French chef Iñaki Aizpitarte proves that you don’t need a trust fund to afford haute cuisine
Start talking French cuisine, and most people think of the grande cuisine codified by Auguste Escoffier. While this style of cooking still reigns in many Michelin-starred restaurants, a group of young French chefs, sometimes called Generation.C, are shaking up tradition. ¶ French Basque chef Iñaki Aizpitarte is one of these upstarts. At his Paris restaurant Le Chateaubriand, he aims to make creative, modern, and affordable haute cuisine—a concept referred to by many as bistronomy. He presented some of his menu items, such as an elegant foie gras and radish and a langoustine carbonara, at the 2008 Madrid Fusión conference, and we sat down with him afterward to chat.
How did you get started as a chef?
Well, I’m autodidactic. I began cooking eight years ago. It was really by chance—a result of a trip. Um, what was I saying? Sorry.
No, no problem. What is it that attracted to you cooking?
I was always attracted to cooking. I already loved it, and then as soon as I started cooking I really felt I needed to stop everything else in order to cook more and more. I wanted to go to school, [but] I was too old and didn’t have enough money. So, I just knocked on chefs’ doors, and I got my foot in the door at more traditional, classic places. I ended up at a little café where I found a cuisine with a living soul. I started to develop my own story, my own rapport with cooking. And then I got the opportunity to be head chef at a little place called La Famille, and I eventually left there to open Chateaubriand.
So do you think it’s necessary to have a basis in classic cuisine to do creative, modern food like you do?
In any case, I think you should have it. For example, now, with the really contemporary cuisine, like this modern Spanish movement, if one doesn’t have the classic background, then what? It’s better to know simplicity, to know the product, then you can understand how to respect it.
So, that’s your mantra: know the technique and know the product?
Mine? Yeah, yeah. For sure.
And is your restaurant organic?
Well, I pay attention to my products. I’ve got a lot of different suppliers, and I choose as I need.
And do you try to be a locavore?
Sure, I try, but I can’t find everything in Paris. It’s a metropolitan area after all.
So then how would you define your take on food at this moment?
My point of view? Well, I try to keep myself to a style of cuisine that’s got clarity and is simple. I try to have fun with it and to amuse my diners. And I challenge myself to simplify and simplify.
How did you try to represent that with your demonstration here at Madrid Fusión?
I did a demonstration on haute cuisine at affordable prices. It’s a bit of a game to do this, quite challenging really. It comes down to the fact that I don’t want to only have rich patrons. I want a place where my friends can come from time to time; a place they can afford. So it’s really important to me to have both affordability and creativity. It’s important to think whom you’re doing it for—even here at a big event like Madrid.
Has that balance of creativity and affordability always been important to you?
Yeah, of course, for my own economic benefit too. Because at a restaurant with affordable prices and small margins, you really have to pay attention to what you’re doing. It’s really a gamble to do this affordable, high-cuisine style in a place like my restaurant that isn’t even all that big. But you learn to adapt to it. Our solution was to have one nightly menu. I think it’s more interesting, because then we do half portions like tapas. And it’s more interesting for me too, with the little tastes of this and that.
And then, with my space limitations, and with just a few people in the kitchen, well, I was pretty much obligated to do a sole nightly menu. I really thought it out, this is the solution I arrived at, and the whole of the operation revolves around that. And I’m proud that this bistronomic concept is really working out. I mean I’ve now increased my prices by one euro, and with that I’ve doubled the number of plates we offer on the menu, I’ve added a chef, added a server; I guess I’m probably sick in the head.
And as a result you’ve found yourself a part of this movement coined bistronomics.
Yeah, you could say that, because my menu is really bistro-ish. I’m in a Parisian bistro and I do bistro fare, but it’s creative and very personal. The thing is I’d say everyone in this type of bistronomic restaurant really expresses his own style, with his own mentality.
In the beginning, bistronomics started from chefs who were over the traditional, palatial style of cooking. They were through with that, with the whole entourage and all of it, so they took off to open places that were simpler.
So, what would you say to the mentality that persists in the States that French cuisine is defined by the classic style of cooking?
Oh, the idea that French cuisine’s got this old-school reputation? It’s hard, because France will always have that; it’s our gastronomic roots. But we’re really a cosmopolitan country, and we’re really open to change. There’s that stuff, sure, but now we’ve really got it all. But in Paris, it’s really all about Chateaubriand.
Translated from French by CHOW Food Editor Aïda Mollenkamp
Photo-illustration by Sean McCabe