It's not unusual for a chef, upon launching a new cookbook, to label it his life's work, but in the case of Yannick Alleno's Ma Cuisine Française, that statement's almost certainly true. At a hefty 1,250 pages and measuring 37x48cm, the book looks as cumbersome to use as packing a case of the precisionpressed blazers and tapered jeans the top French chef favours, and heaving it from France to Asia.
Despite its inclusion of 500 recipes, this cookbook will never be propped up on the kitchen worktop, pages stuck together with sauce spattered from the pan, It's a book that aficionados of fine cuisine and top chefs buy to keep, to savour, to admire – much like the good food and wine they adore. Alleno hired leading photographers to capture his dishes, styling replaces the experience of tasting the dish and it is, as the saying goes, a feast for the eyes. Indeed, one avid Asian collector has already splashed out US$2,000 each for the editions numbered 8, 88 and 888 (only 1,000 were printed).
Until fairly recently, Yannick Alleno was a successful French chef in a kind of under-the-radar way. Highly acclaimed, with three Michelin stars, he worked in top hotels for 25 years, most notably from 2003-2013, producing haute cuisine at Le Meurice, which is about as prestigious as it gets in French cooking.
Anyone meeting him might deduce that keeping so close to the kitchen was precariously close to being a waste – save, naturally, for the exquisite food he was producing. Tall and Gallicsuave, with cheekbones chiselled enough to cut through Le Meurice's best china, Alleno's movie-star looks should have made him a goto foodie figurehead. Indeed, it's quite safe to say that ingredients aren't the only thing he's been able to charm. But what the chef was missing, it appeared, was a cause.
Boredom changed that. And Paris (but not boredom with Paris – quite the opposite, in fact). First was a realisation, says the native Parisian, that French food pairing, though wonderful, hadn't changed in centuries.
“We joked that the English have two sauces, one brown and one yellow,” he tells me, a Brit, with a cheeky challenge in his mahogany eyes. “Whereas in France our DNA was sauces. We had such a big repertoire, but all chefs looked to this, this bibliothèque, to make the dish, to make the sauce”. Feeling hemmed in like a slave to the formula, he sought to tinker.
He began to fight with tradition at about the same time he began to rediscover it. When he started to experiment with flavour combinations, he also began a new search for fruits, meats and vegetables, venturing beyond the huge Rungis wholesale market, where so many of the city's chefs go to source. That led to a discovery, not only of food grown less intensively by growers dedicated to their cause, but to foods grown within the geographical limits in which Parisian cuisine had been created. Many had become more or less extinct – eclipsed by mass-produced counterparts available widely and all year round.
Since then, the chef has become a leading voice for his city's “localvore” food movement. In 2012, he opened Terroir Parisien in Paris's Latin Quarter to revive classic dishes using a trove of ingredients grown around the capital. It's here that rustic countryside dishes rub shoulders in the kitchen with chic city favourites. Chalked boards show dishes with vegetables from small producers, such as spinach from Montfermeil and heirloom Belle de Fontenay potatoes, and forgotten classics like freshwater-fish-and-eel stew. A second Terroir dining room followed, on the Right Bank. He's also started a vegetable garden to supply his kitchens.
Now with restaurants in Beijing, Taiwan and Morocco, Alleno is planning to bring his brand of modern French into the global sphere, though he admits it's impossible fully to replicate the real deal so far from his homeland. But after so long grinding away in hotel kitchens, it appears freedom has given him wings to delve deeper than ever into the food that motivates him.
Talk to him now, and his preoccupation is that fundamental element of French cuisine: sauces. Upon discovering that the most concentrated flavour in a handmade terrine was in its jelly, he wondered, “How can I do this every day?” The answer came via a process called frozen extraction. “The elements crystallise. It's like a reverse evaporation. The flavour is intense, like an ice wine,” he says, his eyes sparkling like the crystals he describes.
In December 2012, after four months of research, he opened Le 1947 at LVMH's Le Cheval Blanc hotel at Courchevel in the French Alps. Here diners – just 25 covers are served each evening – sample an elevated haute cuisine that merges classic French tradition with highly experimental thinking. It's not unusual for Alleno to spend a month working on a single jus. He's served a deconstructed onion soup, in which the diner covers the croutons and cheese in a rich, light broth at the table. This is his idea of a “modern sauce”, that's “light and tasty”.
Alleno has released other books, but his newest compendium is a defining moment, detailing his 25-year education in prestigious kitchens. It delves into the storied history of French cuisine, while at the same time reinventing the way that cuisine has always been made. Although his roots, like the ingredients he uses, remain in France, he increasingly travels to promote that heritage. If it had come any earlier than two decades into his career, a tome such as this might have seemed overly audacious; instead it stands as an impressive repository of accumulated knowledge, dressed up as culinary art.