There is an explosion of young culinary talent in the French kitchens embodying the propagation of modern French cuisine though many of them have come from other parts of the world like James Henry, Heideki Nishi, Kazu Nakatani, Hayden Clout, Simone Tondo and many more. They have fueled the bistronomy movement spreading casual dining in France, gleefully adopted by the Gallic food fanatics as they braved the economic recession. At the same time there are chefs like Mauro Colagreco, Bertrand Grebault, Yannuck Alleno, Julian Boscos, David Toutain, Pascal Barbot and more who are gathering stars and accolades as they move onto the best of lists also bringing a renewed vigor and interest to the French dining scene. The well-known culinary dynasties in France are attempting to maintain their hegemony by sending out second, third, and fourth generation cooks such as Cesar Troisgros, from the house of Troisgros, into the mix. Unlike other young cooks gaining a foothold in the industry, this young talent carries on their shoulders the burden of responsibility and expectations of a famous lineage.
Cesar, the progeny of Michel and Marie-Pierre Troisgros and grandson of Pierre Troisgros, joined his father in the kitchens of the families three Michelin starred Maison Troisgros eight years ago. Instant celebrity maybe what many of his peers are aiming for but Cesar is working to mark his own place amongst his already famous family. This young chef grew up in a living schoolroom of sorts watching his father and grandfather cook while absorbing the family cooking traditions as if by osmosis. Like any other teenager he went through a rebellious stage and announced to his parents his plans to join the music world instead of becoming the next generation of Troisgros cooks. The similarities to other teens ended there since he had his godfather, the President of the Relais & Chateau at the time no less, to guide and channel his energies into his passion for cooking.
Maison Troisgros is an hour’s drive from Lyon, situated in a region with strong culinary traditions and other famous names like Bocuse and Pic. The Troigros name is a benchmark of sorts in the world of haute cuisine with names like Pierre and Jean Troisgros, a hard act to follow even for Michel, the father of the two young fourth generation cooks Cesar and Leo. The familial traditions are continuing in other areas as well, and while Michel Troisgros spent time in the Chez Panisse kitchens at Berkeley, California with Alice Waters, young Cesar spent time with yet another famous American chef (Thomas Keller) at the French Laundry in Napa. Well-traveled and trained in reputed kitchens such as that of El Celler de Can Roca (presently #1 on the World’s 50 Best List) while having learned the basics at Institut Paul Bocuse, Cesar is now his father’s wingman in the Maison Troisgros kitchen, efficiently handling his sous chef duties.
The 28 year old personable and candid chef shared his insights about his work, training, family and other chefs who have had a major impact on him.
Our conversation: Questions for Cesar Troisgros:
Were you expected to join the family business, or did you choose to be in this line of work?
I did choose it myself, though I did decide at eighteen which is late in France since here you can begin to cook or start an apprentissage at fifteen or sixteen.
Did you always want to be in the kitchen?
Not really, since as a teenager I did not know which career I wanted to pursue. At first I wanted to be in the music industry and become a sound engineer. At that time I was in high school and though I was always around the kitchen, especially during summer I didn’t want to be a cook. All through my childhood I had been hearing the same thing about “oh you are the next generation” and so on. I got tired of hearing that and at that young age I wanted to do anything other than that. I was fifteen and not really aware of the world.
So did you pursue training for the music industry?
No, since after finishing high school I took time to think and in a conversation with my godfather (Régis Bulot, the then president of Relais & Chateau association of the finest small hotels and restaurants) he asked what I wanted to do. I said maybe a sound engineer but I was not certain, since after training I didn’t know if I would find work and I didn’t know anyone in the industry. He said but you like cooking and why don’t you pursue that and I realized in that conversation that yes I did like cooking so I announced to my very surprised parents that I want to go to cooking school. They were happy with any choice I made but this did please them.
So are you passionate about cooking?
I am more passionate every day. I meet new people, do new things every day, and when I spent time with the Roca brothers in Girona I learned more about passion from Jordi, Joan, and Joseph at El Celler de Can Roca. I learned not only about the work in the kitchen but also about the patience, simplicity, humility, and how important those elements are.
So both Leo and you went to culinary school. Did you go to Grenoble like your parents?
Actually we went to the Paul Bocuse Institute in Lyon. Leo always knew what he wanted to do and took a more direct path, and incidentally he has just finished school. For me it was a great learning experience to be at this school as there were people from so many countries and 40% were from South America, Korea, Mexico etc.
Where did you go after the formal training?
Post graduating in 2007, I worked in Paris, then with the Roca’s and then back home to work with my parents. At that time we opened our auberge La Colline du Colombier and I spent that summer in the kitchen there. After that I went to the French Laundry for a year and half. (Laughing) That is why I know Orange County in Southern California!
Were you planning to travel to Japan around that time?
Yes, that was to be the next project and I organized my trip in order to spend one year there and everything was ready including my visa and plane tickets. The plan was to spend time in kitchens specializing in different Japanese cuisines like sushi, tempura, Kaiseki, etc.
I was to leave on Monday but on Friday the Fukushima disaster occurred. So during the weekend I had to change my plans and since at that time I had a position in the kitchen as chef de parti I had someone taking over for me. I kept reporting for my position in Japan but soon a year passed and my visa expired. So I never went to Japan and other opportunities come up here for me. I graduated from chef de parti to sous chef here at Maison Troisgros. It was good in a way as I had an opportunity to work alongside my father.
Do you enjoy working with your father, and is there any clash of wills at times?
Absolutely, I enjoy working with him. Sometimes we disagree but it is never major. Mostly it comes from me and my youth and I get impatient more and quicker than him. He knows a lot that I am still learning. It’s the usual father and son stuff gone in a few minutes. He says he has memories of the similar incidents with his own father.
Where else have you traveled for training?
I went to Brazil for three months after California to work with my uncle Claude Troisgros, and I have visited Tokyo many times on short trips and am going there again. I have been to Bangkok, London, Norway, Spain, Montreal, and I want to go to Mexico soon, probably after my next trip to Brazil in August with my brother, sister and our girlfriends and her boyfriend. I will be cooking with my cousin Tomas at Claude’s (his uncle Claude Troisgros’ restaurant) for two nights.
I want to go to Mexico ever since I met Enrique Olvera from Pujol. I love traditional Mexican cooking and also hear about a lot of exciting stuff happening in Mexican cuisine. I would love to spend more time in California as I fell in love with the culture and food when I was there. Whenever I am in New York I try to visit Mexican restaurants there since I find that Mexican cuisine has so much taste.
When you travel to all these places do you incorporate elements from those places in your work?
Yes, especially from the French Laundry more than from other places like Brazil. I always come back with ideas and ingredients from wherever I travel since it is my passion. From French Laundry I brought a lot my techniques and cooking capacities and I learned especially the organization, which was very different from Europe.
Are there chefs around the world that you look up to?
Rene Redzepi, Mauro Colagreco who I admire a lot and he is a true foodie, Pierre Gagnaire, and Pascal Barbot, they all have their own style and their own personality. Nowadays you see people imitating and copying rather than develop their own style. Rene Redzepi for example created a new style all his own with a novel aesthetic. A lot of chefs copy the aesthetic but not the flavors. These days if you open five of the top cookbooks randomly in the middle, the pictures of food look the same in each one.
What is important for a cook to develop?
Every cook needs to develop his own story, his own identity, and no matter what it is or looks like you have to own it. You can get inspired by others but you have to interpret your way. Last year we finally got in to Noma after trying to get a reservation for four years. Finally when we gave up and thought it’s not happening and thought well, Noma and the food probably looked similar to pictures in his book, we got a reservation. When I dined there I was very curious as to what it would be like and I have to say from the beginning to the end it was the best meal I have had so far. The atmosphere and the experience, from the moment when you enter the door to the very end, are exceptional.
Redzepi is a genius to really understand that a restaurant experience is not just about dining and when you go to Noma he takes you into his own world. Even the service was exceptional and we literally found it a learning experience. Rene is such a nice person not just a great cook but very humble and real. Maybe one day for one week I will get a chance to work there. (Redzepi please note!)
Do you travel to food events around the world?
We are selective, but I have been twice to Bangkok, San Francisco, New York and Montreal. In fact my father and I were in New York in March and last October I was cooking at the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok for a one week event.
When you were in Spain, which chefs did you become acquainted with?
The Roca family for me is the best, as they are a really nice family and all the three brothers are extremely talented. I worked there at the old location and they moved to the present location while I was there. It was crazy; the lunch service was at the old location and then the dinner service at the new one on the same day. We moved everything in the afternoon and in a truly Spanish fashion no one had tested out the ovens, stoves or other equipment and we just nonchalantly served 50 or 60 guests that evening.
Any other amusing incidents from that time?
I used to live upstairs in Jordi Roca’s old room during the eight months I spent there. Every afternoon after service I would walk through Can Roca and Montserrat their mother would make snacks for me as she is very affectionate and nice. The staff is like part of the family and they could go to Can Roca all through the day for breakfast, lunch and dinner and Montserrat cooked for everyone. I felt like I was part of the family and have very fond memories of that time. They took care not only of me but of everyone there and even now with all their success and stardom they still the same. It comes naturally to them and from their human values and I think after you learn to cook what’s more important is where you go to work.
What is an important factor in choosing where you work or stage?
You go to a place not only for the work or for the chef; you go for the personality and the atmosphere. You can choose to go to a palace or a small place but it depends on you or whatever it is you are looking for. In the following years you will use what you see and what you retain from your experience.
Are you involved in the planning for the move to the new location of Maison Troisgros?
I am part of the whole process along with my parents. My father and I have worked on the plans for everything; the kitchen, the décor, though my mother is taking care of it. If I have a suggestion about decor I am careful with how I approach my mother with it (laughing) and any way she knows better. It a sense of responsibility for Leo and myself that our parents are establishing this new base for us. I am very excited and very proud of my parents for taking on this huge venture and the risk for us.
Is that going to be a new chapter in the Troigros family history?
Yes and at the same time it will be difficult to move from our home here and probably harder for my father since there are a lot of memories here for our family. For me it will probably be easier to write my own story.
What will happen to this location?
We hand the keys back to the owner! We did want to purchase it but they didn’t choose to sell, but at this time we want to be in our own place and put our own stamp on it. It is sad since I have been here for eight years and over time we have constantly remodeled and refurbished this location and probably invested more in it than buying our own place. Then sometimes it’s good to start afresh and write a new chapter.
Has it been easier for you with your background to be in this business?
Not really as it was more difficult since the expectations are much higher. I probably had more opportunities to go to learn in places that are not easy to get in to but when I got there it was not as easy for me.
Any advice for other young cooks or chefs?
Be passionate, go step by step and try to connect with the right people and nurture your passion for food, art, or music. For me passion is life and to be truly happy you have to live your passion.