Arriving at Yann Bernard Lejard’s culinary home of Plums at The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain, I’m greeted by Giovanni Odaglia, the restaurant manager, who guides me through the darkly decorated restaurant, with its splashes of orange and purple, and into the private dining room, where I’m about to meet the chef.
I ask Giovanni if I can take a look at the evening’s menu, but he politely declines, explaining: “There is no menu yet. I discover what I’m going to serve each evening maybe half of an hour before the start of service each day.”
This lack of convention doesn’t prove to be a cause of frustration for Giovanni, who is happy with the arrangement and fully supports Yann and his creative approach to the daily menu. “Chef needs to paint,” he says with a smile, referring to Yann’s artistic approach.
Yann is experiencing a high—liberated and unshackled, his is exploring his art without restraints. His kitchen is his studio and his plates are his canvases. The intense use of colour and theatrical plating leads one to forget, just for a moment, that you are starring at a plate of food and not, as it first appears, a work of art. This is a chef who has certainly found his unique place in the world’s culinary spectrum.
Since his arrival at Plums, Yann has transformed the restaurant from a modern steakhouse to a fine-dining destination, attracting people from far and wide to sample his menu. “I have put my touch on the restaurant and slowly we are changing from steakhouse to contemporary steakhouse and now towards my modern cuisine.”
Having turned 40 last year, Yann has spent his entire working life in the hospitality industry, “it is all I know,” he confesses. “I started at cooking school very early, at 15-years-old. It then took me 15 years or so, maybe until I was about 33, to stop and take a break,” he explains.
Growing up between what he describes as “a very nice part of the south of France”, and Paris, he admits he’s always wanted to be a chef, knowing from a very young age—“from around the age of seven”—this is where his life should take him.
“In school I was not so much of a good student. I was not interested or focused,” he admits.
After finishing his culinary training, Yann’s first job was in a small restaurant in the south of France feeding fried fish to tourists, but soon after came bigger opportunities. He has since worked in 10 countries, including Russia, Saudi Arabia and Switzerland, in some of Europe’s top kitchens such as those of Peter Knogl’s at Cheval Blanc and Heinz Winkler’s restaurant in Aschau im Chiemgau, Germany.
“The first chef who really taught me about quality and taste was Peter Knogl, after that I went to Heinz Winkler who gave me a lot of freedom and the opportunity to be expressive, but [he] also taught me about taste and, importantly, seasoning,” he reveals.
Yann has been working in the Middle East since September 2011, when he took up the post of executive chef at the fine-dining restaurant Glow in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, before taking over the post of chef de cuisine at The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain, in 2014. While his rise to the top of the kitchen brigade appears seamless, it hasn’t been without its uncertainties.
Leading up to 2012, Yann was experiencing a period of great frustration. A writer’s block, of sorts, which left him feeling lost in his work. “I was frustrated because I could not express myself and I didn’t know how to express myself,” he says. Revealing that he had experienced surgery around that time and during his recovery period “realised I’d wasted many years and that I needed to find a truth about myself.”
Yann took some time out to clear his mind and, three years on, he is finding his way once again. He explains: “It took a long process for me to remove outside influences from previous work. For example, I was very influenced by Peter Knogl and his way of plating, who I worked with in Spain and Switzerland for three years, but I tried to erase all of this.”
Today, Yann’s style is colourful and artistic, but it is still the ingredient that takes centre stage. “I start with the ingredient. Then I get a taste and flavour of what I want to do with the ingredient and I prepare the sauce. I visualise the colour of the plate, the [other] ingredients and then I free my mind.”
Yann’s dishes can range from using just two or three to as many as 20 ingredients, which he brings together in one final swoop during ‘mise en place’—the French culinary term meaning to ‘put in place’. His work is inimitable. “I don’t draw [the dish] in advance. I visualise a little bit, but I don’t want to be like anyone else,” he adds.
Yann is inspired by everything, everyday—“be it a flower, nature, or the ocean”—the details of life that affect us all, but he tries to stay focused by remaining distant from industry trends, although he admits: “Of course, I keep up with what is happening and I’m aware of trends, but I try not to look at what is going on in the market, in other restaurants.”
His inspiration also comes from within. A place where only he knows: his own childhood. “Not memories of food from my childhood, but the smells, feel, touch,” he explains.
“I had a very good time growing up. I was a good child. I think my plating started from the day I was born, because when I show the plates to my mother and she sees my work, she says to me: ‘It reminds me of the day you were born because it was like a big explosion’.
“I look at my produce when it comes into the kitchen and the memories come back to me. I then decide how I am going to cook [the ingredients], but I like to be surprised when I plate.”
He confesses that not having a ‘normal’ approach to plating can be risky, “because in a restaurant, you need to have a standard way of plating so guests know what to expect.” But that is the beauty of Yann’s cuisine—his guests willingly step into the unknown for they too want to be surprised.
Yann describes his guests as a mixture of local and international clients who he surprises “not with the flavours of the Middle East, but with the taste, my plating and some influences from around the world,” in what he describes as “a light international fusion cuisine”.
“We have a great advantage [in Bahrain] compared to Saudi Arabia, in that we can bring nearly any kind of product from Europe and beef from Australia [into Bahrain]. We also have some nice local vegetables and here in the Middle East we have very good spices. I have just started to use the black lemon (black lemon is dried lime, a local Bahraini ingredient, which is usually ground and used as a spice),” Yann reveals.
The kitchen at Plums is made up of a team of 12, including two sous chefs who also assist plating, although Yann admits, “I am always on the pass, plating and tasting. It is important that I am on that pass, because I need to plate. I try to help them to train and to practice their skills, to taste, and season and get the right balance.”
Yann emphasises his need to plate, because the dishes are Yann’s creations, his brushstrokes and compositions that leave the kitchen.
Given the frenzied finish of his dishes, I wonder if Yann’s kitchen is as chaotic as some of his cuisine. “Actually, no, I try to be quiet[in the kitchen] and my dream is to have a silent kitchen.
“My food is very much about emotions and sensitivity and I need to be quiet, relaxed. I don’t like to be under stress. There is a lot of stress in this role as a chef, but I try to step away from that because otherwise I will lose my creativity.”
Yann continues: “I try to inspire the team by being with them in the kitchen. First I teach them to taste and then to use their hands.”
Yann finds his creativity from deep within. Like his childhood memories, he delves into a place that nobody else can find. “My biggest influence is me. I have to continue to look inside of me to cook and challenge myself and improve,” he says.
And as for life in Bahrain and The Ritz-Carlton, Yann finishes: “I’m enjoying life here. The local people are very friendly. I am free [at Plums], I’m free to do whatever I want.”
Find out more about the culinary career of Yann