Pierre Gagnaire is the best chef in the world

Dubai's most decorated restaurant owner talks food, chefs and cooking

Now aged 64, so far in his life chef Pierre Gagnaire has achieved three Michelin stars (for his flagship restaurant in Paris), and opened restaurants around the world, in Tokyo, Las Vegas, London, Berlin and, of course, Dubai. Here in the emirate, his fine French venture Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire has been crowned winner or has come highly commended in the French and Newcomer category each year since opening, as well as winning Restaurant of the Year, not once, but three times, at the Time Out Dubai Restaurant Awards.

And yet, 2015 is really a landmark year for this much-lauded, and much-awarded French chef. This year will be Pierre’s 50th in restaurant kitchens (yes, he did start at the tender age of 14). Not only that, but he has just received impressive recognition in his native France. The French industry magazine Le Chef recently conducted a poll of the world’s best Michelin-awarded chefs. Some 350 two- and three Michelin-starred chefs were given five votes each to cast in a bid to determine The 100 Best Chefs in the World. Pierre Gagnaire was recognised as number one in that list of 100.

Meeting chef Pierre during his visit to Dubai earlier in April, along with chef Francois Xavier Simon, head chef at Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire at the InterContinental Dubai Festival City, Pierre begins with what we have come to expect from him: humility and an affectionate respect for his Dubai team. ‘I’m very glad to have won this award,’ he begins, ‘because it is voted for by my colleagues. I’m happy with that and I appreciate it for me, for my team, for my business partner; it’s important. I’m not the best chef in the world. Nobody is the best. I have been working in this industry for so many years, but I’m not the oldest. Paul Bocuse is older. There are French chefs who are older than me.’

Chef Pierre’s own allocation of five votes, he reveals, went to Joan Roca (third place, just behind Paul Bocuse in second place), Thomas Keller (who appeared in fourth place) Michel Bras, Alain Passard and Ferran Adrià. ‘I obtained my first Michelin star 22 years ago now,’ Pierre continues. ‘But I think this award from Le Chef is for my attitude. I think people know I work honestly, with sincerity, and I try to respect the people who work with me. There are so many problems around the world. A restaurant is an area where we try to create peace, tenderness, love. The star of the restaurant is not me. The star is the guest. It’s a team, because alone, it is impossible to work. True, it’s my name on the restaurant in Dubai, but the key to its success was Olivier [Biles, former head chef], and now it is Francois [Xavier Simon, current head chef at Reflets]. It’s also the waiters. Our colleagues in service are important to make you feel comfortable when you arrive. It’s me, and it is not me. Yes it is with my name, with my philosophy, but the key to that is the team.’

Chef Pierre is certainly not the only top-level chef to speak warmly of his team. However, he is one of only a handful we’ve encountered to use words like ‘family’ when referring to them, and he is one of a smaller number of chefs where we have witnessed this dynamic at play first hand. With restaurant manager Hugo Sanalitro due to leave Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire within a few weeks of our meeting with Pierre, the chef gives some interesting insight into how leaving works for his ‘family’. ‘My ambition is to create a real relationship with my team. I am happy because, for example, Olivier left Dubai, but he works with me in France. In a couple of weeks, Hugo will go to work at my restaurant in Tokyo. The pastry chef in Dubai will go back to France to work with me. My new chef in Berlin worked with me in London. It’s like a family.’

That dynamic begins to play out as we quiz chefs Pierre and Francois on the new menu. Uniquely, the menu at Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire changes four times a year, each time in line with the seasonal produce of France. ‘We have just changed the roasted pigeon dish, adding pastilla to it,’ says Francois. ‘We cut the pigeon very thin, and roll it in the sauce. This is the style of the chef. The sauce is based on tonka bean, chocolate…’ ‘And, and, and?’ cuts in chef Pierre, with a tone somewhere between examiner and doting father. ‘Tonka bean? Chocolate? Pigeon jus? Balsamic?’ Francois responds with a grin. ‘Pistachio! Don’t forget… Francois Xavier…’ counters Pierre, playing that parental trick of using your full name when it is time for a telling off.

Amid that forgotten pistachio and other ingredients such as couscous, cinnamon, smoked eggplant and a Moroccan-inspired pastilla, there are a number of Middle Eastern references in just this one dish. ‘True, there is a touch of the Middle East in this dish, and that has a real sense in this restaurant,’ Pierre explains. ‘When you can find a link with your region, it is a kind of homage to the country. I’m very happy with that, I think this dish can become a classic of the restaurant.’ However, this fusion inspires him to go into further detail on why foreign flavours such as these appear so regularly in his food. ‘When I began to work for myself, I felt that the world was like a garden. In France, you have regions like Alsace, the Northern Basque Country, Provence, that have a real relationship with history, and food. I was born in a small, small village. The region I’m from, Saint-Étienne, is a really poor city. We have no real food story in this region. There is no culture. I think immediately I began to learn something else as a result. Immediately to take inspiration from all the food in Italy, the spices from Asia, and so on.’

With this being Pierre’s 50th year in the kitchen, and at the age of 64, he is now reaching the traditional age for retirement in most professions. ‘I’m alive, ah?’ he laughs. ‘I work a lot, but for me my private life is very important. To keep the energy, keep the pleasure, to share the emotion. Voila, this is my goal.’ But is chef Pierre tempted to retire and hand over to this family of team members? ‘No. Why retire? What can I do after? And then I have to pay my own ticket to travel to Dubai?’ Pierre quips with raucous laughter. ‘No, no. And the coffee is free,’ he adds, with more laughter, pointing to the cup just served to him by restaurant manager Hugo. So, with retirement and self-funding for caffeine ruled out, can we expect Pierre to keep cooking into his 80s like Bocuse? ‘We shall see, we shall see,’ he says. ‘My way to work in the restaurant has changed. Before, I lived in the kitchen day and night. Now, that’s finished. I don’t have the energy to stay and concentrate in the kitchen for so many hours. And I don’t I have the time to stand in front of a pot of sauce and wait,’ he laughs.

‘Impossible. People forget that our work needs a lot of time for preparation. It takes time to build everything. There is also the stress, which is very bad. And the smell,’ he says. ‘When you are in the kitchen all day, by the end of it you smell bad. Our work is not that glamorous. It’s like a theatre show, if you go backstage, it’s a mess.’
Open daily 7.30pm-midnight. Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire, InterContinental Dubai Festival City (04 701 1111).

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