Nicolas Le Bec is perhaps the most controversial figure in the Lyonnaise culinary scene, and the most talk about after Paul Bocuse. After training under Alain Passart, Jean-Pierre Vigato, and Pourcel brothers, he became the chef at la Cour des Loges, a 4 star Hotel in old Lyon in 2000 at age 27. He received his first Michelin Star at the Loges in 2004. He then quickly opened his own restaurant on rue Grolée the same year, which was again crowned with a Michelin star the following year and the second in 2007.
Not that Michelin is the sole nor the most reliable indicator of one’s success as a chef, but it did create a stir when Le Bec decided to abandon gastronomy and moved on to set-up a restaurant inside an air terminal and a 300-seat brasserie in a zone called Confluence. Confluence is the southern most tip of the Lyon islet where the Rhône and the Saône rivers meet, and is one of the largest city-center development projects underway in Europe at the moment. To add to the drama, l’Espace Le Bec inside Lyon’s Saint-Exupéry international airport came to a sudden halt in summer of 2011 due to a workers’ up rise, a phenomenon perhaps too characteristic of the French.
During these years, Le Bec was also wooed to take the helm of the glamorous Restaurant L’Opera, a 7-year project inside the Paris Opera, Palais Garnier. But at the last minute, he parted with the project. For his entrepreneurial spirit, he was awarded the Enterpreneur of the Year Award in 2010 by CGPME at age 37. With such progressive spirit and media attention, Le Bec is a household name in Lyon, and all kinds of rumors abound in this gastronomy center.
Why did you choose the name “rue Le Bec” for this gigantic brasserie?
To create a gourmet street. This is a large space, 2,000 square meters (20,000 sq ft). So it is more complex than an ordinary restaurant. It contains a grocery store, a bakery …
It’s certainly is a new concept for France. Where did you get the idea for such a concept?
It came from my travels abroad in Asia and Latin America. The know-how and good products in France is something that is often sought after. I liked the idea of being able to stay in one place and to circulate within the confines to find all the products.
So the idea is derived from abroad, but the place is purely French?
Yes, we only serve French products.
I had a chance to interview Takao Takano who used to be your sous-chef. You worked with him for 10 years. He remarked that you are not French.
(Laugh) I’m not French? Why did he say that?
Because you are extremely rigorous, more so than the Japanese.
I think that there are French who are rigorous. There are those who are more lax than others, but I think you can say that about every culture. Of course if you compare the techniques between the French and the Japanese, it’s the Japanese who will learn the French cuisine in France in no time. In Japan, there is the rigor and the technical mastery that have been lost in France. It’s not for no reason that the Champion du monde in pastry is a Japanese as well as in sommelier. It takes work, and the Japanese have a strong work culture. We have lost the culture in France. Work, know-how, respect, discipline, these are things that go hand-in-hand.
Do you think you are more rigorous than other chefs in France?
No, not necessarily. It’s true that I’m very disciplined in my work. Each plate must be identical to another. The picture must be propped in the same way each time. A certain level of rigor is a must. I believe that every great chef, not just a good chef but a great chef must necessarily be demanding. There are things that may work or not work depending on the specific characteristics in each generation. But the work remains very military-like. Everything must be organized; if someone is out of order, it will disrupt the whole system.
I read that you started your career as a cook at a very young age.
No one in my family was in the field. My mother cooked well – that’s all. I enrolled in a hotelier school at age 13, left at age 16, and left France to go work in New York in the 80s. I am a Breton. During the 50s and the 60s, there were not many jobs in Brittany, so some of our family members had moved to New York. Many of them run restaurants there.
1980 to 1990 was the decade of Joël Robuchon. He was like a military march. He stood for excellence and exigency. (Then there was a transition, and 1990 – 2000 was the decade of Alain Ducase. This was something else. It was more about management.) I needed discipline, and Robuchon was all about that. I watched him on television and read articles when I was young. This exigency of Robuchon, coupled with his respect for the ingredients, passion, culture, and all the work of the suppliers behind the scene formed who I am and what I do today.
The discipline also comes from my family; my grand father was a very disciplined person. So I found the same values in my work. Had I not been instilled with these values, I would have gone off in the wrong direction. The structure was necessary to bring out something in me. I wanted to cook, but I also considered becoming a surgeon or a fighter pilot. These are three fields that require real discipline.
Would it be correct to say that you learnt the discipline from cooking in New York?
No, I was only 16 at the time, a minor. I was working underground. I didn’t go to learn fancy cooking – it was just a French inn. But I was introduced to an ethnic mix. It was my family working in the restaurant, but in the back, it was full of people of all colors whom I couldn’t understand. That’s what I liked about New York. Even today, ethnic diversity is something that is very important for me.
Do you speak English?
Yes, I speak English. Very badly, but I speak it.
In terms of communication, in demonstrations anywhere in the world, what we do is universal. The moment we have a goal in mind, there is no need to understand: we rely more on our senses. So I never had any problems with languages whether in China, Latin America, Japan, or in any other places. Vision is the primary language in the kitchen.
Mr. Takano said that you are not satisfied unless you are the best in everything that you do.
I would say that we should always be the best for our customers. I’m never satisfied, but that’s normal. It has its advantages and disadvantages, and hence derives the rigor. It makes me always fight for something, to want to climb the stairs.
So you are constantly in competition with yourself.
Of course, by definition!
And you don’t sleep.
Not much, no (laugh). 3 hours, 4hours.
And that works for you?
Yes, for years.
I imagine you don’t take vacations either.
My vacations are traveling for work. (laugh)
You seem to be in good shape.
Of course I’m in good shape! Work is health, as they say, right? Not only that, but when it’s your passion, it’s not work. Even if it’s for weeks, months, or years of work, there is always a positive energy that pushes you forward. It’s very different from something you are obligated to do. You couldn’t force me to do anything that I don’t want to do. I’ve always done what I wanted to do, and I think that’s what keeps me going. It’s not about the money.
How long did it take for you to construct this place?
2 years. We started working on the project in 2007. We spent 2 years thinking through because the building had really badly designed. Then 2 additional years of work, which started in September 2009.
It was in 2007 that you received your second Michelin star. Was it something that was important for you?
No, because that was not the goal. The goal is to do what you are doing well each time. For instance, today we served lunch for 400 people, and the goal was to do it well. This is something that is not so obvious. But the Michelin stars opened the doors to the international world. For someone like me who loves to travel, it’s great, more so for meeting people and discovering different countries than for work itself.
At Grolée, there was Tabata, Florian, Taka, and Axel (who is now a chef at Robuchon); it was a beautiful team. And we were fully booked everyday for 4 years. We used to serve 100 meals per day. It was gastronomy, and it was always full, so there was great excitement in the restaurant. We focused on our daily tasks. I didn’t see the customers in the restaurant because I was always in the kitchen. When I go back there now, it seems so small in comparison!
So you never thought of working towards the 3rd Star.
I never wanted it, like I never wanted the second or the first.
From a gastronomy restaurant to an enormous brasserie must be a huge change for you. Why did you decide to change so drastically?
With a gastronomy restaurant, we were putting in 20 hours a day in the kitchen and we weren’t earning much in the end, even though we were fully booked all the time. We used only the best ingredients, so in relation to the quality, the our prices were low. But when people saw the menu outside the restaurant, despite the fact that they were much lower compared to Paris, you could hear them saying, “Oh la la, it’s expensive!” So there was a problem. People didn’t understand the amount of work that went in, and simply judged the food based on the price. If we were making so much money, we wouldn’t have worked 20 hours a day. We did it because we are passionate about what we do.
I also wanted to experience my work in a different way. I didn’t want to cater only to the wealthy people. At the brasserie, we even have children, so I can reach the maximum range of people. We serve the same level of cooking using the same quality of ingredients as the 2 or 3 star restaurants. This is why I left my previous place.
There are still many things to do. I want to get back into the kitchen, so we’ll test it with about 15 seats. It will open in January. The floor is ready; there is a space with a magnificent kitchen, dining room, a few tables. You come to see me and it will be me who will make you eat. But I don’t want anyone next to me, no technician – just the ingredients, the customers, and me without any intermediary.
So this big change was mostly about the money?
It’s rather the looks that people bring to the work, the respect for the work. And then it’s me. Clearly I don’t like to remain doing the same things for too long. We could have continued doing what we had, but I don’t like living in a routine. I have the need to do something new each time.
You were supposed to be the chef at Palais Garnier, the Opera in Paris. What happened?
I didn’t take the position because the project was stalled for 2 years. One day I saw an article in Le Parisien: “Nicolas Le Bec to open the largest terrace in Paris in April.” It had been 2 years that the project was not moving forward, and they had not warned me. So I said I need to go check out what’s going on in Paris. It was November 2010. During the discussion, I was told, “Things have changed. We need you here not only on Mondays but five days a week, and we will work 24 hours a day.” Working 24 hours a day was not a problem. But the decoration did not appeal to me. It looked too much like a clinic for my taste. I’m used to decorating my own place. Here at rue Le Bec as well as at rue Grolée previously, I did everything myself, 100%. I need to design my own space. I don’t hire an architect. I need to be in my world. So the idea of working in a space that is imposed on me bothered me.
As for changes to the contract, that I now had to be in Paris five days a week, I said: “No, because I am an owner-chef and I have 130 employees.” I am not a chef that can be pushed around for an envelope. It does not interest me. I cannot come five days to Paris and leave Lyon and my 130 employees during that time, because if I do that, in six months, Lyon will be finished. That’s why I stopped.
The kitchen cannot multiply because the work depends too much on one person, with the technicians behind him. I think we’ll go back within our generations to the way things were. We cannot open a restaurant with just a single person.
Are you interested in opening another restaurant, for instance in Paris?
After Lyon, it will be abroad. Not in Paris. May be in Brazil, China, Singapore … I wouldn’t say that I would necessarily stay in the kitchen forever. After having built such a momentum, perhaps I should find something else to do! (laughs)
You have many ideas and new projects. Do you think you would like to reproduce what you have done here elsewhere?
It’s possible, yes. I also have a passion for wine. Gastronomy has opened the doors to wineries, and if I decide to rest and enjoy life for a while, that could be a possibility. With cooking, you don’t really have a good time. We don’t take in the pleasure in the same way. On the contrary, trading wines or beautiful houses in wineries would allow me to step back and have a new perspective on things. The kitchen takes up a lot of time.
But for the moment, we continue with what we have here. The next step is up there [Place Rouge].
Is there someone who inspires you in the world of cooking, not necessarily for their cooking but also in terms of business? For example, Alain Ducasse is omnipresent.
I do not believe that this model will last for long. It will develop fast and come to a stop. The entire world has been hit economically as well as socially, and they want more leisure.
For an investor, whether it’s Alain Ducasse’s or someone else’s, a restaurant must be profitable. In the 80’s and the 90’s, you could afford the name of a great chef. Because between the licensing fee for Alain Ducasse’s name, expatriated staff, expensive ingredients, magnificent interiors, you couldn’t afford to do just 15 seats a day!
There are many establishments. It’s kind of bulimic to keep opening restaurants continuously just in order to say we’re everywhere on the planet. I think this phenomenon will come to an end and we’ll go back to what we had before. I think that cooks should be in the kitchen. People from all over the world come to see him. He shouldn’t be on a plane going somewhere to the other side of the earth. In my judgment, this is what happens when you go to eat in a beautiful place.
On top of that, we have a real problem in training. Today we have the problem of working hours. Before we could learn our trade by spending as much time as it was necessary in the kitchen. That’s what they all did in the past generations. People became great because they had passion and they spent their lives in the kitchen. Today, the cooks are in a precarious position. They want to become grand chefs but it will be at the end of their career that they will master their skills. It will be too late. So we will have a problem at the level of competence.
I read in an article that you have an enormous team of 70 people here.
We started out with 70 in the beginning. Now we are 56 all together, and between 15 and 20 in the kitchen. The restaurant has 280 seats so we serve up to 1,200 people per day. It’s a lot of work.
Are you happy?
Yes, it’s ok!
In fact your day-to-day work has changed a little. You are no longer in the kitchen all the time.
I am there every day. I’m the one who opens the door in the morning and closes it at night. But it’s true that the administrative tasks, training, and conception take up a lot of my time. And this is why I want to get myself up there in my small kitchen (at the Place Rouge, a private lounge on top of the restaurant) without having to give explanations. I’m going to stay there for one year starting January where the clients can come to see me or I can see them with personal exchanges. It’s a bit the opposite of what’s bee happening. After having something grand, I’m now coming back to something more precise, but very small.
How do you normally come up with new ideas for your projects? Can you describe your thought process?
It happens through feelings. I listen, it happens through some situations, something I notice … my brain is always working.
So you are an intuitive person.
Yes, exactly. It’s intuition. Sometimes it’s wrong, sometimes it’s not. What ever happens, I can only blame myself.
What is the most important thing in your work? Is it the dishes you create, managing the people, managing the business … ?
Everything is important. In terms of work, all bodies of work, making the sweets, the dishes, the management, the technique, training people, … They are all important; they are all related to one another.
Do you think your success owes itself to the fact that you are capable of doing everything by yourself?
I like to work by myself rather than having a number of good associates around. I prefer to take my own initiatives in my own hands. And I detest having to wait. In work, anyway.
(Interview by Eri Ikezi, 16 December 2011, Lyon)
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