Michelin-starred chef Akrame Benallal treats his cuisine like fashion

Tracey Furniss

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 September, 2014, 9:47pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 September, 2014, 10:27pm

Unlike most chefs who perfect dishes to feature as signatures on their menus, two-Michelin-star chef Akrame Benallal takes it off the menu once it has been perfected.

"I don't want to have one dish that stays all the time - I am not ready for this. I want change every time," says the 33-year-old.

"I begin a dish based on an idea, an ingredient, a feeling or sometimes a mood. I explore its gastronomic depths; it matures just like we do, over the course of service. Once the dish is finalised and I feel I cannot push the exploration or the composition any further, I stop serving it. Once successfully completed, I take it off the menu."

The French chef changes his menu items monthly and does not like to repeat his dishes. He sees his food like a fashion collection.

"I always say my food is not food, it's a collection. The fine dining is haute couture, whereas my bistros are prêt a porter, so when I make my collection here in Hong Kong, I do 11 or 12 dishes - but all these dishes I will never copy elsewhere."

Benallal was mentored by two of the world's great chefs - Pierre Gagnaire and Ferran Adria. "These guys are the Rolling Stones of the kitchen," he says. "I am just like a fan.

"I wanted to learn from within, but when I left I said, 'now, Akrame, you know you have to make your own story'. It was possible for me to make similar food, but I wanted to forget everything and do my own style."

And he certainly did. Benallal burst onto the international restaurant scene in 2011 when he opened his first fine-dining eatery in Paris, Restaurant Akrame, and was awarded a Michelin star within the first six months - something that's almost unprecedented for the famed food guide to do so early after a restaurant opens. The restaurant received its second Michelin star this year. "I had one Michelin star in only six months, and I have two stars one and a half years later," the chef says. "That surprised me, because Michelin is the best review in the world. When I come to Hong Kong, Brazil, Germany, London, everyone knows the Michelin guide - it's important."

He now boasts five restaurants with three concepts - fine dining at Restaurant Akrame in Paris and Hong Kong; two Atelier Vivanda bistros in Paris; and a wine and cheese bar, BRVT, also in Paris.

Benallal decided to open in Hong Kong late last year, as he sees the city as truly international. "Hong Kong is the best city in the world because you have so many people coming from all over the world. So I prefer to have only one restaurant, Akrame in Hong Kong, rather than Akrame restaurants everywhere in the world."

He does intend to open new concepts in cities such as Istanbul and New York, but prefers to stay rooted in his home city of Paris.

"I want to stay in my restaurant Akrame in Paris because this is my baby," he says. "I have [recently installed] a small kitchen in my office. It's my laboratory kitchen, for me to think, to do a lot of preparation for all the restaurants … if the concepts are good, they don't need me … the chefs will train with me in Paris, the heart of all the restaurants worldwide. Here, they can understand my kitchen styles."

Benallal admires the business models of other chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse, but unlike them, he does not want to travel most of the year, preferring to stay in his "kitchen lab" creating dishes.

"When I was young, I always wanted to be a chef," Benallal says on a recent trip to Hong Kong. "I knew that one day I would be a chef. I had a lot of admiration for my mother because she made dishes very simple, but very good. I always asked her, 'How do you do this?' She had talent. She could take anything and make it good, and I wanted to be like this."

He is not interested in fusing his cuisine with local tastes. "All my kitchens serve French [food]," Benallal says. "When Chinese people come here, they don't want to have food that is influenced [by local cuisine] … I think the people do not want this from me. They want to eat French food."

Despite rising to such heights relatively quickly, Benallal has his feet firmly on the ground. "If you have one, two or three Michelin stars ... you can lose them. The restaurant's only judge is the customer … if your restaurant is always full, your restaurant is a success. As chefs we can work for the stars, but we cannot forget the customer."