Purple Magazine
— Paris Issue #31

iñaki aizpitarte

iñaki aizpitarte

interview by EMILIEN CRESPO
photography by JONAS UNGER

a decade ago, le chateaubriand
brilliantly pioneered the paris
bistronomy movement, with creative
young chefs, great food, original
decor, and fair prices

EMILIEN CRESPO — Where does your love of cooking come from?
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — I started cooking at a young age because I am the last of five children. My father died when I was 13, and my mother started over. She would often go away on the weekends. From Friday to Monday, I cooked for myself and invited friends over so I wouldn’t be alone. My brothers and sisters were students, and we didn’t live together anymore. I liked to make do with whatever was around. I was trying to find myself, was a bit rebellious, failing in school. I really didn’t want to go to a cooking school where I’d have to wear a uniform — it scared me! It was another time. Cooking isn’t what it used to be — it’s sexy now!

EMILIEN CRESPO — You had something to do with that, I think.
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — I did? I don’t know! [Laughs]

EMILIEN CRESPO — You come from a family of Spanish immigrants and have traveled a lot since childhood. Is that where your taste for freedom comes from?
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — Travel inevitably opens you up to other cultures, other ways of eating, other rituals. It enriches you. It also has to do with not going to school. My paternal grandparents were Basque refugees. My father lived in the Landes, in Hendaye, and then he went to Besançon, which is where I was born. I moved to Bordeaux and was figuring things out as an adolescent with regard to my studies. I worked as a gardener. Cooking had interested me for a long time, but I was afraid of that scene when I was young. I became a chef by traveling.

EMILIEN CRESPO — In 1999, you were 27 years old and a gardener. Then you moved to Tel Aviv. What happened there?
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — I went to Israel because I needed a change after a breakup. I knew that there were jobs there, and I didn’t have a lot of money. I sort of fell into cooking. At first, I was paid poorly as a dishwasher. But I helped them cook whenever I had a chance. When I wanted to quit because of the bad pay, they offered me a position as a kitchen assistant. It was better, but still didn’t pay as well as gardening. I stayed because it made me happy. I enjoyed it from the start.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You are self-taught — how did you learn?
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — I was in this interesting Mediterranean restaurant in Tel Aviv that paid attention to France, to Italy. I slept in a dormitory and would visit the Alliance Française to study French cookbooks. The chef had classical training. I asked him lots of questions. He had learned things a certain way, and I asked him why it wasn’t done another way. It was enriching for both of us. I had never received training, and I started late in life. Then, I moved to Paris and just went from door to door. I didn’t go to school because I was 27 years old, and I didn’t want to ask my mother for money. Eventually, I learned the basics by falling in with the right people.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You never took the traditional route of working in three-star restaurants — I imagine that must have been liberating?
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — It was natural for me. I wanted to work in laid-back kitchens. I wanted to contribute to a kitchen in a restaurant that I would have gone to as a client. With chef Gilles Choukroun, I learned that cooking can be really personal. I wasn’t thinking about creating anything up until that point. He would dare to make things that were more or less good. He just went for it. He liked to provoke. I learned that you can express yourself as a chef.

EMILIEN CRESPO — In 2003, The New York Times Magazine announced that Spanish gastronomy was the new French cuisine, and that it had surpassed the latter in importance. This came as a shock to the culinary world. That’s when you started making your own cuisine?
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — It was a turning point. The restaurant El Bulli had sent a shock wave through France, and the French really got their asses kicked, as they’re so used to dominating gastronomy with their classic, but sort of rusty, cuisine. This wave shook the whole country. Before that, there were certain liberties a chef would never take, in terms of service, for instance. In Spain, three-star restaurants are much more relaxed. Chefs took note of this, of these new techniques, even though it was impossible to reproduce El Bulli — he enabled many chefs to try new things. It was a shock because it was truly a novelty to learn that El Bulli was closed six months of the year to become a laboratory for cooking.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You opened Chateaubriand shortly after that, 12 years ago. Tell us how it all started. What were you trying to achieve?
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — It was about time I tried my hand at my own business. I partnered with a restaurant owner, Frédéric Peneau. We agreed on the atmosphere — he also liked old spaces. We looked around for spaces on our scooters and found this old bistro that was over 100 years old, Le Chateaubriand. We inquired, and they were selling. I had always been fascinated with the old bistros of Paris. Even more so with this one because it is simple, it hasn’t changed, it is pure and really allows a stage for the waiters, the people. In terms of cuisine, I didn’t have any kind of concept ready. I thought I would make my own food in a bistro setting because I liked that, but it wasn’t calculated. It got people talking, though. Chefs aren’t in the habit of developing an auteur cuisine in these kinds of spaces. Yves Camdeborde was also doing that at the time, but it was more classical, regional, though creative and personal nonetheless. I wanted to do something different — for it to be a cuisine that I would want to eat and cook. I would let myself go at the market, try something. I made tons of big mistakes. I fooled around quite a bit. [Laughs] And then I learned. When you work with other people, you mature and start to better understand how things work. 

EMILIEN CRESPO — You weren’t fooling around that much, since you were named 11th best restaurant in the world by Restaurant Magazine in 2010, way ahead of Joël Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, Alain Passard. What did you think of that?
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — At the time, that kind of ranking was provocative and clearly flew in the face of the Michelin Guide. What does it mean to be the best restaurant in the world? Everything and nothing! There were some pretty daring things in that ranking! But I didn’t realize that at the time. The restaurant got very popular. I still can’t see that with much hindsight. The ranking has changed a lot since then — it’s become a large-scale production, with chefs making dinners for the sponsors. I was just happy to go to London once a year to party. [Laughs] Obviously some people weren’t pleased, but that’s okay.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You had some avid critics. In the press, some said that you weren’t a chef?
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — Oh, really? I don’t look at that. I only follow social media.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Alain Ducasse said you were the father of the neo-bistro. How would you define that?
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — I don’t know, you should ask him! [Laughs] Neo-bistro, modern bistro, bistronomy… I think it means a cuisine that does not belong to the history of those spaces, that is invested with something else.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Your unique, unpredictable, affordable menu — how did it come about?
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — I worked à la carte for a long time — appetizer, entrées, dessert. But when you work à la carte, it’s hard to have a large menu in a small kitchen. Space is a problem, storage, the oven. It was important that people leave well fed. So, when you’re thinking like that, with two dishes in mind, you end up making recipes that people can tire of. It wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to try little things. It came naturally. I wanted to express myself unpretentiously. If I want to make sea urchins with chicken liver, I could make them as an amuse-bouche with a hint of green pepper, and voilà! It’s sharp and catchy, and then you’re on to the next dish. That’s how we turned the menu into a little tasting menu. Our kitchen is small because it’s adapted to the dishes made for the workers in the neighborhood, largely mechanics. I have a small kitchen and a large dining room. If I had expanded it, the whole place would have fallen apart. I couldn’t do à la carte and also have a tasting menu. So, from one day to the next, I transitioned to a tasting menu.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You grew up in Bordeaux, and you studied classical oenology when you were younger. And yet, natural wines were an important discovery for you.
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — I like wine. I studied oenology in a very conventional setting in Bordeaux. I didn’t like that milieu at all. One day, my old chef brought me to a small tasting at Le Baratin. I tried one glass of La Soif du Mal, made by the winegrower Jean-François Nicq, and it was a game-changer. It was good. I wanted a second glass. It was great. I became very interested in this at the time. I was one of the first to add it to my menu, with Cyril Bordarier from the Verre Volé, where I would go to buy my wines. And then, I started meeting the winegrowers, and we had a lot in common. They were people who, like us, felt strongly about their work, about making new things. It’s natural wine.

EMILIEN CRESPO — There is this constant thread in your career, which is to go against boredom and rules. Tell us about your reputation as a punk, a bad boy.
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — I wasn’t really aware of it. But I hope it’s the case! [Laughs] All the better if people can sense that there is something about me that they are not indifferent to, in the kitchen or elsewhere. I play with all the codes of the Parisian bistro. To rebel isn’t to disrespect traditional cuisine and expertise — it’s to do it your own way. I don’t pay too much attention to what’s around me.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You’re attentive to the entire experience in the restaurant. I feel like the new generation of chefs is obsessed only with the food, and you end up in terrible-looking places.
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — Yes, there are lots of restaurants decorated with light wood and hanging lightbulbs. [Laughs]

EMILIEN CRESPO — Lots of purple lighting, too, in some of the new restaurants! [Laughs] And the service, too?
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — Yes! [Laughs] I pay attention to everything. It’s important that my waiters are at ease in my restaurant and with people. That they are natural. I trust them completely. I am surrounded by beautiful people, so I don’t give them any briefings. I don’t need to tell them how to be. All of that is super important.

EMILIEN CRESPO — The famous architect Rem Koolhaas designed Le Dauphin, your restaurant just next door, for instance.
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — Rem Koolhaas just sort of happened. He was having a hard time making buildings in Paris — something always went sideways in the last stage of a project. He was working on a hotel in Paris at Beaugrenelle and wanted to do the restaurant with me, so that’s how we met. The financial crisis happened, and the investor backed out, so the hotel fell through. We told him about how we’d bought the restaurant next door, and he said, “I can do it, if you want.” We answered that we didn’t have any money, and he did the project free of charge.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You finally received a star in the Michelin Guide in 2018, after 12 years. Did you think it was a joke?
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — The director of the Michelin Guide called me before the dinner service one Saturday evening, and after 15 minutes, I didn’t believe him, so I said, “Okay, so who got it?” [Laughs] Very well, one star in the Michelin Guide.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You are the godfather of an entire generation — you inspired the opening of Septime, Frenchie, Contra, Trois Mec… What kind of responsibility is that?
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — I don’t feel in any way responsible. People often tell me that. Bertrand [Grébaut] from Septime flattered me one day, told me I’d opened doors for him — it’s a beautiful thing. But after that, everyone will do as they will, at least I hope so. [Laughs] I guess this comes up often enough — perhaps I have to accept it.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You were the right man at the right place!
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — Like Trump. [Laughs] Make the bistro great again! [Laughs]

EMILIEN CRESPO — Who cooks well these days?
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — Raquel Carena at Le Baratin, without a doubt… Christophe Pelé at Le Clarence. René Redzepi. Alain Passard remains a very special chef.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What role does music play in your life — you who are such a big fan of Serge Gainsbourg and punk?
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — I listen to a good deal of garage rock and tropical music. The German DJ Aksel Schaufler (Superpitcher) made me a great playlist for Le Dauphin, with full LPs that have been digitized and mixed perfectly.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What would you like to do next?
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — I don’t have any plans. I have enough work as it is with my two restaurants. I am content with that. I made mistakes at times, wanting to do other things. Luckily, both of my restaurants are right next to each other. There are people who know how to do lots of things at once, but I don’t.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Do you like it here in Paris?
IÑAKI AIZPITARTE — Paris can enchant you and annoy you — that’s what I like about it. It’s always been like that. It’s good here. It remains a rich capital. And I think the atmosphere is better now. Three years after the tragic incidents, things feel colorful again. I love Paris.

END

PORTRAIT OF IÑAKI AIZPITARTE AT THE CHATEAUBRIAND

[Table of contents]

Paris Issue #31

Table of contents

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