The Dauphin Ascends
Lisa Abend - October 2011
Twenty-one years after his father’s sudden death, Romain Chapel, the young boy Alain Chapel left behind, assumes command of one of the world’s seminal kitchens. Lisa Abend travels to Mionnay to see what lies ahead.
Alain Ducasse’s first meeting with the man who would change his life was hardly propitious. The young cook was then working at Roger Vergé’s Moulin de Mougins on the Provençal coast when he heard that every Sunday a certain chef he admired went to the market in Lyon. He took a rare day off to drive the 500 kilometers (311 miles), found his target perusing some vegetables, and blurted out, “Monsieur, I want to work with you.” “All right,” was his idol’s laconic response. Ducasse turned around and drove 500 kilometers back to the Côte d’Azur—a 10 hour drive for a total of two words. “But it was worth it,” he recalls today. “Because that is how I started working with Alain Chapel.”
Few names in contemporary culinary history inspire the kind of reverence that attaches to Alain Chapel. In his day, he was one of France’s most renowned chefs, widely considered not only a father of nouvelle cuisine but its truest innovator. His untimely and sudden death from a stroke in 1990 at the age of 53 put an end to that innovation, but not to his reputation. Today, even chefs too young to have enjoyed his food continue to speak of him in almost mythological terms. So it can’t be easy to be Romain Chapel, who, at 28, has recently become chef/patron of his father’s kitchen at Restaurant Alain Chapel.
How, after all, do you succeed a legend? In 1970, when Alain Chapel took over his parents’ roadside inn in Mionnay, outside Lyon, he began a spectacularly rapid climb through France’s culinary hierarchy; by 1973, his was one of only 19 restaurants in the country to have garnered three stars from the Guide Michelin. More than perhaps anyone else at the time, he was driven by a search for purity, and once on the plate, his pristine products conveyed a deep sense of place—a predecessor to today’s terroir cuisine. And although his cooking made him an integral part of the nouvelle cuisine firmament, his driving perfectionism and introverted demeanor deflected the kind of attention in which other chefs of the age gloried.
Twenty-one years after his death, his impact on other chefs remains. For Ducasse, who worked in Chapel’s kitchen for almost two years in the late 1970s, his time there taught him what mattered for a chef. “Rigorousness, precision, and discipline were everywhere, all the time,” he recalls. “And at the same time, his cuisine and his restaurant were incredibly simple. No unnecessary complication or decoration—just the taste and all the taste, pure and simple.”
Bill Telepan was similarly affected. The last of Chapel’s American stagiaires, he took from his time in Mionnay two key lessons: to be thoughtful about ingredients and to prep them perfectly. “I still talk to my cooks [at Telepan] about this,” the New York City chef says. “I tell them that they’re building a house here, and if you don’t do every step well, you’ll never be able to fix the final house.”
Even chefs who never worked with Chapel have been profoundly changed by the simple act of eating his food. David Kinch, chef/owner of Manresa in Los Gatos, California, still perfectly recalls the meal he had when, as a young cook apprenticing in France, he saved up his money for dinner at Alain Chapel. “When I realized that the ingredients in this one dish were just peas cooked with juiced lettuce and a bit of roasted pigeon, it made the hair stand up on my arms,” Kinch says. “It was startling how simple it all was, and yet it still blew my socks off. It made me realize I didn’t know crap about cooking, and that I was going in the wrong direction.” Today, Kinch says, much of what he does at Manresa, from the naturalism of his plates to the way he writes his menus, was inspired by what he learned at Alain Chapel.
Romain never had the benefit of those direct lessons. Just 7 years old in 1990, he doesn’t remember his father very clearly. But he also doesn’t remember ever wanting to do anything besides cook, which is why, growing up, he would spend most of his free time in the kitchen. It doesn’t require years of analysis to figure out why. “I think maybe it was a way for me to try and be close to my dad,” he says.
Luckily, Philippe Jousse was there to guide him. Jousse had started at Restaurant Alain Chapel as a commis in 1982 and worked his way up to chef de cuisine. “It took the first two years for me to even prove that I wanted to learn Monsieur Chapel’s style of cooking,” Jousse recalls. “But once I had convinced him, he taught me everything he knew, from the basics up.” That deep sense of indebtedness helps explain why, when Chapel’s newly widowed wife, Suzanne, called him in Kobe, where he was overseeing the restaurant’s Japanese outpost, and asked him to return to Mionnay to take charge, Jousse didn’t hesitate. “The choice was to come back and take over, or let the place be sold,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been able to look at myself in the mirror if I had allowed that to happen.” While he adapted to his new role, Suzanne, despite her grief and the two young sons she suddenly had to raise alone, made sure the restaurant maintained its standards.
For all his loyalty, Jousse’s position can’t have been easy. In the first year after Chapel’s death, Michelin stripped the restaurant of one of its stars, ostensibly in homage to the chef. Just as hard were the longtime clients who came intent on repeating past meals. “We would get diners who came and ordered the four-hour rabbit, or the asparagus with morels that they had been eating all their lives, and they wanted it to be exactly the same,” Jousse says with a wry grin. “That could be a little troubling.”
Although a client who wants a good poulet en vessie can still get it, Jousse has gradually evolved his own dishes. But asked how his food is different than Chapel’s, he says he can’t answer. “When you work for someone that long, you can’t distinguish between the two—you become like roots of the same tree.” And as Heston Blumenthal, who first dined at Restaurant Alain Chapel in the 1980s with his parents and has been back to eat a few times since the chef’s death, points out, the influence was mutual. “Philippe’s food is Chapel’s food. And Chapel’s food is Philippe’s. You can’t separate them.”
In addition to running the restaurant, Jousse, in time, came to adopt another role: mentor. Just as Alain Chapel had done for him, Jousse taught Romain everything he knew about cooking, then sent him off to do stages with Michel Troisgros and Olivier Roellinger. Two years ago, he returned to become co-chef. What would seem to be an impossible situation—a chef dedicates his entire professional life to his employer’s family, only to have the scion of that family prepare to replace him—works in this case because of the two men’s relationship. Romain sees Jousse as a father figure, and he, in turn, views himself as an intermediary, the person responsible for transmitting Alain Chapel’s approach to food to Romain. “I’m the hyphen between them,” Jousse says.
It’s a kind of loyalty hard to imagine in an American chef. But Telepan says he understands it. “Philippe was tapped by a great chef. And now he gets to go to work every day in a beautiful restaurant and cook with the most beautiful products. What more could a true chef want? So what if he’s not Emeril?”
The hyphen that Jousse mentions is not merely a metaphor. Today, the room at Restaurant Alain Chapel remains much the way it always was—the gorgeous flower-filled garden, the flagstone floors, the massive fireplace—all of it is now overseen by Chapel’s older son, David. But the menu is quite literally divided in two, with an “historic” half that belongs to Jousse and the other to Romain’s creations. You might think it would be disjointed, but somehow it works, probably because they are both, in their own fashion, working from the same base. Jousse’s lemony “grecque” of perfect vegetables served with a warm sheep’s milk cheese may be classic, but the dish is bright enough to feel wholly modern. Romain’s roasted lobster may get an unexpected jolt of exoticism from cocoa nibs and cabbage leaves, yet its flavors are clean enough to feel like a natural evolution from, rather than an abrupt rupture with, his father’s cooking.
Which is not to say that Romain and his brother David don’t have changes in mind, and they are clearly intent on preventing the place from becoming a museum. “I’m very proud of my father, and very grateful to him,” says Romain, “but I don’t just want to be known as Alain Chapel’s son.” To that end, he and David are considering changing the restaurant’s name to simply Restaurant Chapel. And sometime in 2012, they expect to transform a space at the far end of the complex into, of all things, a bistro. There’s a financial component to that decision, but more than anything, says Romain, it’s about maintaining the spirit of the place. “In the 1980s, this place lived through gastronomy,” he says. “We want it to be just as alive now.”
That’s exactly as it should be, says Blumenthal, who keeps a dish on the menu at The Fat Duck that was directly inspired by Chapel’s pigeon en gelée. “So much of what Alain Chapel did translates to the modern chef. But Romain should put his own stamp on it. He should have fun with it. I’m sure that’s what his dad would have wanted.”