend and senior head chef Felix Schoener is managing the kitchen on the Bali site and advised the owners to consider me for the challenging position in Hong Kong.
After a few discussion around the whole project, i decide to accept the position and fly to Bali for a few months of communal work with Felix, prior to my relocation in Hong Kong.
The position give me the responsability to develop the project toward its embodiment and organize, manage all the F&B area of Fivelements Hong Kong, which include a plant based fine dinning restaurant, an exquisite tea lounge, a staff canteen, a juice bar, and other duties such as culinary courses, rooftop garden project.
So it is, I will continue to refine and develop the concept of fine dinning plant based cuisine, in Asia this time, and for an exquisite trend setters patrons. I am thrilled, honored and humbled.
After the second months of hard work in common, Felix resigned from his position and i continue to develop the project by myself, helping in the same time as replacement head chef in the Balinese kitchen and in the selection of the next one to come.
The initial 2 months of preparation from Bali are finally pushed further because of delay on the construction site.
I stayed 6 months in total in Bali, 4 months as replacement head chef leading and assisting the fantastic Balinese kitchen team.
Sai Kung, Hong Kong. “Fivelements Hong Kong”.
Hong Kong Golf and Tennis Academy.
In June, i move to Hong kong where i work for another 5 months until the opening of Fivelements Hong kong.
Fivelements Hong Kong, consist in a 2000 square meter building divided in a wellness center, a 40 sitting restaurant and a small 20 sitting tea lounge.
The building is surrounded by a landscape reminding the visitors of Bali, with Balinese plants, garden decorations and minor temples architectures.
The whole building is beautifully and richly decorated with Balinese woodcraft, and bamboo walls, interior and exterior fountains resulting in a very relaxing spa atmosphere.
The Fivelements’s site is beautiful, so is the whole Hong Kong Golf and Tennis Academy which is located just on the limit of Sai kung national park verdant hills.
The kitchen team is slowly and carefully build around 5 chefs with different backgrounds and work histories, we trained on the different menues for 3 months prior the final opening. The name of the restaurant: Sakti Dinning rom (TM)
The lunch menu is refine and slightly more casual than the dinner menu, we also have a monthly 3/5/7 chef tasting menu, that will keep me/us busy with a creative work months after months and a lot of research and development. We also do not serve alcohol but a choice of elixirs, home fermentations, fresh juices, smoothies, herbal shoots and off course teas. I choose to propose all the menues 100% gluten free, with almost no refine products, or additives , colorant, fry food .
As for Bali, i am in charge to source organic ingredients, local if possible. Hong kong is importing 80 % of his fresh products which makes it difficult to stick to the local / organic paradigm.
I, ideally, wish to develop a farm to table concept, and after a few months of research , succeed to seal some partnerships with 2 local farmers from 2 different farms, with whom i wish to enter in a close communication regarding seasonality , possibilities in therms of future harvest and potential future crops.