Can Jean Imbert, a chef with no Michelin stars, replace Alain Ducasse, the most decorated living French chef? Critics say no, chefs back him
- Social media darling Jean Imbert is taking over the Plaza Athénée restaurant from Alain Ducasse
- The Top Chef winner has ignited a storm of snobbery from French critics, but his fellow chefs are more encouraging
Jean Imbert has one of the trickiest jobs in France – not only taking over from the country’s most decorated chef at one of its fanciest restaurants, the Plaza Athénée, but also proving himself to some of the sniffiest food critics on the planet.
French gastronomy is not known for its love of young upstarts, and Imbert seems tailor-made to rub some people up the wrong way.
And yet that is where Imbert finds himself, having started at its brasserie last week while the restaurant prepares to reopen in 2022. Imbert himself is staying uncharacteristically quiet as he knuckles down to the task. But plenty in the industry are having their say.
For food critic Francois-Regis Gaudry, it’s all too “bling-bling”. “He has neither the CV nor the experience for such a place,” he said, adding that Imbert’s talent for celeb selfies and brand endorsements were decidedly “extra-culinary”.
For Le Figaro’s food critic Emmanuel Rubin, Imbert’s appointment was “unworthy” of a top hotel. Franck Pinay-Rabaroust, the founder of food magazine Atabula, also has his doubts.
“It’s an earthquake,” he said. “He’s broken all the codes. For the first time, we are putting a chef into a palace who doesn’t have any stars, who hasn’t proved himself with other big chefs. “At best, it’s surprising. At worst, it’s worrying,” he added.
Some of Imbert’s fellow chefs, however, have been more encouraging. “You can have a great experience even from a chef without any stars,” said Glenn Viel, the youngest French chef to earn three. “It’s quite daring, quite ballsy and it could attract a younger clientele looking for something new. I’m sure he’ll be successful.”
For some, Imbert’s rise reflects a wider change in the approach of luxury hotels, especially as the pandemic forces them to tighten their belts. Hotels increasingly feel it is unnecessary to compete with individual restaurants, where the star chef is more likely to be present and communing with diners, said three-star chef Guy Savoy.
He pointed to the recent closure of starred restaurants at the famed Prince de Galles and Shangri-La hotels. “The Ritz has also practically stopped this constant race for stars,” he said.
“It’s a 180-degree change” for the Plaza, she added. “But that doesn’t shock me. The food is less complex, less worked up, but the taste is there.”