When did you discover a passion for food? "I'm from Colombia, in South America. I went to high school there but I always wanted to go to France, because my eldest brother went to university [there]. When I got to France, aged 16 [to attend the Institut Paul Bocuse], I discovered the way French people relate to food; how the table, the moment, the meal is important for them. I completely fell in love with their way of thinking, their approach to the food, which is so complex, interesting and rich."
What was it like, studying at the institute? "At the French institute, 40 per cent of the students were foreigners; there were more than 43 nationalities. For foreigners it's very impressive because it's in an old castle. So it's like arriving in a France of 200 years ago, very rooted in the tradition. But as you progress in your studies you learn that the school also has a lot of innovation. The thing I keep the most from my years at the university is this mixture of tradition and cutting-edge innovation. In culinary art education you need to have solid basics, you need to have a solid knowledge of the trade, and then you can be innovative. Many start doing innovation without even knowing the basics. That's when horrible things happen."
How does Paul Bocuse inspire you? "He still presides [over] the board of directors of the school. All of the students meet him and he draws the lines that the school follows in its strategic development. But he's not part of the faculty. Since I became part of the faculty and the head of the restaurant in Shanghai, I am in touch with him more. I have discovered he is a man who, at the age of 87, is still very passionate about what he does. I do envy a lot of my older colleagues, who have been able to work with him for years and have been his disciples. He's an icon of French culture and very representative of what the French cherish."
How do French and Chinese students differ? "We now have 16 Chinese students and 20 French [at Le Restaurant-Ecole Institut Paul Bocuse in Shanghai]. The French are all very much individuals. We go to school because we want to be better than the others; we want success, we want to be the top guy. In China, this very ambitious approach to life is more faded. I get the impression they're more collective. And [finding a leader among] our Chinese students is very hard, whereas the Western students end up fighting each other because they all want to be the leader."
What's your favourite French dish? "Sole meunière. It's a flat fish served whole, cooked in a lot of butter and, just before serving, there's a squeeze of lemon on top. It's simple but extremely good, if well prepared. We chefs are pretty simple guys actually. You'll never get a chef who does fancy stuff [for himself] as he does for his customers. He will go for something more down to earth."