Guy Martin, executive chef, Le Grand Vefour
Join us in our inaugural podcast program with an interview, in French (see written English translation below), with Guy Martin, famous executive chef of Le Grand Vefour.
He recently discussed his restaurant, one of the most popular gourmet French restaurants in the world, and other culinary projects with Elena del Valle, MBA host of the new Simon & Baker Travel Review Podcast program. In addition to running one of the most celebrated restaurants in Paris, he’s in charge of the Air France First Class dining service and a second more informal restaurant in the City of Lights.
EDV: You became the president
GM: I was already… I was at the Chateau de Divonne; I managed the Relais Chateau de Divonne for eight years I managed the Relais Chateau de Divonne when Jean Taittinger ask me to come in November 1991 he named me manager of Le Grand Vefour and administrator of Le Grand Vefour and the following year he named me president of Le Grand Vefour.
EDV: You decided to take all that. It’s a lot of work.
GM: It’s a lot of work you know but before I managed a castle with 70 employees and 30 rooms with a park of 20 hectares so it was big and I found that it was better to oversee everything because then I can select the staff and supervise the teams. It’s a greater freedom. It’s what I wanted.
EDV: What do you think after all these years about the castle, the restaurant, life…
GM: It’s two different lives… for me because I’m from the country. Life if the country has a slower pace. We are… things move much more slowly so you are much closer and in greater contact with nature. I was active in sports. I’m from the Savoy so I facing my mountains the Mont Blanc. At the same time there is less activity and it’s less regular than in Paris. And in Paris you have regularity. The important thing is that what you offer that the cuisine be in harmony with the client’s expectations. If you are in harmony with the client’s expectations, if the setting if everything goes well you are full every day and being full every day allows you to have a certain number of personnel, to have the best ingredients, the best products, to select the best growers and producers to have a true regularity in your work which is very important which is very very important.
EDV: Is it hard?
GM: Is it hard? To be in harmony with your clients is to listen to them, is to know to listen to them, it’s to understand their expectations, what does the client expect today, what do we have to provide to… it’s just to know … if you will for the client what’s really important I think is to be attentive to their expectations. What does he want, what does he desire. First of all it’s to listen and try to offer them perhaps to travel roads they don’t know. That they haven’t thought of going to. In a world in life in a context that isn’t always reassuring you must first reassure the client. So reassure the client, serve the best products with great ability my beef, my carrots, my leeks, the caviar where does it come from? Are we able to reach to the producer, to the sturgeon? And, I promise you we are able to reach to the sturgeon of the caviar we have, to know which cow, etc. Where did she grow up, in what way, what was the nutritional charge? So it’s to reassure the client and it’s also to take the client on a trip. To take the client on a trip through the presentation, the spices, in relation to what you bring in a personal way so that a recipe develops into a moment of seduction in the end.
EDV: It’s a métier, an art. It’s not just a job…
GM: You know I think I cook like the mothers who don’t work or who have the time to prepare a dish on the weekend every once in a while a dish for their children or their husband or for someone they care about. It’s a true cuisine of the heart. And I’m lucky to be in a métier that is like that for me every day.
EDV: And people, do they appreciate it?
GM: I think people appreciate it because we are full, we are lucky to have three Michelin stars, to place well with the guides, to have good press. People appreciate it but nothing is guaranteed. We have to ask ourselves daily and never think that we are the best, never think we are unique and I realize that.
EDV: What do you do to maintain your place? Do you constantly change the menu? How do you decide what to keep and what to change?
GM: The most difficult thing is to figure what dishes to keep or not to keep from the menu because we have to always think of the client and at the same time we have to enjoy cooking. And we live the menus to the rhythm of the seasons so there are four menus per year plus the market suggestions. So now for example we have the first truffles that arrived in the market, fabulous sea urchins… In the market for game meats there is hare and soon there won’t be any more French hare available this means we have to work with what the producers and suppliers have or if my fish seller tells me he has an extraordinary fish we will add it to our suggestions.
EDV: Do you have a meeting once a week, once a month? How do you decide on the menu?
GM: I test recipes and I have senior staff, whether its Luc Bechet and Pascal Pugeault, sample them. We taste them together; we critique them together but there isn’t really a formal meeting. The meeting is really every day for each meal because every day at lunch and dinner I’m in the kitchen.
EDV: You’re the executive chef. Often we think you don’t cook often; that you visit but that you’re not there every day.
GM: I’m here and of course I have colleagues who are very capable but I’m still very much here.
EDV: Always with your hands in the kitchen.
GM: Yes, because it’s my métier. It’s what I love. It’s here where I fell good.
EDV: At the same time, you find the time to do other things. Are you still with Air France?
GM: With Air France I do first class worldwide. It’s team that has been leased by Air France for our gray matter I would say. We develop the recipes in Paris and then I have a team that travels and oversees on site and travels around the world. So there’s Air France; there’s Monoprix where we develop a line… it’s the same there’s another team. I … the days are long and … I think when you have a good team, when you know how to delegate, when you surround yourself with the best. Everything I do has a human touch.
EDV: So there’s a space for everything.
GM: Yes, everything in its place and for leisure as well.
EDV: Is there time for that as well?
EDV: How would you describe the culinary style of Le Grand Vefour and yours personally?
GM: It’s always difficult to talk about your own cooking but I would say it’s modern, contemporary with the best ingredients we can find in the markets with the producers that make our products; we have the same way of thinking about details and ethics. I’d say it’s a cheerful cuisine, a healthy cuisine. I hope it makes clients travel, reassures them and gives them pleasure and makes them want to smile.
EDV: You have people who live in France, you obviously have tourists because you are known around the world is it difficult to introduce them to this well known cuisine and at the same time find a balance?
GM: I understand. I think that today people travel more and more and that Americans, Japanese, the Chinese to talk about the countries the furthest away without discussing Europe eat better every where and that people travel. People travel and it’s like on TV, zap, at noon they’re here at night they’re there. They really have a point of reference and these references make the level of cuisine go up because when you have points of references you have demands and these demands make it necessary for every one to be motivated, not fall asleep. You know that at the beginning you have good products. It was Brillat Savarin who said that with very good products you can only have good cuisine. Other than to skip a dish, we start with excellent products and of course there are choices that may be more difficult for certain clients; but to listen to clients to know what he likes that’s the role of the maitre d’hotel; understand if the client wants a slightly more classic dish or something much more modern or does he want … does he want to be surprised, does he want to be reassured, does he want both? That’s the job of the maitre d’hotel to understand the wishes of the client.
EDV: Is it easy with the tourists, for example? When you have people who come from different countries who want something different that the people who live here who can come whenever they want?
GM: Not really with foreigners because outside of Paris. We have clients from the countryside who come to Paris every once in a while. To come to the Grand Vefour could be an event for them, the event perhaps of that year. No, there’s really no conflict there’s really no problem it’s just not to confuse and that’s truly the role of the maitre d’hotel when the client asks a question to answer the good questions the client asks. And if by chance the client didn’t like something, it’s the role of the maitre d’hotel to see if the dish was incomplete, if the client was dissatisfied and in that case definitely change the dish, definitely offer him the opportunity to taste something else; so the role of the maitre d’hotel is very important.
EDV: The team. Tell me is it important? What’s the role of your team?
GM: Without the team there is no cuisine. Without the team there is no cuisine because the cooks team, to talk about that, because the chef can’t prepare meals for 50 people where everything is ordered a la carte, where sauces are made to order, where vegetables are made to order; that means to maintain a structure with it we have 22 cooks who assist me, who follow my lead; and the overall team takes care of everything from the beginning including the valet driver who parks your car, the person at reception who takes your coat; it’s the maitre d’hotel who will accompany to your table, who will take your order; it’s the wine steward who’s going to come to suggest a wine. It’s a grouping that you would have a hard time viewing separately because if you have sumptuous cuisine but then you have a décor that’s not pleasant, that’s not professionals but especially that’s not pleasant, because in the end you have a team that’s a bit less professional but be served by smiling, cordial people it’s okay but … imagine if once you’re seated you feel that you are bothering the staff you will feel apprehensive about tasting the dishes and obviously that will not be good.
EDV: That colors the meal.
GM: Yes, that’s why it’s important and we often have meetings with the first maitre d’hotel to make sure it’s truly animated and there’s a warm ambiance. I’m not a server so I speak with much hesitation but the critics say we offer some of the best service in Paris. I’m not a server so … the clients say, French clients and foreign clients, the clients say that we offer some of the best service in Paris, service that is very client oriented, very friendly, very professional. It’s all important.
EDV: What can we expect? Do you have recipes that are coming? What do you think about when we talk about the future of Le Grand Vefour?
GM: The future of Le Grand Vefour? 1860 establishment of Le Grand Vefour, 2000 more a century later it’s still here, and in a century it will still be here me, I will no longer be here that means it will continue through the years without any problems, that it will remain a joyous, a screen, something unique in the world with its original décor, etc; it’s a historic monument and we, on a small personal perspective, the next menu will be the nicest one; I will publish a book and will continue writing and try to continue to host children as I do to host children here on a regular basis to introduce them to the palate.
EDV: Oh, you have meals for children?
GM: I host schools on a charitable basis. We spend a morning with them; I have them taste a dish. It’s to continue with this métier with love. One day it will be more sacred. I tried not to fight it too much. You must stop at the right time.
EDV: We’ve noticed over the last years that, for example, you speak a little more English, it’s a bit more open to tourists, in a good way I mean so we noticed some things that have changed do you anticipate additional changes?
GM: Our foreign clients, we have a lovely following in Europe with increasing Spanish and Portugues clients. Our English clientele has increased significantly, especially following the Routard. We have regular clients who come, for example, Friday for lunch who make the roundtrip just for to eat. A superb clientele. A superb English clientele. The Routard, I say, thanks to the Routard we have several tables per meal per week that come. It’s really been very noticeable. The Belgian clientele is always visible. We have an increasing number of German clients; we have had lovely write ups in Germany in pretty magazines and very good reviews in Germany so we have a large German clientele. That’s to say the Belgian clients who are represented, the European clients. We have many Italians during the holidays when they are on vacation. And the Swiss on a regular basis. In terms of clients outside the EU, American clients are always visible in spite of the slightly weak dollar for us they are always present. There are many Americans who own apartments in Paris. We have a large clientele from California and New York who travel always. We have a large Brazilian clientele.
GM: We have a lovely Brazilian clientele. China, there are more and more Chinese… more and more Chinese. We have a loyal Japanese clientele because for many years I’ve traveled to Japan; it’s a country I love that their cuisine. That cuisine that I offer corresponds well with their tastes. We have a loyal Japanese clientele. Some Russians. In general, this is the core of our clientele.
EDV: You just opened with your former top staff member a new restaurant. What would you like to tell us?
GM: I’d like to tell you it’s a restaurant called Sensing for the senses. That’s to say that all the senses are open and for me it’s a way to blend the work with a décor I love done Jerome Fallon Dumas. I feel well in the setting with pure lines, very pure, very light and at the same time everything that’s in the restaurant was designed. There is that was nothing purchased from a catalog. All the stools, the chairs, the tables, everything was made with the best materials… there was an almost artistic research on the movement, the bar. It’s the largest bar in albar in the world. It’s seven meters etcetera… with gold cover; the ironwork for the staircase was made my small artisans; it’s really the work that’s Art Deco that’s … like an apartment, like a luxury apartment where someone lives; and the cuisine we developed it together with Remi Van Peteghen and he’s the one who with his excellent team with the manager whose name is Franc Carabogosian who is also a former of Le Grand Vefour also and who manages the restaurant with absolute freedom.
EDV: And you?
GM: Me, I sometimes go for dinner. . . I trust them because when I have a relationship I can’t work when someone oversees me too closely so I trust them. I trust them. They can buy the best products; some of our suppliers are the same and that works well. For the first year that it’s working well, that they are developing well and maybe they will open in the spring in Boston.
EDV: Oh really?
EDV: In terms of the meal, who will like it?
GM: We have a great Parisian clientele and Jerome has a similar clientele as Le Grand Vefour, an international clientele. We have a great Parisian clientele and a large international clientele also because there are three separate dining rooms with their own décor with gallery quality Baccarat on exhibit. There are three separate dining rooms with their own décor. Sometimes clients prefer the third, the second or the first setting so there’s plenty to keep clients satisfied in terms of decoration and the cuisine is diverse, it’s light, it’s technical without being annoying. It’s a cuisine I adore.
EDV: It’s not the same style you have at Le Grand Vefour?
GM: Totally different
EDV: That would be more like, help us…
GM: The style of Sensing I would say, well for starters there are no ties; shirts are open. All the staff has been part of luxury gastronomy so they know what it is to offer luxury but at the same time it’s much more relaxed.
EDV: And the food?
GM: In terms of the ingredients, we’ll say they are the same suppliers. Perhaps instead of using turbot we’ll use a fish I don’t know that is less expensive; we’ll use sardines; we’ll use sole; instead of using a prime cut of beef we can use a less expensive cut. See they are the same suppliers. The bread is the same bread as here, the butter. The suppliers, most of the suppliers, are the same as here.
EDV: So it’s perhaps a part of the same clientele you have here but one day they feel like dining in a more relaxed setting.
GM: More relaxed and it’s another ambiance. There’s less staff, it’s not this décor…
EDV: Do you know, how many team members do you have here?
GM: Here we have 40 people for 50 clients.
EDV: So it’s true luxury in terms of the meal, the service…
GM: One person per client. The number of staff per client.
EDV: Is there something I haven’t asked you that you would like to share with your admirers?
GM: To believe in your dreams and that everything is possible in life. You just have to love and have the desire to do it.
EDV: Thank you.
GM: It’s me who thanks you.