Why one of world’s top chefs opened a bistro in Hong Kong – it’s a social laboratory, says France’s Yannick Alleno

French chef has earned six Michelin stars for his two restaurants in France, so what’s he doing with Le Terroir Parisien in Central, where dishes start at HK$68? Plus: why the burger of your dreams isn’t even on the menu

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 August, 2017, 5:16pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 August, 2017, 10:32am

The last time I’d met Yannick Alleno was earlier this year in Melbourne at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, where he’d flown in – for the day – to celebrate 31st place for his flagship Paris restaurant, Alleno Paris au Pavillon Ledoyen.

My lunch there in 2015 was a truly majestic meal, the beauty, finesse and taste of the dishes nothing short of remarkable – most notably a sort of brioche made from pike. A jaw-dropping location, Pavillon Ledoyen is Paris’ most storied dining room, one which has served diners for almost 250 years and counted the artists Edgar Degas and Claude Monet and author Emile Zola among its customers. It was where Napoleon first met Josephine and, to cap it all, the restaurant is one of two Alleno establishments to have been awarded three Michelin stars.

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All of which begs the question, why open Le Terroir Parisien, a casual bistro in Prince’s Building in Hong Kong’s Central business district to serve humble dishes such as onion soup and tarte au chocolat?

“I love bistros and I came here with the right concept, I think, for the right place. I don’t know if I’ll do something after that in gastronomy, but I wanted to give Hong Kong people the chance to enjoy the food and the place. The food we do in Paris and [the French Alpine ski resort of] Courchevel is very tough to apply. It takes time to make that kind of food. It takes my life.”

Alleno turns 50 next year, not that you’d know it. When we talk he’s relaxed, dressed casually in black jeans and a white chef’s coat, sipping an espresso in the bar at Amber in Central’s Landmark Mandarin Oriental hotel. A preview of Le Terroir Parisien had been planned for media but, as I was later shown, it was far from ready to host anyone other than builders.

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Yannick Alleno

This wasn’t the first delay to the project, possibly one of the most drawn-out restaurant launches in Hong Kong. Rumours of an Alleno opening in Hong Kong began circulating in 2015, but only now, a month after we talked, is he finally open for business. As far as the chef is concerned, it was worth the wait.

“They proposed a lot of different spaces but they were not an option for me. I wanted to be in Central. You have to be in the Champs-Elysees. The space is very nice, a nice volume. The comfort, location and space – I think I have everything now. If you want a double complication watch, it takes time to make it – but it’s worth waiting for.”

Alleno is frank about the latest delay, saying it was due to construction challenges and the finish. “I always look for the details, so I made a few changes in things. It will be a really high-quality place. I really feel that. It’s funny, but when you’re in the restaurant you can feel the weight, the power, the energy. I think there’s a fantastic energy there.”

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As its name suggests, the original branches of Le Terroir Parisien took as their mission a celebration of the produce from Ile-de-France, the region surrounding the French capital. Two were opened, in that city’s second and fifth arrondissements, but both closed at the end of 2016 – part of a strategic realignment with Sofitel hotels, part of the AccorHotels group. However, plans are afoot to launch five new branches in Paris within the next few years.

While some of the produce used in Hong Kong will come from Paris and its environs, Alleno says candidly that it’s going to be less about the source of the produce and more about the feel of the place.

“For the beginning it’s not focused on produce from Ile-de-France. But Le Terroir Parisien is an easy place to meet. We want a counter where you can just have an egg mayonnaise, a glass of Cotes du Rhone and you eat like that. Sitting beside you, you have a company’s big boss, but you are a trash collector. You can speak with him, because everyone is at the same level. Le Terroir Parisien has to be a social laboratory.”

How that very French ideal will translate to Hong Kong remains to be seen. The cheapest item on the menu is a green salad side dish at HK$68, with starters running from HK$98 to HK$168 and mains from HK$228 to HK$558 for the Charolais rib-eye with Bearnaise sauce and fries. Alleno is under no illusions that Hong Kong is a tough market to crack, but he also knows the demographics.

“There’s a huge French community here, so if everyone comes I’m OK, I’m really OK. Hong Kong people are very particular. They enjoy life, they’re friendly, they know a lot about food. The food scene is very dynamic – that’s what I love here.”

I warn him that it’s also very competitive. “That’s cool. I am a competitor.”

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As for the food, he makes it very clear that Le Terroir Parisien offers “la vraie cuisine” – real cooking.

“It’s not assembly. Everything is cooked to order. If we cook snails, we cook them with the mushrooms that go with them. It’s going to be good. A restaurant isn’t a concept – you’re not obliged to constantly intellectualise everything. When you make a burger, for example, it can already be very complicated. We’ve been working on ours. I took a recipe from [the father of French cooking] Escoffier. The bread is important, the sauce, the seasoning. The fries have to be fresh. That’s already not easy. Fresh oil constantly, great salt. It’s about making something utterly delicious.”

To prove his point, he whisks me away, bypassing his PR and takes me down through the bowels of the Prince’s Building into his restaurant, at that stage still a construction site. While the interior was far from ready, the kitchen was gleaming, fully finished and buzzing with a young team clearly in awe of one of the world’s great chefs. One who then proceeds to make me a burger.

The focus and concentration was extraordinary, his attention to the burger absolutely forensic as he constructed its different layers before plating it alongside impeccable fries. He quickly took a snap for his Instagram feed, then led me to the restaurant’s half-finished bar to try it, as bemused builders looked on.

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It was the burger of your dreams, a sensational marriage of the finest produce assembled with precision and passion. However, it’s still not deemed ready to take its place on the restaurant’s opening menu alongside grilled line-caught mackerel with summer cauliflower, or rabbit rillettes with mustard. On that basis alone, Hong Kong’s French restaurateurs should consider themselves duly warned.

Le Terroir Parisien, shop M20-24, mezzanine floor, Prince’s Building, 10 Chater Road, Central, tel: 2522 9990