Le Couturier de Cuisine

“I always compare my culinary philosophy to haute couture,” Eric explains. “Why? Because in haute couture beautiful women are dressed to make them even more beautiful, which is what we do with our products. And in general, the less clothes [those] women are wearing, the more beautiful they are.” The product, for Eric is to be treated like a woman whose beauty can be heightened with exceptional ingredients. Could there be a more romantically French analogy?

Born in the early sixties in Normandy, it was not until Eric was 13 that he became aware of the magic of the restaurant industry. Throwing himself back to the ‘70s Eric remembers, “[At 13] my father told me that I had to start working to buy myself a pushbike. So to make myself a bit of money I started working in a restaurant. I started by opening oysters, working with patisserie and in the front of house. I discovered this world that I hadn’t known at all, but I absolutely loved. And from there I asked my father if I could go to catering school.”

By 1980 he had completed his culinary diploma with flying colours and set off on a culinary journey in some of Paris’ most wonderful restaurants including Taillevent, La Grande Cascade and l’Hôtel Le Bristol Paris. With a thirst for knowledge about the world of fine dining, Eric headed to Spain for two years where he learnt about Mediterranean gastronomy under Patrick Bausier: a huge step away from the French-centric culinary training he had predominantly had.

Two years later and with wider eyes and a growing hunger, Eric closed the Spanish parenthesis of his journey and returned to his homeland. “I learnt an incredible amount of things over those years”, he recalls. And in 1993, while at Le Crillon, Eric was awarded one of the most prestigious culinary awards: the title of ‘Meilleur Ouvrier de France’.

Spurred on by success, the young chef opened his first restaurant, La Verrière d’ Eric Frechon. However, Eric was beckoned back to where he had once gained experience as a commis chef at Le Bristol Paris hotel, now as executive chef. Since arriving in 1999 he has brought Epicure into the exceptional world of three-Michelin-stardom, and earned one star at 114 Fourbourg for its reverence towards France’s humble culinary roots. Aside from Le Bristol, Eric has also opened two other restaurants in Paris – Mini Palais and Lazare – that continue to spread his cuisine throughout the capital. However, Eric reigns his empire from the extraordinary setting of Le Bristol Paris.

A stone’s throw away from the Elysées Palace, the hotel has been a haven for the “art de vivre à la française” since 1925. The elegance and luxury that you may attribute to French haute couture runs seamlessly throughout the hotel – part of the prestigious Oetker Collection – and its restaurants and gardens, thanks to a recent £87m renovation. Epicure’s classic décor unfurls around the magnificently kempt courtyard garden, bathing the opulent dining room in sunlight. Regarded as a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ – a holistic masterpiece – the three-Michelin-starred restaurant also owes its acclaim to its 110-strong team. Working together is “a pleasure”, Eric proclaims. And it shows: the Epicure experience is the unreserved eponymous celebration.

When it comes to Epicure’s cuisine, each dish is the culmination of Eric’s experiences and passion, validating his self-defined traditional yet creative culinary identity. Now that he has reached the stars his aim is to hold onto them, which he professes is harder than earning them. “To do this you have to work hard and question yourself every day. It’s about day-to-day rigour, always taking just as much pleasure from it, remaining just as passionate, and always being on the look out for new dishes. It’s to create, create, create.”

For Epicure’s ever-changing seasonal menu, Eric thrives off the discovery of a “cooking technique, a spice, an unexpected combination, an unexpected texture.” After he conjures up the concept of the dish, Eric develops it further with the aim of each dish igniting a memory for every diner. I can’t help but think; igniting every single diner’s memory must be a tricky debacle considering the restaurant’s global recognition and flock of international diners. With the utmost faith, Chef leaves that job to the front of house. “It’s for the maître d’ to decide what journey [guests] go on throughout the evolution of the meal. It’s for him to judge whether the dishes are satisfying them, if they’re happy, if they’re in paradise or – as sometimes happens – if the dishes aren’t for them.”

Working with seasonal native ingredients, traditional concepts and modern techniques, while cooking exactly what he likes to eat, Eric’s cuisine is oxymoron-heavy at Epicure. Complex combinations are made from simple ingredients, traditional ideas are conveyed with creative execution, rich flavours effervesce with lightness, always offering elegant indulgences. Dining at Epicure is a perfect rollercoaster for the senses. “For example,” Eric explains, “I make oyster foie gras with smoked tea, which is a combination that would usually seem incompatible but it works very, very well.”

Paying homage to each product he uses, he enthusiastically indulges me in his passion towards French markets. In particular, the Marché International de Rungis, which he admires as one of the most beautiful markets in the world. “My childhood was spent at Tréport in Normandy, and there’s better fish in Paris than there was in Normandy. It’s incredible!” With such devotion and enthusiasm towards French cuisine it would be easy to assume that Éric employs a prescriptive use of the country’s produce and traditional techniques. However, when I mildly suggest this, he retorts “If I used three drops of uzu jus in my cuisine, would you call it French or Japanese? The philosophy is very French, but I don’t prohibit myself from using spices or Asian products, for example.” He goes on to explain that foreign ingredients would never be the stars of the show. Rather, they are only ever used in support.

The stars of the show at Epicure certainly obey the restaurant’s luxury ethos: black truffles – that Eric delights are his one of his favourite ingredients – veal sweetbread and caviar dishes. However, smuggled in as another of his favourites is macaroni: “Obviously, everyone knows macaroni is great.” For him, cooking is a simple and honest process of putting his indulgences and favourite flavours onto a plate. There is no molecular gastronomy because “to cook is a molecular process.” Modern cuisine is simply the correct combination of aesthetics and taste.

I wonder, with all of his restaurants being in Paris, would Eric delight any other parts of the world with his French cuisine? “For the moment I have no plans to move away from Paris.” Like the haute couture industry, it seems as though Eric’s cuisine is most at home in France.

Photography | Jean-Claude Amiel