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From the Franche-Comté to the Plaza Athénée, deep in the heart of Paris. From a place where «You only eat potatoes, potatoes and more potatoes» to the (two Michelin-starred) cuisine of Alain Ducasse. And in between, the Caribbean islands, Qatar and Mauritius.
Romain Meder, aged 36, has already gone a long way career-wise: yet the sous chef of the Plaza Athénée, which reopened last autumn after a period of closure, is still a person of extraordinary modesty and aplomb. On the stage of Identità Golose, the Milanese forum for gourmet cuisine, he prepared a dish to demonstrate the concept of “middle eastern haute cuisine”: quinoa, vegetables and truffle. An example of the objective that Monsieur and he are pursuing at the Plaza Athénée: the search for a more natural cuisine featuring more cereals and vegetables and less meat and fish.
How did you start working for Monsieur Ducasse?
Before 2000, I had worked in various Parisian venues but wanted to go back to a gourmet context, in the real sense of the term. I worked at the old Plaza Athénée as chef de partie for four years, before going over to La Cour Jardin, also part of the Alain Ducasse group. I felt a very strong desire to depart, moved by a curiosity to travel and discover new things.
So that is how you started travelling.
The Spoon des Iles in Mauritius for two and a half years. Well, I suppose they must have liked my work because I then went on to the Idam di Doha, in Qatar, as chef de partie. I contributed to starting up this restaurant from zero: a blank page on which everything had yet to be written. It was a great challenge to open a French restaurant in the Middle East.
But Monsieur Ducasse sent you to many other places too…
Morocco, Mumbai, New York, Lebanon. To learn: to observe how they use spices, which are not so predominant in our culinary culture, but also how to treat other ingredients, such as chick peas, which are “alien” to the French tradition. And, in general, to let myself be inspired by the Middle East. I returned to take up the second great challenge of my life after Qatar: to take part in the reopening of the Plaza Athénée.
What does it feel like to be working in Paris again?
It is certainly easier to find producers! There are hundreds of small farmers in Paris and in France that I can easily contact and go to visit personally. In Qatar, if there happened to be a producer of good tomatoes, everyone rushed to buy them from him.
Most of your vegetables come from your garden in Versailles.
In the park of Versailles, there is a kitchen garden Marie Antoinette ordered to be created as a sort of “bucolic” refuge. Alain Ducasse entered into an agreement to restore and cultivate it and the garden has returned to life: the gardeners are really keen and good at their job and we use all of these small vegetables. There is an incredible selection of garden vegetables.
…which play a key role in your cuisine. Which is your favourite?
Whatever is in season at the moment, what is coming into season in a month’s time, and what has just gone out of season. Turnip today, asparagus tomorrow. Whatever nature can and is willing to offer.
Was it difficult for customers to adjust to changes on the menu?
We introduced them gradually and nobody was too traumatized. Meat is still on the menu, but we try to explain where it comes from and we still have luxury products we counterbalance with humble ingredients, such as quinoa and truffle or caviar and lentils.
What is the secret of a successful restaurant?
Every restaurant is basically a story about people, the men behind it, which we merely recount every day. It tells the story of chefs, but also the craftsmen who make plates, glasses and lighting fixtures, the farmers and fishermen. We like to put a name and a face to everything we serve.