Yannick Alléno is reinventing French gastronomy one béarnaise at a time.
“Where,” Yannick Alléno asks, “can you get a béarnaise in Paris?”
Alléno, one of the great 21st-century chefs, misses the era when French restaurant kitchens were ruled by sauciers—the specialists who do nothing but make sauces—and when French haute cuisine ruled the world of fine dining. He began his quest to revive French gastronomy in 2013, when he relinquished his post as chef at Restaurant le Meurice, the grand Paris establishment where he had held three Michelin stars since 2007, to immerse himself in a creative spree. First, Alléno set out to foment a “French revolution” at 1947, his restaurant at Cheval Blanc in Courchevel. Later that year, he released Ma Cuisine Française, an epic, $2,000 cookbook that documented 25 years of his work and cleared the way for the future. Now Alléno has focused all of his ambition on becoming the savior of sauces—not so much by making such classics as béarnaise or sauce Américaine, but by reinventing them for the post-nouvelle, post-molecular, post-Scandinavian-minimalism era.
His new book, Sauces: Reflections of a Chef, is his call to battle, while the first foray took place last summer at the Moët & Chandon estate in Épernay, where he opened an elaborate pop-up restaurant called Le & by Moët & Chandon that enabled him to put some of his more experimental techniques into practice. “I like pushing the boundaries,” he says. “I’m always striving for unique creations. The sauces are my challenge.”
Alléno, 45, is reacting to a generation of contemporaries who pursue greatness through sourcing rather than saucing, tracking down perfect ingredients and showing them off through precision cooking. Alléno seems perfectly bored with all of that. “Many chefs say the product is everything,” Alléno says. “I am looking for new dishes, new exchanges of flavor, new ways to express a French DNA that’s always been dictated by its sauces.”
A classic French sauce typically incorporates five to 50 ingredients, which are cooked down until they have given up their flavors and yielded a thick liquid through evaporation. Alléno’s alternative method, on full display at Le &, takes a single ingredient and reduces it through cryoconcentration, a natural process of cold evaporation. Though there is nothing radical about a cold extract, the resulting flavors can be a revelation. At Le &, Alléno made gelée from celery extract, transforming an unglamorous vegetable into a complex, earthy expression of terroir and an elegant platform for a savory île flottante. A tasting of three parsnip extracts—presented in an area called the Blind Shot Room and served with Moët & Chandon 1999 Millésime Blanc—exposed a hint of licorice in the root vegetable. A cold extract of humble button mushrooms, to which Alléno added some bite with a crisp wisp of chicken skin, suggested a shellfish bisque and proved the ideal complement to a glass of Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial.
This performance, however, served as a mere rehearsal for Alléno’s next grand opening: In September, he will take over the kitchen of Pavillon Ledoyen in Paris, one of the city’s most revered restaurants, where he will resume his delectable crusade to save the sauce from extinction—or, worse, banality.