David Toutain had cooked under some of the world's great chefs — Passard, Aduriz, Liebrandt — before opening L'Agapé Substance, a narrow, small restaurant in Paris' 6th Arrondissement that's become one of that city's most important openings of the last two years. Describing his first meal there, the critic Alexander Lobrano wrote, "From our first amuse bouche, I knew that we were in for a fascinating meal." Others were bold enough to throw around the word "genius." Toutain was in San Sebastian, Spain this weekend to present at Gastronomika, where he was given (by surprise) the award for revelation of the year. In the following interview, he talks about the state of French gastronomy, how Parisian chefs don't work together enough, and how yes, he does worry about Michelin stars.
What was your presentation about today?
It's quite special for me to be here again, since I worked in the Basque region a while ago.
You were at Mugaritz?
I was at Mugaritz, yes. I have extremely good memories of that, because I also met my wife here. She's from San Francisco and was cooking here.
When did you work here?
It was about 2008. I love the food and culture here. They asked me to do something about provocation and culture, so I decided to do a bacalao pil pil. I love this kind of traditional food, but I did it with red mullet, tonka beans, and honey flavor. Then I did a grilled eel with black sesame and green apple.
So your takes on classics?
Yes, exactly. I wanted to do paella, but they said no!
What kind of paella would you have done?
I see a lot of colors and ingredients, but I'm not quite sure.
Last year the folks at Gastronomika said that France had fallen behind gastronomically. It's something you hear from a good number of people. What do you think of that?
I'm sorry maybe for saying this, but I think that it's BS. I don't really care, really, about making scandals or playing that game. It was very nice to be here and see Martin Berasategui and all of the big Spanish chefs say thank you to Guerard and Escoffier, because they took that foundation to do what they do now. They built on that, like so many countries have — Japan, Denmark.
Going back to your question, how many chefs are in Copenhagen? And how many chefs are in France? If you think about that, you see that France is a strong force.
But what I will say is that we don't know how to work together as much in France. We need to work together and share, like they do in Spain, in Denmark. It's maybe too much about saying "I do, I do, I do" in France, and we suffer for that. You see in Copenhagen that restaurants on certain days will have a ton of cooks at lunch service or something like that, and a lot of them are from other restaurants. I've asked, and they say, "Well, it was a busy lunch service, so some of my friends sent some of their guys to help out." That is beautiful. That is amazing.
I think about my son, about how little time we have here, and it makes me want to just shut up and do my work instead of playing little games. You need to be a decent example.
Would you consider what you do bistronomie?
No, I don't think so. We are pretty young. Years ago, when you were 31 like I am now, you were a sous chef at a big restaurant. You'd become a chef later. We are young chefs who worked at wonderful restaurants and decided to open our own places with a good foundation. It isn't too crazy. It's about respecting the product. But we need to work more.
We need to have more communication between us, we need to share more, we need to speak with each other more. We need to connect more. Last night, there was a dinner with ten Spanish chefs. Why didn't we do something like that?
Do you think people try or is it really lacking?
We try somewhat, but not enough.
I remember that right after you opened, a couple of people threw the word "genius" around and lavished you with insane praise. How do you process that? Does it add pressure?
Yes and no. We had so many articles in that first year. I read everything — blogs, articles, whatever. I'm a little bit crazy, because I only really remember the bad things. Some people complain about the restaurant and that it's narrow and uncomfortable. But I always try to understand where they are coming from and what they want, no matter who they are.
To come back to your question, I don't honestly keep the good things in my mind like that. Every day is a new day, and you can have a very bad service after a good one. You have to understand that.
Is the narrowness and all this a limitation or a choice?
It's a limitation, yeah. I can't do more. I cannot break the wall! I have a small kitchen, we work with that.
Back to the question of praise, do you want it, though? Do you care about the stars?
I definitely do. I want stars.
One is good. Two is a dream, maybe. It's a lot of work.
You respect Michelin?
Yeah, I always have respected it. I grew working at restaurants with stars, and it's a beautiful prize. I would be lying if I denied that. I know Michelin is different from country to country and all this, but I do want the stars.
You worked at Mugaritz, at Corton, at L'Arpège. I'm wondering how you come out of those experiences and manage to somethign that is your own?
I am extremely lucky, because I was able to work at all the places I wanted to work at — Veyrat, Corton, Mugaritz. I wanted to understand the philosophies, the restaurants.
Yes, but how do you find your own voice?
I was very afraid about this when I became a chef and opened the restaurant. I took a piece of paper and a pen and didn't know what to do. The spinach with carrots is Alain Passard, this sauce is Marc Veyrat, this other thing is Andoni, so you don't know. I started doing a mix of all of this, and step-by-step started to understand my own food.
Are you there yet?
No, no, no, no, no. I'm happy that I'm not, actually. That is the point. It takes time. But I am so happy that I can be here today, making a show at Gastronomika, receiving a prize, and all this. The process is not going too bad, but it never stops.