Every week, Clay Oven Irvine executive chef/owner Geeta Bansal shares an interview that she's done with some of the heavyweights of European cooking. Today, she regales us with a conversation with French superstar Philippe Labbe. Enjoy!
Chef Philippe Labbe: The Cuisinier de L'Année, 2013
By Geeta Bansal, Executive Chef-Owner at Clay Oven Irvine
I am amazed when I come across people who have traveled to France and especially Paris who say they never had any memorable meals on their trip or end up visiting touristy restaurants. Even a café and a flaky croissant or a macaron from Ladurée can make a lasting memory. On the other end of the spectrum are restaurants where major talents are whipping up the most elegant, scrumptious meals for a once in a lifetime splurge. One chef whose cuisine can make that experience happen in Paris is chef Labbe who stands out in a city that houses a galaxy of culinary superstars.
Philippe Labbe: handsome, suave, articulate, and utterly charming. Like his cuisine, he makes a lasting impression on your palate and your mind. Chef Labbe has honed his craft at the finest kitchens in France to be where he is now and riding a wave of immense appreciation by Parisian diners and international visitors to the city of lights, Paris.
He earned the much-prized title awarded by Gault & Millau as the 'Cuisinier de la Annee' for the exceptional cuisine he creates and overseas at the three restaurants at the luxe Shangri-La hotel in Paris, France which include the famed L'Abeille restaurant with its five toques. The Gault-Millau is named after two journalists who conceived this guide and is especially respected and prized in the French gastronomic tradition. Chef Labbe's cuisine is precise yet emotive; he has been called a 'genius, with a constantly boiling imagination, a sculptor or chiseler of magical plates, a poet' etc. His food is certainly magical and meticulous and the title of Cuisinier of 2013 is well earned and deserved. This is a huge achievement that has landed him in the exclusive club of five toques.
Since 2010 the kitchens of the three restaurants at Shangri-La, as well as the room service and banquets are under his supervision. Chef Labbe has honed the cuisine of L'Abeille restaurant (the gastronomic restaurant at the hotel) that is located next to a private garden, with his signature style with precise, beautiful plates of the best seasonal produce. He constantly changes the menu at L'Abeille to follow the seasons and showcase produce with daring choices like duck foie gras coated with chocolate (yes, and it's damn good!) and beet root and mustard ice cream.
I became a fan of his food after enjoying a delicious menu once, planned around cherries which were in season at that time, accompanying foie-gras to various proteins, presenting the cherries in novel forms and combinations. In a lifetime of travel and dining escapades, the taste of that luxurious meal still lingers in my mouth.
Once, on a trip to Paris, I learned from my friend the concierge (participants in planning my gastronomic adventures and hence friends who want to know details of every meal I enjoy in the dining rooms of special chefs) that Chef Labbe had demenaged to Alpes-Maritime village of Eze to manage the kitchens at Chèvre d'Or. Eze and Saint Paul de Vence both medieval villages are two of my favorite locales in the Apline-Maritme region of Southern France. Eze is located between Nice and Monte Carlo and has spectacular views of the Mediterranean, Cap Ferat, Nice, and to the south, the principality of Monaco. Since I was going there in two weeks I set in motion plans for a rendezvous with Chef Labbe and his unforgettable food. By my next visit to France he was back again in Paris and of course a visit to Paris is incomplete without his exemplary cuisine.
Philippe grew up in a food-centric family since his father was in the charcuterie sales business and the family had an affinity for fine dining restaurants. One spectacular meal at Hosten restaurant in Angers inspired him to go to culinary school in Strasbourg. Then he went on to train in the kitchens of Roger Verge, Bernard Loiseau in the South of France. The champagne country beckoned next and he worked his magic in the kitchens under Gerard Boyer, at Les Crayeres, Rheims (it held a spot on my husband's bucket list till a few years ago when he made it there but not when Labbe was there).
Then he moved his sights to the South of France and worked at Moulin de Mougins, (Julia Child visited there often when she lived in that part of France) and then in Cannes at Martinez and La Belle Otero. At Plaza Athenee where he arrived in 1996 to assist Eric Briffard, he made a lot of Parisian fans until he moved to head the kitchen at Chèvre d'Or. He spent seven years there, earning the restaurant critical acclaim and two Michelin stars. It was 2010 when Paris and the Shangri-La beckoned, and he moved back to the city.
You are in an area of the world with the most formidable culinary talent including you. What differentiates you from the other chefs?
I like to take risks, and delight guests with surprising blends. Some might say that my cuisine is daring!
You have been named Cuisinier de L'Annee du guide Gault et Millau in 2012. What is the next goal you would like to accomplish?
The coveted 3rd Michelin star. My team and I are all working towards this goal.
Most of the young chefs these days are opting for a casual dining room. What do you think of this trend?
I say, to each his own. The culinary landscape would not be interesting if we were all doing the same thing, so I think it is refreshing that young chefs are trying out new things.
Do you like to be part of gastronomic conferences and meetings?
Yes, definitely! It is important to know the happenings of the gastronomic world
Who are your peers in the culinary world that you keep in touch with?
I keep in touch with chefs that I have worked with in the past.
You went from Paris to Provence and then now you are back in Paris again. Where do you enjoy working more?
I like to go where things are moving, evolving, buzzing.
What is the biggest difference in food and diners between Paris and other parts of France?
Aside from the city itself, there aren't any differences. Paris remains a vibrant city, very creative where inspiration can be found at every street corner.
What inspires you to create new recipes or menus? Nature, art, music or anything else?
Inspiration strikes when I am in the kitchen, trying out new things. I am also inspired by what I see when I travel abroad. I like to discover new continents and cultures and, of course different cooking techniques which I will then use in my own kitchen. Travelling is a good way to broaden my mind. I have a fondness for Asia and its cuisine: exotic flavors and colorful dishes.
Who has been the most important culinary influence in your career?
My past and all that I have learnt through my past experiences with great chefs such as Bernard Loiseau and Eric Briffard have been a major influence in my present work. My cuisine is traditional with a touch of modernity.
Are there any young chefs that you think are going to change the direction of food in the near future?
I will not name anyone, but there are a few whom I am keeping my eye on because I am sure they will amaze us!
What is your opinion about the focus on local, organic, sustainable and even foraged products at present?
I cannot imagine cooking any of my dishes without local produce! I always ask for the highest quality from all of my suppliers. It is obviously more expensive, but worth every penny, taste-wise and environmentally-speaking.
What is the biggest food trend that you think is coming in the near future?
After years of innovative and modern dishes (namely molecular cuisine), foodies are more and more looking backwards to gourmet traditional dishes that are not too expensive and more than not sends them back to their childhood.
What advice would you give young chefs entering the gastronomic world?
I think it's important to remind these young chefs that, even though it is a dream come true for them, this profession requires constant hard-work. With resolute dedication and passion, they can aspire to be great chefs.
What has been the most interesting place you have traveled to?
Japan. The mix of modernity and tradition was mind-blowing. And let's not forget the scrumptious food!
What are your hobbies?
Whenever I have free time, I enjoy the company of my friends around a good glass of wine and a home-cooked meal. And to burn off those extra calories, nothing better than sports!
What kind of music do you enjoy?
Jazz, but I am open to all sorts of genres, so long as they move me. Just like cooking.
What are some of your favorite places to eat in Paris?
Enza & Famiglia, a delicious Italian restaurant in the heart of Paris.
What is your favorite meal? Do you cook at home for your family and friends?
I do not really have a favorite dish. It really depends on my mood. That being said, I cannot resist my mother's home-cooked mashed potatoes! When I cook for friends and family, I tend to use produce that are in season, because they are obviously fresher.
What other cuisines besides French do you enjoy and that you would like to acquire experience in?
I am very fond of Chinese cuisine. Working with Frank Xu, Executive Chinese Chef for Shang Palace has been an eye-open experience and has enabled me to discover cooking techniques and flavors that I was not familiar with. Hopefully one day I will be able to master a wok as aptly as him!
What is your opinion regarding fusion of cuisines?
I am not particularly keen on fusion cuisines. I prefer to highlight the flavors of one cuisine, which is what we do in one of our restaurants at Shangri-La Hotel, Paris: La Bauhinia. The menu consists of traditional French and traditional South-East Asian dishes. The aim is to promote each cuisine.
What are your favorite cities in the world that you like to visit often?
I prefer discovering new regions rather than constantly going back to places I have already visited. That being said, I am sure that there are countries will I will definitely be going back to, such as Japan.
Which American chefs do you think are the most creative and inventive?
Unfortunately, I am not very familiar with the American cooking scene. What I can say, is that the culinary scene has greatly developed these past few years, and there are a lot of interesting concepts that have come to light. (I think it's about time for a culinary tour of the US to familiarize you with the incredible talent that we have in our country.)
Now there is a new option for food lovers in Paris in search of a great dining experience. I will keep my fingers crossed for him and his team in search of their third Michelin star. Bonne chance Chef Philippe Labbe and congratulations. I will see you in Paris again…