What are your childhood memories of food? “I was born in 1967, in the town of Flers, in Normandy, France, but growing up we lived in Paris as my parents were charcutiers and caterers there. Every holiday we would go to Normandy to visit my paternal grandparents’ farm, where they raised cattle for milk and meat; 90 per cent of what we ate came from the farm.”
When did you decide to become a chef? “When I was a child I wanted to become a farmer raising cattle, too. But, when I was around 14, my father said I shouldn’t be a farmer, because it’s difficult. And, because I liked food so much, he suggested I go into cooking.”
You have worked for three chefs all named Alain – Dutournier, Chapel and Ducasse. what did you learn from them? “I worked in Dutournier’s Au Trou Gascon, in Paris, for two years. He made me understand why terroir is important. Everything was made from scratch, like foie gras, duck confit, cassoulet.
“Before I went to do military service, I worked for Alain Chapel who, for me, is the god of cooking. I wrote to all the three-Michelin-starred restaurants in France and he was the first to reply, so I went to his restaurant in Mionnay, outside Lyon. It was an amazing experience to work for him for six years because he totally respects products and nature, and it is simple cuisine.
“He said to me that opening a tin of caviar is expensive, but simple. It’s the same with white truffles and lobster. But to make a good poulet de Bresse with potatoes is very different. Joël Robuchon and Alain Ducasse are businessmen, Chapel was not – he was just about cooking.
“With Ducasse, I learned about what you need to do to make a successful restaurant. It’s not just about the kitchen, but the dining room, the design, the waiters and the cooks. I also had to look at tableware, tablecloths, tables, chairs. I was Ducasse’s corporate chef and helped him open over a dozen restaurants in Europe and Asia, including Spoon in the InterContinental Hong Kong, in 2003.
“Ducasse is a hard man, hard chef, hard businessman, but I knew him before he was a big businessman – I knew him when he only had two restaurants. It’s not the same story if I knew him now.”
How did you come to open your own place? “In 2008, I cooked a private dinner for a client. Afterwards he contacted me and asked what I wanted to do in the future. I said I’d like to have my own restaurant, but I didn’t have the money. He had a building in the centre of Paris and suggested we open a restaurant there. Two weeks later, we set up a holding company and, in 2010, opened Le 39V in Paris [at 39 Avenue George V; hence the name]. We used to have bistros called Zinc, but we sold them to concentrate on the Le 39V brand.”
How did you end up opening a restaurant in Hong Kong? “Jacky Wu Kai-char, the owner of JC Group in Hong Kong, came to eat at the chef’s table at Le 39V in Paris about 2½ years ago. After the dinner, he told me the restaurant was amazing and asked if I wanted to open the same brand in Hong Kong. I didn’t hear anything for four months. Then I got an email out of the blue asking me to come to Hong Kong to see a space. It was like a dream come true.”
What do you like about Hong Kong? “The people – they have incredible energy. The city is incredible. For me, it’s like London, New York, Tokyo, Berlin. Hong Kong is not China; it’s like New York is not the United States, London is not England, Paris is not France, Berlin is not Germany. Hong Kong is Hong Kong.”
What do you do on your days off? “My restaurant is in the centre of Paris, so there is no point in opening on the weekends. After I finish service on Friday evenings, I drive two hours to Normandy, where I have a home. That’s where I get my positive energy. I love Paris, but that’s where my job is.
“In Normandy, I can go back to nature. I love being with horses and I spend time with my two teenage boys, 19 and 16. They like to cook but they prefer that I cook for them.”
Frédéric Vardon was in Hong Kong to celebrate the first anniversary of Le 39V, on the 101st floor of the ICC, in West Kowloon.