LAURENT AZOULAY, A RISING STAR
Laurent Azoulay is the only Michelin starred chef in Méribel and attracts an international clientele. Originally from Provence, he now pursues his passion in his adopted land and thus mixes the influences of his Provençal origins with Savoyard products. Executive Chef of the Michelin-starred restaurant Ekrin, he is also in charge of the 80 brasserie, which was completely refurbished this summer. The kitchen is now open to view from the dining room whilst the wine cellar contains more than 1500 labels including exceptional Savoy wines such as Berlioz or Masson.
He is also the driving force of “BoKal”, a gourmet grocery store which offers classic recipes of exceptional quality. The idea is to offer healthy cuisine cooked on a small scale and made of fresh ingredients but in sterilised jars, sold directly to the customer without a whole chain of modern production and distribution. It is little taste of Laurent Azoulay’s celebrated cuisine in a small glass jar, ideal for a souvenir.
LETS START AT THE BEGINNING
1976 - 1998
Born on March 24th 1976 in Bagnols-sur-Cèze in the Gard region, I grew up in an epicurean family. Many adventures, thanks to a father who manages travel agencies and a mother who is a good cook meant that I was aware of the beautiful and good things in life at an early age. But I was not particularly studious and it was at an open day at the Avignon hotel school that the impetus came… I returned in 1992 whilst still following the classical school curriculum. I obtained CAP and BEP qualifications after two years broken up by multiple internships in Michelin star-rated restaurants in the area.
I prefer learning on the job to the routine of the college and so I enrolled in a professional BAC course as an apprentice in a discreet, family run but renowned restaurant – “La Riboto de Taven” in Baux-de-Provence. This restaurant, with 1 Michelin star, was run by a chef who made a great impression on me because of his professionalism, his ability to listen, his passion for Provencal cuisine and desire to pass this onto the younger generation… Jean-Pierre NOVI.
He taught me all the basics of a cuisine based on the great quality products of Provence and seasonal cuisine …freshness in its pure state. Those two years of joy in a beautiful Provençal house allowed me to win two cooking competitions: the European competition “Les Rameaux de l’huile d’Olive” and the competition “Chicorée Leroux” which enabled me to meeting some of the great names of French cuisine: the POURCEL brothers, Yves Thuriès, Guy LEGAY, Jacques LAMELOISE, Robert LEROUX… But above all THE meeting…an internship of a few weeks at the establishment of Alain DUCASSE, at the time the executive chef of the Louis XV in Monaco.
What a shock, from a peaceful intimate 1 Michelin starred restaurant to the Rolls Royce of kitchens at the “Louis XV” of Alain Ducasse in Monaco… Palatial splendour, luxury, the very finest products for a goldsmith’s job… I took full advantage of it but was somewhat overwhelmed by the troops of cooks and waiters darting right and left with extreme rigour… my first sight of a great brigade… Alain DUCASSE offered me a training position but I chose to return to Provence and accepted a great offer to finish my BTS apprenticeship at “L’Oustau de Baumanière” de Jean-André CHARIAL, an iconic and historic 2-star Michelin house just a stone’s throw from my mentor in Baux-de-Provence. This is where I learned about the brigades and the rigour of traditional French cuisine… the classics. I tried everything, the kitchen, pastry, the service and a little management too.
EN ROUTE FOR AVENTURE
1998 - 2002
I was called up for military service in June 1998, which I of course completed as a chef, first of all in the kitchen of the President of the Republic’s advisors in the Elysée under Jacques CHIRAC. Then, at the Hôtel de Rochechouard, a private mansion of the Ministry of National Education under Claude ALLEGRE, with Gilles RENARD, former second in command of Joël ROBUCHON, as chef de cuisine. This was another opportunity to learn more of the culinary universe with the king of purée !!! During my service and during my free time, I would work extra hours at the Lido, or for major Parisian caterers or at Alain PASSARD’s 3-star Michelin restaurant L’Arpège in Paris. Here I discovered “to the minute” cuisine, there was no cold room in the small kitchen of this restaurant and so no advance preparation everything was extremely fresh, very plant based.
A few CVs and letters of motivation to great chefs later: DUCASSE at Plaza Athénée, Guy SAVOY, Ledoyen with Christian LE SQUER and it was the great Pierre GAGNAIRE who hired me as a kitchen assistant in his 3-star Michelin restaurant in the hotel in BALZAC in April 1999. I stayed there for a year at the canapés and pastry stations. Here I met another chef who has become one of my best friends and also a great chef, Nicolas SALE, now the executive chef of the RITZ. Pierre GAGNAIRE has me work in parts of the kitchen and I learned a lot from this humble chef totally crazy about his job, passionate about products, who has high expectations of himself and those that work with him. I was inspired by this experience but I was tired of the frenetic pace, beginning at noon on Sunday with the preparation for the evening service, ending at 2am on Friday after the week’s big clean down. From 7am to 1am every day of the week in order to meet the expectations of a demanding clientele and a profession of passion. Pierre GAGNAIRE wanted to keep me or place me in a big Parisian restaurant but I wanted to refind my southern sun.
Back to the south of France in April 2000 as chef de partie at the Bastide Saint-Antoine with Jacques CHIBOIS, 2 Michelin stars…a great experience alongside another chef reputed for his love of flowers. I was at the fish station, the menu is 80% based on fish and fish is king on the French Riviera so this was an important role in this kitchen, but I like challenges. Thus I rolled up my sleeves and attacked two years of Mediterranean and floral cuisine… roses, lavender, brooms, various tree flowers, poppies…I learnt a lot and moved up to second in command in the kitchen. Jacques CHIBOIS took me on several trips with him….gastronomic weeks in Spain, Italy, Singapore, Israel… I had forgotten the pleasure of travelling because of my busy job. Jacques CHIBOIS entrusted me with the position of assistant chef for the opening of his new contemporary bistro Le MIRAZUR in Menton in partnership.
Before me was a year in which I am able to create and invent recipes under the guidance of the grand chef, to manage a brigade, deal with ordering, purchasing,… the daily work of a chef. Unfortunately the investment partner had little knowledge of the restaurant business and Jacques CHIBOIS closed the restaurant in Menton… time to move on. I then moved closer to the heart of Provence and joined Jean-Marc BANZO’s 2-star Michelin “Clos de la Violette” in Aix-en-Provence as sous-chef, where I would stay for a year at the cooking station supervising a team of chefs de parties and commis chefs to produce and offer classic Provençal cuisine. However, I became fed up of not having the inspiration of a great chef to work with regularly as he would often be on the other side of the Atlantic setting up a new restaurant project.
IN SEARCH OF A STAR
2002 - 2009
A chance call from Alain DUCASSE’s recruitment office, as his empire is expanding by buying the “Châteaux et Hôtels” group. I was offered my first job as a chef de cuisine in Annecy in one of the group’s establishments to create a proper restaurant. “Les Trésoms”…nearly 3 years of success, a challenge as everything had to be started from scratch… a team to recruit and train, a gastronomic restaurant to be created and a bistro too, plus a new point of sale in the heart of old Annecy too. 3 years that passed so quickly. I believed that my work was at the level to gain recognition and I wanted that reward but the gastronomic journalists considered that I am “impatient”, the time is not yet right…
However, I want to settle down, finally find a place of my own where I can make all the decisions…and it is in December 2005 with the help of my parents that I take over “Le Saule Pleureur”, a well-known restaurant in the countryside not far from the highway in Monteux between Avignon and Carpentras in the South of France. The restaurant had previously been recognised by the Michelin guide, but my challenge was to start again, find my style, build it up and make it known. Long work, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year… surrounded by a very small team, 3 to 4 in the kitchen without a pot washer, 2 or 3 in the dining room. I finally got my Michelin star on March 2, 2009.
FROM THE FIRST MICHELIN STAR …TO CONSTANT EVOLUTION
As mentioned above, I was lucky enough to be able to work at great restaurants with famous chefs, all of whom starred in the famous Michelin red guide “The Bible of Chefs”. Following my various experiences as an apprentice to chef de cuisine, I set up my own business on December 1, 2005 and won my first Michelin star on March 2, 2009 after 3 long years of work.
The rest of the story is simple, I continued to make my star shine in Monteux, a small town of 12,000 inhabitants in the countryside between Avignon and Carpentras, but not so well located to attract many tourists. Nevertheless, it was necessary to stay focused, with long days from 6am in the morning for the market to 11pm or 1am the closing of the restaurant, including the preparation for two services, plus maintaining the large garden… mowing, watering, pruning trees, a little painting, DIY… accounting, orders….
It was necessary to have successful summers in order to get through the long winter months which are often very quiet in that region.
Tired of all this after 7 years and with finances somewhat precarious, I start to look at winter in the ski resorts… busy from December to April… just what I need to not have to lower my standards in winter and why not make myself a little more known and perhaps attract new customers…
Deal done in November 2013 when I met the director of the hotel le Kaila, the only 5 star hotel in Méribel, who came to lunch one weekday at Le Saule Pleureur. At the end of the meal he invited me to meet the owners of the hotel… in order to sort out the less than brilliant restaurant offering of the hotel in its first year… urgently important to set this right in order to not jeopardise the whole hotel.
A visit to Méreibel later and by 1 December 2013 I find myself at the head of the kitchens of this magnificent hotel in the heart of Meribel, the flagship of a hotel group offering 4 hotels from 3 to 5 stars with various styles of catering…my role however is the gastronomic offering of the restaurant L’Ekrin.
I arrived on 1 December needing to recruit a team to start work on the 4th, for an opening on the 12th, that’s what winter resorts are all about.
A CHALLENGE AT THE SUMMIT
IT’S ALL GOING SO FAST
This was a big challenge for me who had fallen asleep a little in my country back water…challenged accepted and it is surrounded by a completely new team needing training, but aware of the need to make a mark in the 3 Valleys in order to propose a gastronomic offering of the level that is expected, to please an international clientele used to the finest luxuries and very demanding.
The bet was won in just over 3 and half months of activity, a very, very short time frame… I was notified by a phone call from Juliane CASPAR, Director France of the Michelin Guide on Friday, January 30, 2015 at around 14:00 that I was to be awarded a new Michelin star in the next edition.
The same year, I was assigned the position of Executive Chef of the group with as a new objective to take over the restaurant Le 80 at the 4-star hotel La Chaudanne, in order to redesign and propose a new offer to relaunch the restaurant of that hotel. This was done by creating a bistronomic map and doubling the capacity to meet the expectations of hotel guests as well as those outside the hotel. Good growth in turnover has proven that our chosen direction was right and we are therefore continuing to improve the offer.
Season 3, begins with the transfer of my shares of the Seule Pleureur to my parents after a difference of opinion as to the direction to be taken by this restaurant that I led for almost 10 years. But that’s the way it is. A new challenge presents itself…like a dream…creating my gourmet grocery store…Bokal…a new brand, that was born on December 10, 2015 after a quick training in sterilisation and conservation of jars…another profession but just as exciting…and which I am sure will lead to others…
[Published on march 2019]