At his Paris hotel, Le Relais Saint-Germain, Yves Camdeborde uses products from neighborhood artisans.
“More artisan than artist”
Yves Camdeborde worked in starred restaurants before opting for the conviviality of bistronomy.
At 53, one of the fathers of bistronomy has lost none of his zest for life or for communicating his generous, straightforward approach to food. With the launch of his Comptoirs tapas bars, and the renovation of his 22-room hotel in Paris, Yves Camdeborde is following a path that is closer to his heart than the traditional road to fame. And now a new generation (his son, Baptiste, 28, and nephew, Julien, 30) is hot on his heels. So this winter he’s set his sights on the mountains, opening a tapas bar (serving black truffle croque-monsieur, waffles with Éric Ospital’s Ibaïama ham) in the chic resort of Megève. After a serious crash, he finally gave up his scooter, opting for a more laidback red bicycle. So he’s good for quite a few more years.
Why did you walk away from the ultimate gourmet path of luxury hotels 25 years ago to open the La Régalade bistro?
That’s actually where I learned everything, with Christian Constant at the Crillon. I was fortunate enough to acquire respect for my trade there. Perfection, whether preparing hare à la royale or egg with mayonnaise. But on a personal level, I felt like an actor. Although I was giving 200 percent, I knew it wasn’t me. I wanted to open something that reflected who I was: an inn, like a musketeer.
Have you finally achieved this with your hotel?
That’s exactly what I’ve done. After 12 years of La Régalade and the craze for bistronomy, I wanted to explore another mindset. Opening a hotel means being with my customers from dinner to breakfast, keeping them under my wing, smiling at people. It lets me spend time with them, communicate my philosophy and share what I feel. I’m trying to create what I’m always looking for when I’m abroad: the feeling of being treated like a person, not a customer.
Do you sense there’s a gap between the gastronomy of guides and rankings and that of what’s really happening?
I actually feel more like an artisan than an artist. I don’t need to wow people, I don’t need a display of chandeliers and fancy architecture. That’s what has given us cold, rigid places, even when the food is great. My profession has stayed the same for a hundred years. It’s about bringing people in and making them feel good. It’s possible to be simple and classy.
You’re now running four establishments. Are you worried about losing your soul by expanding so much?
That’s always a risk. I think I’ll stop here, because it’s important for me to keep the same philosophy. But that’s without factoring in life, the new generation, the excitement of projects, a stimulating entourage. It can be complicated juggling the desire to take a break with the urge to share.
With your tapas bars, have we already shifted into the food of the future, with short sequences and no rules or specific menus?
They reflect this new generation of people who have rejected the constraints of restaurants. They want to be able to eat what they want, when they want, to leave the table, step outside to make a phone call, come back, laugh, order a dessert or French fries. They are completely free. Yet at the same time they remain open and receptive to new flavors. Without intending to, I’ve totally changed my clientele.
Has television been a good thing for chefs, or has it created a hyped-up, sentimental caricature?
It’s 50/50. It has given manual work a better image, and the profession has opened up to other social milieux. Now you often see the children of doctors and lawyers deciding to be chefs. On the other hand, they discover a business that’s 20 percent creativity, but 80 percent production. Peeling 10 kg of carrots, preparing 100 kg of scallops, getting up at 6am and working with cold hands are all very tough, physically and emotionally.
What is your favorite task in the kitchen?
Pan-frying and basting. You’re in direct contact with what’s most difficult about cooking, constantly watching over the product. You coax it and breathe life into it. Or else you lose it.
Is there an ingredient you have trouble with?
Caviar. I don’t know what to do with it, except place a can of it in the middle of the table. I’ve tried lots of times for Christmas, but I still haven’t nailed it.
A dish you’re crazy about?
Glass eels, a dish from my childhood. I can eat two or three kilos of them.
Is there a misunderstood dish on your menu that you protect like a delicate child?
Yes! Veal trotters and celeriac with mascarpone and Meaux mustard. I think it’s amazing, but my customers don’t go for it. I don’t care, I’m keeping it.
Why do chefs like the snow and winter so much?
Because products are never so alive as they are in winter, like perfectly fresh scallops. You get mushrooms, truffles and game. Many people aren’t familiar with them. This is often where we come into our own, because it’s all about expertise. Our savoir-faire really shines through.