Chef Stéphanie Le Quellec earned a Michelin star for Restaurant La Scène nine months after she took the helm at Prince de Galles Hotel in 2013. Five years later, the flagship restaurant’s identity is one with hers—classical with a modern twist.
Starting on a chef’s journey at just 14 years of age, rising French culinary star chef Stéphanie Le Quellec has been going full steam ahead since then. After her culinary studies, she worked with illustrious chefs such as Philippe Legendre at three-Michelin-starred Le Cinq in the Four Seasons Hotel George V Paris, and chef Philippe Jourdin at Terre Blanche resort in Provence. She became executive chef of Terre Blanche herself when she was just 28, and went on to take the helm of La Scène and Prince de Galles Hotel’s other dining outlets in 2013.
But not before she took the media spotlight by putting herself through a rigorous test. She entered and won season two of the French version of Top Chef in 2011. She says of that experience, “Everything seemed to go faster; maybe I accelerated my career by five to six years. But not in terms of cooking skills as I already honed them before that. But before winning Top Chef, I was shy and reserved. Now, I have confidence in what and who I am, and I find it easy to share that with people.”
Her week’s stint in Singapore from 3 to 9 August is just the chance for her to do that. She will be putting up four-hands lunch and dinner set menus with chef Benjamin Halat of Curate restaurant, which is awarded two stars in Singapore’s Top Restaurants 2018/2019 guide presented by Wine & Dine.
How relevant and coveted are Michelin stars in Paris today?
There are two schools of thought. Some of the younger generation think that they don’t need Michelin. But in my opinion, Michelin stays the reference. In my case, it felt easy to get it as I received one nine months after opening. Keeping it is also ok. But getting the second one, I think, is quite hard. In Paris, the competition is very stiff. There are many restaurants with talented young chefs and at least 10 to 12 chefs who could get a second star. In France, there are 500 restaurants with one Michelin star, 70 restaurants with two Michelin stars and 26 restaurants with three Michelin stars. Out of 15 women with Michelin stars in France, Anne-Sophie Pic of Maison Pic has three Michelin stars, and 14 have one Michelin star. I would be happy to be the first one that gets two Michelin stars.
What’s that something extra that will get you from one to two Michelin stars?
One, for sure, is a great dining experience with great products that are well-cooked etc. The second one, is a strong signature of the chef; to give more personality. You have to say who you are on the plate. This is important for Michelin and for the guests as well. And the third one is creating a magical moment. A ‘wow’ factor that comes from something very peculiar on each table.
Who is chef Stéphanie on the plate?
I am a very classical chef; a very technical chef. My cuisine is very authentic, very well-cooked, but always with a modern twist, for instance, associating buckwheat with vanilla, or corn with coffee. But in my life, I’m someone who is very sincere, so it is important to me that the cuisine is sincere. It may be strong in classical technique and incorporate new flavours, but it should be straightforward, not too complicated.
For instance, my signature starter is a farm egg that I do different versions of every season. It could be with truffle and Jerusalem artichokes, or perhaps morel mushroom and asparagus. This September, when I return from Asia, I will bring back white miso, which I could use to do a beautiful porcini mushroom with white miso for this farm egg.
How has spending eight years in Provence influenced your culinary style?
When you are based in the South of France (or any region in France), it helps to use terroir to tell a story of cooking with ingredients such as olive oil, zucchini flower or fresh fish from Mediterranean. But in Paris, La Scène’s identity is very much my identity, forged by the eight years I spent in the South of France, a lot of travels, and my vision today etc.
There are some touches of South of France in my dishes but not in everything. For one thing, it is very hard in Paris to find certain products. Zucchini flower for instance is easy to get in the South of France—it’s delivered straight from the farm. But in Paris, sometimes it is hard to find it at that quality. I won’t choose certain products if they don’t have the quality I want. And I also try to be locavore, and work as much as I can with farmers who are within a 100km radius from Paris.
Why do you say your cuisine has a lot to do with ‘one product, many possibilities’?
With one product, I like to examine and explore how to bring out out the full potential of its flavours with skill and technique. This allows me to take a very classic dish and make it with a modern vision. For example, take radish. A French classic way to serve radish and butter is to do a pink radish with salted butter. I transformed that in a gastronomic starter where the butter becomes a soft, salty butter mousse with Tonka beans, and I work the radish in different way. I plate a radish tartare with olive oil, salty cooked radish, pickled radish, a salty butter and Tonka bean mousse, and on top, a radish juice jelly and a thin slice of radish. Then you have radish leaves in a vinaigrette, and on the side, some bread and Tonka beans.
Another example is my roasted lobster with corn and coffee sauce dish. With the corn, I make a purée, a sweet corn salad, pickled corn, and I also dry some corn to make a flour for a fettucine. I use corn juice as the seasoning for the dish as well and add a coffee sauce.
Taking stock of your career at your young age of 36, which would you say were the pivotal moments?
To be honest, each young chef starting in his first two years doesn’t do his own cuisine. He does what he learnt before. When I started at Prince de Galles, I did a bit of Philippe 1 and Philippe 2—the best things I learnt from chefs Philippe Legendre and Philippe Jourdin. After five years at Prince de Galles, I have developed a strong identity. It’s funny, but when chef Philippe (Jourdin) came to eat at my restaurant recently, he thought the seabass, leeks, vanilla dish he had was “a great idea” and he would try to do something like that. So it becomes an exchange. You start having that when you have your own identity.
For me, I see that my evolution has been about being more modern. There are no forbidden things in cuisine. I want to try and try different possibilities. The Philippes are classical chefs—sometimes this means working around the same things. As a young chef, I travel a lot and try many new things. It’s not perfect each time, but I keep trying.
Has being a female chef been of any consequence in your career?
I’m not very feminist. I think there are no male and female chefs; instead there are only chefs with different sensibilities. You see male chefs making very feminine, delicate cuisine, or women chefs making very strong cuisine. So it’s not dependent on being male or female. I started when I was at 19 at George V. Then there were only two girls out of 100 people in the brigade. Today in my brigade, 20 per cent are women. I think this is a good evolution. Some people say we need to have a parity 50 percent each of male and female. This is crazy. It’s most important to have passionate, competent people with high skills.
What would be your advice for aspiring young chefs?
Passion and hard work. You have to be dedicated to it. Give it a lot and it will give you back a lot. I started in kitchen school when I was 14. I was 19 when I started at George V and worked for 2- and 3-Michelin-starred restaurants. I always worked very very hard. Now I have three kids. But the job always went before my kids. To keep the executive chef title, it was always my job, my job, my job.
That’s why you have a very understanding husband?
Yes, that’s the point. If you want to be successful at your job, you need to have someone who understands what you do. My husband who is executive chef at Moulin Rouge has supported me since the start. We mark 15 years of marriage this year. For young people, I just want say, you need to be passionate and a hard worker. But, you also have to be patient. When I won Top Chef in 2011, it was good and not good. With TV shows, we may be saying to young people that in one year, you can be a chef. No, in reality, it may be a bit different and take a lot more time and hard work. So with passion, hard work and patience, you can have a great, great career as a chef.
You see competitions as a way to challenge and improve yourself?
Yes, it was that way with Top Chef and this year, in September and November, I will be taking part in the Meilleurs Ouvres de France competition too. This is a very tough competition pitting the best chefs in the country. It takes place only three times in a decade and it starts with about 500 candidates at the beginning, and ends with only five to seven winners. There are only two women as far as I know so far who have achieved this title. I got to the finals in the last edition in 2015. This will be the second time I’m going for it. I hope to take the title this time. But what’s most important is not so much winning, but learning and improving from it in the process.
Will you be hoping to learn more about local flavours while you are here?
This is my second time in Singapore. For sure I hope to try some local dishes and explore markets such as Chinatown. Actually, I love Asian food and Asian tastes. Not too spicy, but I like the flavour of ingredients such as fresh herbs, soya sauce and fresh fruits. 90 per cent of the time, Asian food in France in not very well executed. I always say if you don’t travel in Asia, you’ve never tasted Asian food. About 15-20 years ago, Asian food became very trendy so French people made what is known as ‘fusion’ food, though it was not always well-executed. So I am very careful about using too much Asian product or technique. I choose little touches and it’s not really fusion.
For example, this winter, I would like to make classical scallops, pan-fried, with beurre blanc and truffle. To make the beurre blanc more tasty, I will use white soya sauce. Used with my truffles, there will be an explosion of flavour. With just a small touch, it can take the dish to another dimension.
Catch chef Stéphanie Le Quellec at Curate restaurant while you enjoy one of the set menus put up by her and chef Benjamin Halat. The four-course lunch is available at $108++ or $158++ with wine pairing, while the eight-course dinner is available at $188++ or $308++ with wine pairing.
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