David Toutain of Paris, France: Building A Strong Foundation

In 2012 I was in the audience at the San Sebastián Gastronomika when David Toutain announced that later that month he would be leaving Agape Substance in Paris. Then in 2013 he opened the doors to his David Toutain restaurant that within days became one of the hardest reservations to score in Paris. This year we met again several times, first in Los Angeles at the All-Star Chefs Classic dinner with French chefs and then again a few weeks later in Paris at his restaurant. After Agape Substance I had an opportunity to be wowed by his cuisine once again and spend time with the very friendly young couple. That reminds me to send a picture that I took of the two of them since David had remarked  they don’t have one together, which I doubt with his wife who is handy with a camera!

A version of this conversation was published on The Daily Meal.

Chef David Toutain
Chef David Toutain

Parisian Chef David Toutain: That’s My Life

by Geeta Bansal

The next rising star at David Toutain restaurant in Paris is at the service every Friday night between 8:00 and 8:30. That is when the barely five year old Aiden Toutain puts on his apron and clambers onto his little step stool to provide his valuable assistance to his father chef David Toutain. It is also quite probable to walk into the David Toutain restaurant before lunch service to find petite Thai Toutain, wife of David Toutain (and in-house photographer, among other things) crouching on the floor to take a picture of her husband’s latest creation. Assisted by a staff member directing smoke from the handheld smoker, oblivious to everything else until the smiling David Toutain walked out of the kitchen stating, “That’s my life.”

David and Thai
David and Thai

It is certainly an interesting time in his life as his restaurant that opened its doors in December of 2013 was awarded its first Michelin star this year, making it  one of the most exciting and buzzed about restaurants to emerge on the Paris dining scene in recent years. Toutain, who has trained with celebrated chefs like Alain Passard at L’Arpege, Pierre Gagnaire, Marc Veyrat at La Maison du Bois, and Bernard Pacaud at L’Ambroisie, was not done learning after these stints and took off for Mugaritz, Andoni Aduriz’s acclaimed kitchen in Spain followed by Corton in New York. Toutain’s time at Mugaritz was certainly well spent, since as he honed his culinary skills he met Thai, his future wife, a chef from San Francisco, in the Mugaritz kitchen. The delightful young couple now works together with David in the kitchen and Thai taking care of guests in the elegant, warm, minimalist dining room designed by her with ecru walls, custom walnut wood tables and honeyed wood panels. Thai is assisted by yet another Mugaritz alumn, sommelier Linda and a young team with an attentive ear contributing to the dynamic.

Prior to opening his own restaurant at the tail end of 2013 the young Normandian chef brought his modern concept to L’Agape Substance in Paris where he gained multitudes of followers before departing in 2012 on an Asian adventure. Toutain returned to Paris to open his restaurant in the seventh arrondissement where in record time his original cuisine has mesmerized diners and critics alike as he paints the canvass of his menus with improbable combinations of textures, flavors and tastes. The convivial chef is not averse to popping into the dining room to chat with guests at the, unusually for Paris, widely spaced tables, or bring a course to the table himself.

This year the Diners Club Academy at Worlds 50 Best restaurants voted it as one of six restaurants to watch for in Europe. His book “The Cuisine of David Toutain”, not merely a compilation of recipes relates the story behind the evolution of this young chef and his inimitable style of fine cuisine using fresh, quality, and seasonal produce.  Think ‘Wild Garlic Sponge”, “Trout with Miso”, “Smoked Eel with Black Sesame” and of course the “Cauliflower, White Chocolate” dessert if it is on the tasting menu that day. The attention to detail at this unique restaurant is evident not only in the carefully orchestrated progression of the tasting menus but even in the choice of serve ware and table accessories. Thai Toutain narrated the story behind the spectacular ceramics hand made  for them by a Belgian ceramic artist whose creations they fell in love with at chef Sang Hoon Degeimbre’s restaurant outside Brussels. The affable couple set off en famille to order their own unique plates, striking an instant friendship with the artist and ended up spending the night at her house!

Seen often at food events like Madrid Fusion, Omnivore Paris, San Sebastian Gastronomika, or special collaborations with other international luminaries like the All-Star Chefs Classic in Los Angeles or an upcoming San Pellegrino event in Mexico City, David Toutain has arrived!

One morning as the kitchen was prepping for the lunch service we sat down with Chef Toutain to talk about the exciting happenings in his life:

How did you get the news about your Michelin star, and what was your initial reaction?

I got a phone call and my first reaction was total surprise. As always a week before they are announced there is conversation in the industry and conjecture about the upcoming announcement. Even though I didn’t want to listen or be drawn into the talk it is hard to do that. I was very excited when I heard the news and before anything I was happy for my team because we are all working very hard and very focused on our work.

We started as a team at this restaurant with the intention for all of us to grow together. Actually after I heard I didn’t say anything about it to anyone for a few days so I could absorb it totally. It’s good motivation and a pat on the back saying good job and keep going.

Does it now put more pressure to perform to a certain standard or expectations?

No, not really. It’s just as we first opened, we cook, go about our routines and don’t think much about it.

With long hours in the restaurant, are you able to balance your professional and personal life?

I come in very early at 7:30 or 8:00am and finish at about 1:00am, so it’s definitely long hours. Luckily we live right above the restaurant so it’s good for our son because I can enjoy breakfast with him and my wife and sometimes I get to drop him at school. He is just four and a half and in the afternoon we manage to spend time outdoors, eat a burger, or play, and then I also get to sneak upstairs to kiss him goodnight . I would say that I am lucky to have that balance.

You travel to a lot of events around the world like the All-Star Chefs Classic in Los Angeles earlier this year. Do you like to travel to such events?

For me the experience begins not when I arrive somewhere but at the airport when I begin my journey. It was great to arrive in Los Angeles meet a lot of friends and experience the food there. The event was very well-organized and we never speak much about these things but they are very important for those participating. I loved the idea of cooking in the middle of the stage surrounded by spectators and diners all around. It was a very nice way to connect with people in this stadium setting.

Due to the rampant use of social media in the restaurant industry, a picture of your dish is out moments after it reaches the diner. Does that impact your creative process?

It doesn’t affect anything really. Here we have our own small world and we don’t focus too much on what is going on outside. I like Twitter myself since it’s quick and easy without too much blah blah blah. I like to tell my guests to focus on what we are doing. When we work on a new plate we put our thoughts and emotions into it and we like for them to have a conversation about it. The chef cooking in the kitchen is speaking to the guest with his dish and conveying his thoughts.

Do you appreciate feedback from your guests?

Yes as I feel it is very important. It’s not just a product in front of them but much more, and it is a simultaneous experience between us and the guest.

What did you take away from your time at L’Arpege with Alain Passard?

My time at L’Arpege was very important for me. I was 21 when I was a chef in that kitchen and what was amazing was he gave me the opportunity like he did to many other chefs to experience his genius. What he instilled in me was when you work with a product don’t think like a person but think as if you were the product. Think about what is inside it, the flavor, the texture, the fibre. So now when I see a carrot I don’t see it as such anymore, I am thinking about its flavor, it’s texture, what is a good pairing for it, and how I can use all these elements. Actually now this process comes naturally to me.

If we cook beef and I see a gelatin and the fibers after cooking, I immediately think about what can we do with these. You need to open your eyes to these things and think along those lines. That is how we work in this kitchen. Then there are other things I learned, for example the light in the restaurant, how the kitchen and the restaurant is organized, and all these things affect our work.

Does the atmosphere, the ambiance, or the decor set a tone for the ensuing meal for a guest as they walk in the door?

It is very important that a guest feels relaxed and it’s very important to me that people are happy and feel comfortable once seated at the table to enjoy their experience. When you are at the table for two or three hours you need to feel that way.

Is creativity inherent or can it be learned, developed, or taught?

People ask me sometimes “How did you think of that? How did you think of pairing cauliflower and white chocolate together?”. I think each chef has that dictionary in their brain about texture and flavor. Sometimes when I think of a dish I am first thinking of a season, it’s products, and the association between them. When I made the white chocolate, cauliflower, and coconut I had eaten something with white chocolate and coconut, I think it was a cake at Christmastime. So I thought wow this is so comforting and what can I do with it in the restaurant that is not too complicated and feels just as comforting. What is one more product I can use besides these two. I thought the link between the two is that they are both white. I needed something white and special in a vegetable. I made a list of all the white vegetables and it came to me that it was the right season for cauliflower in the markets. I thought what is the link between all three besides color and I thought of the sweetness in these.

I drew a cup and starting thinking of putting elements like texture, sweetness in it to get a balanced dish. It is a very tactile process and begins this way with everything I do. The amazing thing was it worked perfectly the first time we tried out this recipe.

Any experiments that haven’t worked out?

I tried cockles with red pepper and pistachio and I kept working on this recipe for two weeks and in the end I stopped because I realized that it wasn’t going to work. I thought there was something I was missing in the flavor and it was not coming together.

When you develop recipes, do you work on your own or do you work as a team, like how at Mugaritz there is a separate R&D team working on products?

Every kitchen is different and here we are working as cooks and without a specific team to work on a recipe. What is different from when I was in Agape for example we served twenty five dishes per guest and now I serve less, just sixteen so that leaves us a little time on the side to work on new dishes and recipes. When I opened this restaurant I decided that I will do fewer dishes so I would have time to organize new recipes.

Do you develop these spontaneously, as a scheduled task, based on what comes in a delivery or at the market?

It depends, though I am a little bit more organized and don’t just cook off of what comes in the morning. I need time to think and process as to how I can work on it. I have very good connections with my purveyors who are all small purveyors and usually let me know if they will have duck in two weeks, or squab or a certain vegetable or fish.

Then I start thinking ahead sometimes though if we need a certain amount of fish we find in the morning that it’s not available then I have a list of what to get instead. We know the base of the fish we want here and we work around that. This morning we didn’t get the crabs we wanted, so we made salmon instead.

So it was an on spot decision?

No, we organize in such a way that we can ask if instead of that product do they have the next choice on our list and so on. We usually have three options just in case. When we work with small producers like our small fishermen, it is only human for such things to happen. What is good in our menus is that nothing is detailed so we can play within it a little bit.

Normally we do a trout with crispy potato around it and this morning the trout was not very good so we don’t have it on the menu all day today. This is like what would happen at Mugaritz. If we had only ten portions of something then that was it. This is how we organize ourselves and work here and before we print the menus every day we know exactly how many portions  or quantity we have.

With so many great restaurants in Paris, is there competition between them to acquire the best products?

No, we are fortunate to have access to enough good products for everyone. It is not a competition but sometimes there can be a problem since we have almost the same purveyors. So in one month everyone wants trout for example and it is on everyone’s menu. So we speak to each other about making sure the guest does not end up with similar dishes at different restaurants.

Is there a camaraderie or community between the young chefs in Paris?

It is amazing because I have good friends who are chefs but we all do totally different food. My chef friends at restaurants like Akrame, Septime, Saturne, Meurice, and Chateubriand all make different food. Every restaurant in Paris is different and that makes it interesting for guests visiting or local people dining out.

It is wonderful to be a diner in Paris now because there is amazing food available at all price points and the chefs who worked at two or three-starred Michelin restaurants have gone on to open smaller and simpler restaurants serving wonderful food.

Aren’t many of these restaurants more casual?

I wouldn’t say casual but they are definitely more unique and with more personality.

You also worked with Pierre Gagnaire. What did you learn during your time with him?

I learned respect, not to be afraid to do your own food, and when you create something to be proud of it. He is a genius and has been creating wonderful food for over thirty years and is just as strong as ever. Gagnaire is a great example and an inspiration for young chefs who think, “If he did it, I can do it and I just need to believe in myself.” It is hard to be that way though and not everyone appreciates it. You can have people at adjoining tables eat the same dishes and yet their experience is entirely different. Working with him was one of the best experiences of my life and I grew a lot with him. He does not talk much about himself or his work and he does not have to because he is so special and unique. Did you know that he likes to paint? He is a true artist. Artists are special as they impart a different artistic touch to everything that they do.

So should cuisine evoke emotions and affect intellect?

I hope mine does because I try to create that way but I really want the guests to have a good time. Sometimes people comment that, “Wow you have used a lot of techniques!” but I don’t want it to be like that. I don’t need to explain how long or with what technique I cooked the fish, asparagus, etc. It should be great in taste.

Sometimes menus have such detailed descriptions. What is your opinion about that?

I was never like that with my menus. I like it to say eggs, corn, fish, or whatever ingredient and that is it. Most people just don’t need that information and if they want more they will ask questions. We don’t have to say that this corn came from this place, then we did this to it and mixed it with this, etc. We can speak for one hour about it but the guest just wants to enjoy the dish with good service.

Service can be very different at each of the fifteen tables here because some people are here for a business lunch while another table came all the way from Tokyo to eat here. You have people coming with different reasons and we have to respect that.

You have traveled and worked in different parts of the world. Is there a city or country that you are partial to?

Truthfully I don’t have a particular place that I like more. I am so fortunate to have traveled and visited so many places and I am happy when I leave Paris and even happier when I come back. I was so excited to go to California in March, to Tokyo in August, or to London for a holiday. I am always excited to leave but after I few weeks ready to come home.

What about great meals?

I had amazing food in Japan and then other parts of Asia and China. It was interesting and different, and I love California, and I am also happy when I go to New York. I have friends there, the small  hangouts from the days I lived there and some great friends. I have good friends everywhere even in Copenhagen as my life has taken me to so many places. My friend David Fischer, Rasmus Kofoed, and Nicolai of Kadeau in Copenhagen for example, and it’s wonderful to see them, we eat together and hang out. It’s the same in other places so I can’t pick a favorite place.

Is this a new generation of chefs because such sharing of ideas and information did not happen in previous generations?

We all share and exchange ideas freely. If I go somewhere and love something I eat there I will ask for the contact of the purveyor, and the same goes for those who ask me. The knowledge of purveyors or connections came to me during the course of my work and some of them like my chicken purveyor are very small producers and it’s very hard for them to be profitable, so if I can only use ten chickens and if she has more then I will help out by asking another restaurant, say Le Meurice, if they can use the rest. One day I had a problem sourcing fish then I just asked my friends who shared their purveyor information with me. It is how we grow, otherwise in a few years we will not be here anymore. If I have an egg purveyor and I only use their medium sized eggs, I speak to a friend and ask if they can use the large and small eggs. It’s as simple as that.

Are the younger chefs opting for casual restaurants to cut down on their costs?

Yes of course, but not because they are saving money but actually so they can spend more on acquiring the best products to work with or their tableware or glassware. There are a lot of things in the background of running a restaurant. That time and money saved can be used for other things depending on the concept of the restaurant.

There was a time when only the Michelin guide was important, and now we have the World’s 50 Best lists and others as well. Any thoughts on these lists?

I think they are good for the business and recognize good restaurants, and it’s interesting to see the impact of these when I travel. For me the Michelin is still important because of the story and history behind it and the respect for the chef. It is a great distinction for a chef and maybe more precise than being one of the 50 Best in the world. Michelin is very personal too, and going to a restaurant with Michelin stars even if it is not on the 50 Best is still a special experience. I do appreciate the recognition by the 50 Best and work with them.

Essentially different guides and lists work for different people and what they looking for. For me when I am in a new city, I tend to ask my friends for recommendations. I went to LA and didn’t refer to any guide but just asked Ludo Lefebvre to suggest restaurants. In Tokyo I left it to my friend Gillaume from Troisgros to make suggestions. When friends come here to Paris I do the same when they ask me.

Where would you send me in Paris?

I would suggest many from a small bistro Pottoka just five blocks away, to Cobea, Akrame, Septime, L’Arpege, and Pierre Gagnaire of course! Food is like family, and the world is very small.

Would you consider going international or opening multiple restaurants?

It was very hard for me to open one (laughing) so I can’t think of more right now. I don’t think I am going to have that many proposals. All my life I have seen that this business is unpredictable. It’s like a building and the most important part of building is the foundation. So if you have a good foundation you can build to great heights on that and it can be one floor or thirty. As long as you have built a strong base you can add on top. You can only build as many floors as your base will hold and for now I am just building that base and that foundation, and I believe you never know what’s coming next in life so I am not thinking that far ahead. It takes that time to organize and build and grow.

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