French chef Paul Pairet worked in kitchens all over the world before settling in Shanghai, where he now runs three restaurants: the irreverent bistro Mr and Mrs Bund, the meat-centric The Chop Chop Club and the highly acclaimed and highly secretive Ultraviolet, an avant-garde, multi-sensory dining experience at an undisclosed location, which was recently awarded a third Michelin star and currently sits at number eight on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
We caught up with Pairet ahead of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 Grand Finale, which will take place in Milan in May, where he is one of the Seven Sages, the internationally renowned chef jury that will ultimately choose the next S.Pellegrino Young Chef.
You first had the idea for Ultraviolet back in 1996, but it didn't open until 2012. What were the biggest challenges you faced in bringing it to fruition?
Apart from finding investors with a long-term goal to accept the non-commercial positioning of Ultraviolet, and to build the place and gather all technology, it was the rhythm of the meal versus the scenarios before opening. Two weeks before opening I still knew that we were missing something. We finally realised something very obvious now: that the sound should never leave the room, otherwise you completely break the rhythm of the dinner. Sound drives the whole experience, probably more than appearance.
What piece of technology, either real or imagined, would further enhance the dining experience at Ultraviolet in your opinion?
The principle of Ultraviolet is to be unobtrusive and to have a natural feeling, even if it’s complete fiction that surrounds you, so if one day there is a very interesting non-obtrusive 3D technology meaning that we don’t need to wear glasses then I would be interested in it. What we do is extremely basic and primitive and I intend to keep it like this. I don’t want them to wear glasses. Also, air blow and temperature, and sound synchronised with eating. We’ve tried these things, but they’re too expensive and inefficient.
What's the most unexpected reaction you've had from a guest?
When somebody can’t refrain from shedding a tear, of course we are all happy in the kitchen, it’s a big compliment. When somebody’s laughing, it’s not so powerful. One day two guests cried two times during the meal. It’s always the same scenario. On our first menu, UVA, it was the forest scene, on the second it was Mont Blanc, a very cold scenario with Shine On You Crazy Diamond by Pink Floyd playing, and for the third it’s mostly Candle in the Wind [a dish of black cod].
Ultraviolet was recently awarded a third Michelin star, but there are chefs, for example Sébastien Bras, who have made the news recently for wanting to return their stars. What’s your take on it?
In general we should all be more relaxed with Michelin. Losing a star should not be the end of the world, but the public’s perception is hard to change. I respect the fact that people want to get out of it and I think Michelin played it quite nicely in accepting the decision of Sébastien Bras. Otherwise, I am puzzled by the fact that the news from Sébastien Bras giving back the stars for personal reasons has collected far more attention than the news that Ultraviolet – the most peculiar restaurant in the world – was awarded the highest formal recognition, a sign of Michelin’s modernity.
What advice would you offer to the young chefs in the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition?
Find your path – show personality and centre your dish on a single strong expression. Competition is always about demonstration, which is too often translated into useless complexity. If they could cook something innovative, personal yet with restraint, I would love that. They should cook something that they crave.
What do you remember as your biggest success and biggest mistake as a young chef?
At random ... Not going to work for Alain Passard, as I was too shy to accept a position that my chef found for me. My biggest success was quite humble: to cook a beautiful Parmentier of Beef tongue for the staff meal when working with Daniel Ballester. I got the respect from everyone that day for the first time – very important to start believing in oneself and get self-confidence.
What do you think is/are the biggest issue/s facing the future of haute cuisine in general?
Aside from global issues about staff or commerciality, it’s to be able to bring emotion to the dinner. There are too many codes that too many people are applying to qualify as Haute Cuisine places. For example, multiple breadbaskets, extensive wine lists, systematic Amuses Gueule or Petit Fours etc… not everywhere of course. It sometimes feels indecent to put oneself on the plate ... that could be key.
What's next for you? Do you have any plans or news you'd like to share with our readers?
I don’t share… I am French.