Described as “chef royalty”, Le Bristol Paris’s very own culinary legend Eric Frechon is celebrating 20 years at the hotel and 10 years as the holder of three Michelin stars.
Marie-Catherine de La Roche spoke to him about his culinary philosophy, the future of French cuisine and why he loves baking bread.
The story of Eric Frechon’s 20-year reign at the top of Paris’s fine-dining scene begins not in the French capital but in Normandy. The son of market gardeners, when Frechon was 13 he wanted to earn money to buy a bicycle – so he got a job as a kitchen assistant in a local restaurant. And it was here, watching the chefs at work, that he discovered his passion for food. Next came catering college, after which he moved to Paris, starting at La Grande Cascade restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne, before moving to Le Bristol Paris as a commis chef. He then reached for the stars at Taillevent, followed by La Tour d’Argent, before moving to Byblos Andaluz in Spain. And that was where Frechon – a true native of Normandy, raised on heaps of butter – discovered olive oil.
Eric Frechon at Le Bristol’s Epicure restaurant
Back in Paris, he joined Christian Constant, chef at the Hôtel de Crillon, marking the start of seven happy years and a personal journey that led to his being awarded the title of “Meilleur Ouvrier de France” – France’s nest artisan. But he still wanted a restaurant to call his own. So in 1995 he opened La Verrière, where he created a “bistronomic” experience that had Parisians queuing around the block. But the “all-inclusive menu” left him craving something more creative. And that’s when Le Bristol knocked on his door. For Frechon, it was like returning to his first love. He left La Verrière, and this former apprentice, now an accomplished virtuoso, channelled his energy into the palace hotel’s haute cuisine. The following year, in 2001, Epicure, his restaurant at Le Bristol, was awarded two Michelin stars. A third star followed in 2009, while in 2013, the hotel’s brasserie, 114 Faubourg, was awarded its first star. Later that year, Frechon opened Lazare, his buzzing brasserie inside the Gare Saint- Lazare, bringing pizzazz to the railway station where he had first arrived in Paris from his native Normandy all those years before, serving iconic dishes such as macaroni stuffed with black trufle, artichoke and foie gras, and Bresse chicken en vessie, carved at the table.
The chef at work on an artichoke starter
Frechon also designed the menus for Le Mini Palais on Avenue Winston Churchill and Le Drugstore on the Champs- Elysées, as well as overseeing the kitchen at Céleste, the Michelin-starred restaurant at The Lanesborough in London. But Le Bristol remains his touchstone and the epicentre of his haute couture cuisine. And it was here that we caught up with Frechon to celebrate his 20th anniversary at the hotel…
How do you think the Parisian gastronomic scene has changed over the last 20 years?
It’s constantly on the boil, to use a culinary phrase. Visually, it’s more modern now. Some national cuisines have emerged – Spanish, Nordic and so on. And it’s become more globalised. Maybe a little too much, perhaps to the detriment of local and regional produce – to our “terroir”. But I think it’s going back to its roots now. And in the end, it’s still the DNA of what our cuisine is really about.
What do you say to the prophets of doom who frequently predict the demise of French cuisine?
French cuisine is never “fashionable”, but it never goes out of style either. It’s evolving, of course. We don’t eat like we did 30 years ago. French cuisine moves with the times, but in a serene way. It’s never loud, trendy or faddish – but it’s always there!
How has your own cuisine changed over the years?
I took the classic route, working for famous chefs. But thanks to Christian Constant – who was the first chef to put the spotlight on “cuisine du terroir” in a palace hotel – I had my own signature style when I left Le Crillon. When I opened La Verrière, my bistro in the 19th arrondissement, I wanted to bring out the best in simple produce like herring, whiting and beef cheek. Then Le Bristol Paris opened its doors to me. Of course, the cuisine needed to be much more refined and elegant. But I decided to stick to the same philosophy: there’s no such thing as mundane produce – the truth is in the terroir. When we were awarded two stars just 18 months later, it was a real surprise. It felt like a liberation. My cooking has become more and more creative over the years. And it was a huge honour to be awarded a third star in 2009. I still try to challenge myself constantly. But I never change a dish just for the sake of it. It needs to get better and better. I also try to get the most out of vegetables – they are the stars of quite a lot of my dishes.
When you opened Lazare six years ago, you were one step ahead of the big brasserie comeback.
The “bistronomy” movement reinvented bistros and we needed to do the same thing with brasseries. These wonderful Parisian institutions were in a bad state. Their iconic dishes, such as devilled eggs, leeks vinaigrette, blanquette of veal and crème caramel, are very reassuring and are very much part of French culinary heritage, but they were just waiting to be rejuvenated. Even though they’ve been tweaked for modern tastes, and made lighter, they haven’t lost their soul – they’re dishes to share. Brasseries are part and parcel of Parisian life! Even more so at Gare Saint-Lazare. The first coffee with a croissant in the morning, the butter and ham sandwich, the croque-monsieur at the counter, the great classics served at any time of day, the roast chicken on Sundays with your family… a brasserie is the place where Parisians meet and mingle.
Making bread is your new culinary focus. Why is it so important to you?
For me, bread is the symbol of a French way of life. It’s an essential food and it’s all about sharing. We’ve always made our own bread at Le Bristol. But one day I met Roland Feuillas, a baker-farmer in Cucugnan [near Perpignan], and it changed so many things for me. That was where we got the idea for making real loaves from ancient wheat flour, grown in a way that’s kind to the soil and freshly ground to conserve its qualities. We set up a grinding wheel so we could mill our in our kitchens, and the result is extraordinary. I don’t just mean the taste – you can eat this bread even if you’re gluten intolerant because it’s made in a healthy and natural way. And it matches Le Bristol’s values of providing the very best with simplicity.
Epicure’s “living bread”, is created using ancient wheat flour
Meilleur Ouvrier de France, three Michelin stars for the last decade – what more could you ask for?
I’d like these stars to be awarded to Le Bristol every year, for as long as possible; and for our unique French expertise to shine ever more brightly. The rest is about creativity: inventing again and again to make sharing even more pleasurable. And if I had one wish, as a chef and the grandson of a farmer, it would be to have a vegetable garden of my own.