Top French chef Yannick Alleno plots post-Covid revolution

French chef Yannick Alleno. — AFP pic
French chef Yannick Alleno. — AFP pic

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PARIS, April 14 — He has scaled the heights of French gastronomy, now Yannick Alleno says it is time to reinvent fine dining for a post-Covid age, both on the table and in the kitchen. 

When the pandemic hit, Alleno realised he had not stopped moving since he first entered a professional kitchen at the age of 15.

“I was on life’s highway and running like a madman,” the 52-year-old told AFP. 

The philosophy had always been: “You arrive at 8am, you finish at 1am, and you don’t have any choice in the matter.”

That approach was highly successful. His modern twists on French classics and scientific dissection of sauces has earned him a glut of accolades. 

He runs several distinguished restaurants, including two — Alleno Paris at Pavillon Ledoyen and Le 1947 in the Alps — with three Michelin stars.

But suddenly, with all of them shut by the first coronavirus lockdown last spring, he found himself effectively “unemployed” for the first time, with space to reflect.

The result is a new book, Tout doit changer! (Everything must change), that serves as a manifesto for post-Covid haute cuisine. 

“It’s important to me that I don’t reopen the restaurant like before,” he told AFP. “I have the need today to change our house and make it an extreme example.”

Inclusivity

In part, that means changing the way his kitchens are run. 

“I’m tired of hearing that restaurant work is difficult and excluding.”

He is introducing more flexible hours and “participatory planning” for the 150 staff at Pavillon Ledoyen, and wants to move towards an equal gender split, starting immediately with his sommeliers.

Alleno is still trying to live down criticism from a talk he gave in Paris two years ago in which he said female roles in restaurants were limited because “it’s a woman’s DNA to bear children.” 

It was clear from the rest of his speech that he meant kitchens should be more flexible in allowing young mothers to juggle their work and private lives, but he knows the choice of words was a gaffe. 

“I did something stupid, it was really inappropriate and unacceptable. I’ve apologised as much as I can... and I’ve decided to move on,” he said. 

He has taken other steps towards greater inclusivity, hiring three disabled staff at Pavillon Ledoyen during the brief reprieve from France’s lockdowns in the autumn. 

Whether or not he will rein in his famously harsh manner in the kitchen, which led to accusations of bullying a few years ago, remains to be seen. 

‘Monumental waste’

He is also planning big changes on how customers will experience trips to his restaurants. 

His big idea is to speak with diners a few days earlier to discuss their tastes, allergies and budget. 

This is a way to prevent the “monumental waste” that is generated in normal kitchens: “In the past, we had to have 15 birds in the fridge in case someone wanted one.”

It could also allow for nice but gimmicky touches: “If you had white lilies for your wedding day, we’ll try to put a bouquet of white lilies on your table for an anniversary dinner and their initials on the napkins.”

And from a cooking point of view, it gives Alleno’s teams even greater scope to prepare their famous sauces, while also tailoring the experience to an ever-more demanding clientèle.

“We can no longer impose a menu on guests,” he said. — AFP

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