What are your earliest memories of food? "My mother and grandmother were good cooks. They made Spanish food from south of Valencia. I watched them cook in front of a big fire place, but I didn't learn - I preferred to play instead. My father's side is French, my grandmother made bourgeois cuisine, the opposite of simple. She used to cook a beef dish that took her four days to prepare. So I ate well as a child."
How did you become a chef? "I grew up in a family of architects - my father and grandfather were architects and it was in my blood. All six of my grandfather's sons were architects, but my aunt is a doctor - she was an accident. At the dinner table the family discussion was always about architecture, fighting about what we liked or didn't like about it in a passionate way. My father was a good architect, but he didn't expect me to be one. When I was about 17 years old, I wanted to open a restaurant; I even drew up a business plan and called the imaginary place Mucho Gusto Ole - it would serve tapas and have a party atmosphere. I showed my father my plan and he said no. End of story.
"I opened my firm around 1997 but I was not happy being an architect. It was not easy to be famous in architecture. One day I was depressed and was having dinner with my girlfriend in a bad restaurant in Paris. I said, 'I don't understand this world. This restaurant is full but the food is bad. Why is that?' She said, 'It's your dream - why don't you open a restaurant?' My depression left immediately. Two months later I bought a restaurant called Café Burq, but it was [initially] terrible. I had no clue what I was doing and had to learn everything. It was a very simple restaurant and packed like crazy. Later it was named the best bistro in Paris."
How did your career progress? "I became obsessed with food. Then I opened Le Chateaubriand [in Paris] and I started to learn in the kitchen. The idea at Le Chateaubriand was to serve gastronomic food, traditional French cuisine, using the best products in a bistro setting for only €14 (HK$120) for lunch, €39 for dinner. We wanted to democratise gastronomy. Food can be good without being expensive. We didn't take reservations so we had people waiting outside our door at 11.30am. We were famous for that.
"Here at Serge et le Phoque we are doing something similar - fresh products prepared at the last minute. We don't do much preparation ahead of time - we don't skin the carrot until the last second. We only prepare the desserts and portion out the meat [in advance]. The fish doesn't arrive until 6pm and things get dicey when [the delivery is] stuck in traffic."
Why did you open Serge et le Phoque in Hong Kong? "My partner, Charles [Pelletier], used to hang out at Café Burq, and then he left for Hong Kong. In 2012, on a whim I went to Bali and met up with Charles there. After a week or two we decided to open a restaurant in Hong Kong. I had never been here before. We came in August and I remember it was so hot. It took us a year to find a location but in August 2013 we opened."
What were your first impressions of Hong Kong? "I loved the streets, I found it exotic - all the markets. Our restaurant is in the middle of the market, it's colourful. We now know [vendors there], they know us. It's not an easy area - it's been a challenge. But we can get the best products here. [For our gourmet French ingredients] we use the same suppliers as Pierre Gagnaire [of Pierre at the Mandarin Oriental]. He came to our restaurant during Art Basel last March. He is like a godfather in the culinary world. He ate here and I almost had a heart attack, I was so happy. He sent me a beautiful message the day after and I almost cried."
Where do you like to go when you're not working? "I like the beach, the sea, sailing, going to Spain. It's in my blood, and a place not related to work at all. I just enjoy the sun, the food, the people. It's about holiday memories."