Basque chef David Martin has been cooking in Belgium since 1994. His century-old La Paix restaurant in Brussels is a bone’s throw from the abattoirs of Anderlecht.
But although La Paix is renowned for its meat, its beating heart lies in its extensive cottage garden. That’s no great surprise for a chef schooled by ‘vegetable King’ Alain Passard.
As Martin prepares to mentor Andrea Miacola, who will represent the Benelux region for S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2016, he talks to FineDiningLovers about his Basque roots, the importance of travel and his love of all things Japanese.
How important is your Basque heritage in shaping your approach to food?
It’s not so present on my a la carte menu in La Paix these days. But there is one dish in particular which is very Basque. It is called ‘100% Pork’ and is adapted from our old menu. When we started 10 years ago, we had five starters on the a la carte menu, all based on Basque heritage pork dishes. When we decided to move to another way of cooking – a more Japanese way – I decided to put all the Basque pork starters in one dish.
So your food reflects your heritage, but is currently also influenced by your time in Japan?
Three years ago, when we had our first trip to Japan, we started a whole new menu. We’ve just returned from our fourth trip. The influence is important, but we don’t go to Japan to bring home recipes. We go to learn techniques, and how to integrate them with local European products. For example, there is the saikyo miso (sweet yellow miso with rice malt) technique for marinating fish. There is another product that creates a very nice recipe. It is Bresse chicken from France, marinated in shio koji (a fermented mix of fungal rice, sea salt and water). We grill it in a wood–fired oven at nearly 350 degrees Celsius. It gives it a crisp tenderness – ah, it’s amazing.
How important is travel in the development of a young chef?
Today, so many young chefs are like Xerox machines. They go on the internet and other chefs’ Facebook pages. They sit there a thousand miles away and copy what they see. But for me, the positioning of a chef would be in the difference. Everybody needs to have his own way of cooking, and that’s why I started travelling. I went to Norway to bring fresh live king crabs to the restaurant. If we want to be at the forefront of cooking, we need to create our own style and take risks. Today so many young chefs are followers. They need to cook with a story and the whole heart, not like a copycat. You can travel around your own country, talk to the suppliers, the farmers or the fishermen. You have to look around, and not look on the internet.
What did you learn from working with Alain Passard?
Alain Passard is so intelligent. When he moved to vegetarian cuisine about 20 years ago, it wasn’t fashionable then. He was fed up with a certain way of cooking. Working for Passard, I thought a chef could create maybe 10 dishes a week. I was wrong. He told me if I create one perfect dish a year, I should be a very happy chef. I like the Japanese way – the same dish over and over, the guy who slices sashimi or makes tempura all his life. If you want to reach perfection, you have to work and work at the dish, not just for one day.
Alain Passard is famous for his vegetables, La Paix for its meat. What interests you about meat?
We are now more interested in fish, actually. We also have our own garden, which is very big. It’s great for creativity, because when you go in the garden it comes right in your face. When you go into a cold room in a restaurant, there is not so much inspiration, but in the garden you have everything.
You have a brasserie at BOZAR – the Brussels centre for Fine Arts. How important is art and design in cuisine and restaurants?
For me it’s a kind of expression. Sometimes when you meet a chef, you have a discussion and he explains his own way of cooking. Afterwards, when you go to his restaurant, you see things there that match his thinking. That’s when you know things are right – you say something, you do it.
What’s next for you and La Paix?
La Paix has a new look now. We have moved towards a Japanese style. Now on the walls we hang A Thousand Origami. It’s crazy. It’s from a Belgian designer who also loves Japan. We create an atmosphere, but the spirit of the bistro remains – we’re not changing our story, we’re adding to it.