Bertrand Grebaut of Septime, Paris: Insight Into His World

I recently caught up with Betrand Grebaut at his Clamato oyster bar adjacent to Septime. The last time we had met was as we waited fairly early in the morning for the boat transporting invitees to the last  MAD Food Camp in Copenhagen. As we found out later in our conversation it is his favorite food event . I have since visited Septime again as I try to visit every time I am back in Paris and it is always a great experience.

An edited version of our conversation was published on the Daily Meal and the full version is posted here.

Chef Bertrand GrebautAn Interview with Bertrand Grebaut of Paris’ Septime

by Geeta Bansal

Parisian chef Bertrand Grebaut has been tantalizing diners with his artful plates and culinary compositions since the day he opened Septime in the 11th arrondissement of Paris in 2011. The reticent young chef speaks the language of food through his craft honed in three Michelin starred kitchens of celebrated chefs such as Alain Passard of L’Arpege and Joel Robuchon. He is part of a clique of internationally recognized young chefs who are changing the status quo of the French restaurant industry and introducing an informal element which is not yet wholly embraced by the old guard. Grebaut has been hailed as one of the “Generation New French Bistrot “spearheading the bistronomie movement pervading the city of Paris and the rest of the country. According to Grebaut his intent is only to serve a modern, high quality, fresh and natural cuisine in a laid back atmosphere with an affordable price point for people from all walks of life.  He has chosen to open his venture in his “hood” as he lives not far from the restaurants and knew his concept would be a good fit for the area and hence rue de Charonne became the new hotspot in the 11th arrondissement of Paris.

Grebaut after obtaining a degree in literature explored other professions like graphic design before immersing himself in the world of food. He earned his first star at the critically acclaimed L’Agape which has since closed and subsequently after receiving an Evian-Badoit prize grant he opened Septime. The wine cave across the street followed and then by a lucky coincidence a former garage space adjacent to Septime became available and the Clamato oyster bar emerged to rave reviews. His design sensibilities permeate not only his plates but also the interiors of all three establishments he owns with his partner Theo Pourriat. The bohemian artsy neighborhood of the north east part of Paris has transformed in the past few years into a very hip dining destination, where Septime is the most-hyped about and one of the hottest tables in town. Understandably reservations require persistence and patience, and when you do finagle one you invariably spend part of your meal planning your next visit!

The subdued yet elegant aesthetics of Septime’s the interior is offset by rock music ( Jimmy Hendrix) and sounds of happy customers as its  modest prices for spectacular food make it unique in the very expensive city . This year in February Septime earned its first very well deserved Michelin star while placing #57 on the World’s Best Restaurants list for 2015. The warmth and informality of the space with a bar by the entrance and an open kitchen at the back are enhanced by an unhurried, informal service accompanied by a well curated wine list. It is easy to lose count of repeat visits since the flawless tastes of Grebault’s spectacular produce-centric plates inevitably lure back not only Parisians but also international Gastro tourists again and again….

With Chef Grebaut
With Chef Grebaut

We chatted fairly early one morning in Clamato behind its striking green facade as deliveries lined up inside the door. The seafood and oyster bar’s signature stools were still stacked on tables as it only opens in the evening while the crew next door at Septime prepped for the lunch service. He spoke candidly about his work, life, and his experience at the Gelinaz Shuffle when Rodolfo Guzman of Borago, Santiago took over his kitchen while he swapped places with chef Fulvio Pierangelini of Hotel de Russie in Rome.

What is modern French cuisine?

I don’t know, you tell me! I suppose I’m trying to portray modern French cuisine. It represents freshness and creativity but all the same staying in connection with my culinary heritage.

How has the immense success you have achieved changed you as a person? More importantly, are you content?

The flip side of success is immense stress and pressure. However, as a team, we build off of these emotions. They reunite us and give us self-confidence. So yes, we are content.

What is your personality in the kitchen? Are you calm or do you lose your temper at times?

Unfortunately I do lose my temper, and I see this loss of control as something to work on. In the restaurant, we work together as a team to be able to deal with moments of difficulty and overall we have a great atmosphere in our kitchen.

You have kept your prices low. Do you intend to continue that way even with the Michelin star? For the Gelinaz event your prices were lower than that of other participants. Why did you choose to do this?

The economic equilibrium in the restaurant is fragile. However, if Septime was in a real position of danger then we would think about adjusting. Profit is not our number one goal. Neither Michelin stars nor Gelinaz will change the accessibility of Septime. For Gelinaz the idea was to shuffle the chefs but to retain the same style of cooking in each restaurant. The invited chef had to adapt to the style of Septime and not the contrary. So yes, we chose a price that was as close to reality as possible.

It seems that now every chef talks about products being the star, so is any product playing a starring role in your kitchen this season?

It is obvious and it could not be any other way. The produce is the building block of the menu, not only in one season but all year round. It is still important to constantly remind ourselves today and tomorrow, until it becomes acquired information.

You change your menu daily, but how far ahead do you plan it and what are the steps in the creative process?

Our menu changes often on account of the daily arrivals. Now with experience and maturity we try to keep the same menu for a few days. Doing so helps us obtain recipes and ideas that are thorough. We try to anticipate seasons and quantities weeks ahead with our suppliers. This way we ensure a coherent menu within each micro season and a great relationship with each supplier.

The creative process is quite real. Each dish or recipe is the fruit of discussions; a scholarly reflection on the produce available at that point in time or just something very spontaneous and improvised resulting in a great dish.

Do you enjoy participating in events like the Le Fooding 15th anniversary or the Gelinaz events?

Absolutely! It gives us the opportunity to meet new people, a new clientele, to spread our message, and to get away from our daily routine.

What is a trend in kitchens all over that you find annoying?

Everything that is a “trend” is annoying! Unfortunately, on occasion we fall into that trap, even though like I said defining our cuisine and its singularity is what we clasp onto every day. On the same lines, Instagram does not help one project himself into the future.

For example, in Nordic countries they ferment vegetables; it’s obvious because for them it’s necessary. Their climate does not allow them to have fresh produce all year round. Here in France we have that possibility, so it must stay an exception on a menu otherwise it becomes a trend.

What was the most marked difference between working for Joel Robuchon and Alain Passard?

The comparison is quite difficult. On one had you have a chef (Alain Passard) who is in his kitchen almost every day, who only owns one restaurant (L’Arpège). On the other a chef (Joël Robuchon) that owns restaurants all around the world who has commissioned people to oversee the management in his different establishments. That is the Robuchon method, no direct contact with the chef; you strive only to obtain perfection on a technical level while staying close to tradition. Your apprenticeship is almost military, empirical, and this without any real explanation. Meanwhile with Passard there is less of a sense of routine, you are encouraged to develop your sensibility you end up obtaining a broader vision and understanding more.

Where did you learn more and actually begin to define your style?

At L’Arpège, it’s where I learned the most and where I realized that I had more affinities with a fruit and vegetable oriented cuisine rather than the technical cuisine that you often find in palaces.

How important is service in a diner’s complete experience?

The service has a tremendous importance. The waiters are the ambassador of the kitchen, they are the last link and notably they are the ones that will ultimately define the tone of your restaurant. In our case it is what distinguished us from others.

What distinguishes you from your peers?

Je n’en sais rien [I don’t know]… Maybe it’s because I had other professions and interests before becoming a chef. I chose this path on account of my love for food. My vision of my profession is one of pleasure and not of brash spectacle.

This business is difficult for families. How do you find a balance?

My girlfriend has the same profession; we have a mutual understanding of the stakes. Time off is always a happy moment.

Any food congress that is your favorite? Who is the best speaker you have heard?

By far MAD FOOD CAMP organized by René Redzepi. The speaker that captivated me the most was Ron Finley. He elevated the crowd and imbued hope. He defied everyone and decided to grow vegetables and edible plants out in the streets in his ghetto, to reinstate hope to the people of his neighborhood. He compels respect.

How important is it to train and learn the basics of cuisine?

The basics of cuisine are as important as a solfeggio is to music. All cultural and technical fundamentals are necessary to be creative. Especially when you hold in your grasp the French gastronomic heritage. It is a hefty heritage but consulting it with all the respect that it’s due, gives you the possibility of extracting brilliant ideas.

Social media and copying: How do you feel about that since images of food are all over Instagram and Twitter instantly?

I am as fascinated as I am terrified! It is at the same time positive and damaging for our profession. I encourage the public and clients to restart taking pleasure in the moment shared around a table and stop consuming photos. As a professional it can be a great platform for broadcasting but personally, I haven’t managed to cross that line.

Does this encourage cooks to be constantly moving ahead?

The situation is double edged; yes, produce and techniques are shared easily and rapidly, but on the other hand it does not help the independent expression. We are slowly moving towards standardization of tastes.

What do you do on your day off?

Let’s be realistic, all my free time revolves around one question: “Where and what am I going to eat?”

What are your favorite cities in the US for food, and are there any restaurants you love to visit?

It has been a while since I have been to the West Coast, I would love to go back. I’m more familiar with NYC; it’s a city full of life. I enjoy eating at Mission Chinese Food; its cuisine represents freedom of expression. I might disappoint you but I must say Steak ‘n Shake, best burger ever!

Are you in agreement with using global products or influences from other cuisines or cultures in your food?

We work as eco-responsibly as possible. So even if my olive oil comes from Italy you will never find pineapples from Costa Rica on the menu at Septime. Although now, with the ease we have to be anywhere in the world in less than 12 hours, it’s great to be able to incorporate certain culinary techniques and visions into our cuisine, using them and molding them to better our knowledge, whereas still respecting their origins.

During your recent participation in the Gelinaz shuffle, did you taste your way through Fulvio Pierangelini’s menu before finalizing yours?

Yes, I did! I had the chance to taste the menu of the restaurant at the Hotel de Russie. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to taste Fulvio’s cuisine when he was at the helm of the Gambero Rosso. Having said that, I had an extraordinary reception in Fulvio’s apartment; he left me a full fridge! This was an incredible insight into his world.

What was the most interesting part of this concept of going off into an unknown kitchen, and would you do it again?

I’d do it again in an instant! The most interesting challenge was to test my capacity to adapt to quite extreme conditions. I found myself in an enormous and old fashioned hotel kitchen, in which I had to establish and motivate a small team in a very short time.

What was your team’s experience with Rodolfo Guzman of Borago who was in your kitchen during the shuffle, and what unexpected ingredient did he introduce into your kitchen?

The team found the experience really interesting, and also quite physically rigorous! Rodolfo genuinely played by the rules – he stuck with the ingredients that we use on a daily basis. His determination to integrate both his world and ours – his adapted knowledge within the framework of Septime produced results that I would never have expected, for example, a blend of butter and olive oil or citrus fruits and vinegar – now known as “Bad Bertrand”.

You knew a month earlier where you were going, so were you Rodolfo and Fulvio communicating with each other?

We exchanged purely logistical emails. The concept of the shuffle required that we would arrive without pre-judgments of one another’s work, so we tried not to talk about the kitchen.

What were your Septime guest’s comments about their experience with the guest chef?

The dinner was really positively received. I think the clients especially enjoyed the show – and particularly the duck press. I feel like Rodolfo and I collaborated, even though I wasn’t there!

What are the questions you get asked that are repetitive and boring?

There are many. The one that comes back often is “How do you define your style of cooking?” It is something I am faced with defining every day; it’s a constant challenge and it’s hard to articulate without falling into the triviality of the subject.

Any plans of expanding your operation beyond Septime, Clamato, and the wine bar?

We have many ideas although for the moment that is all they are.

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