MANAMA: It’s hard to believe that someone can be equally talented as a chef and as an artist. But French celebrity chef Yann Bernard Lejard proves it’s possible.
Lejard, the director of culinary, food and beverage at The Ritz-Carlton Bahrain not only creates eye-catching presentations for his meals, but he also decorates his plates with edible artworks. Yes, edible paintings.
Lejard’s abstract art is often compared to the that of Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock, among others. His cooking career first took off in his homeland has so far taken him to more than 20 countries, including Singapore, China, Mexico, the Netherlands, India, the US, Ireland, and Spain. He has worked at Michelin-starred restaurants and a slew of luxury hotels. He was also a finalist for the prestigious Swiss Taittinger Culinary Grand Prix in 2003.
“I started from the worst restaurant you can imagine in the south of France, where they put the fish straight in the deep fryer for the tourists, and went on to the best restaurants in Europe,” he tells Arab News.
Despite his success as a chef, however, Lejard became frustrated that he had had to sideline his love of art for the sake of his cooking career.
“I was not happy,” he says. “Even though I love food — it’s my passion to understand the ingredients, the sauce, the authenticity — I understood that, for me, cooking was not enough. My life was not this. My life was more. I was looking for an answer, because it was very boring.”
That boredom was alleviated by his move to the Middle East. His first stop was Saudi Arabia, as the executive chef for the award-winning Glow restaurant where he became the first chef in the Kingdom to be ranked by the UK food publication FOUR Magazine.
“When I first arrived in Saudi Arabia, I changed my way of thinking,” he says. “I found some kind of peace in the Middle East. I felt that I had to try to erase all I had learned.”
He continues: “I was guided by a way of work, so I decided to remove everything. It was a long process, but I started to find joy in working. I found a purpose. The Middle East opened me to different cultures.”
He moved to Bahrain in 2014. “I found the place I was really looking for. Ritz-Carlton is a brand that I really associate with. I feel very committed and very loyal,” he explains.
Here, Lejard offers some culinary advice and discusses the importance of resilience.
Q: When you started out, what was the most common mistake you made?
A: Not listening. And I was in some very good places where I should have listened, because I was in front of very important professionals. In many restaurants, I would work one, two or three days and then move to another one, because I was not happy with the way they worked. But, it was in my head. It took so many years for me to find my conception of cooking. I need to have very strong, professional people around me to be able to work. I’m always thinking about different ways to do things. I want to do what other people are not doing.
Q: What’s your top tip for amateur chefs?
A: Be resilient. Never give up.
Q: What’s the secret to a successful restaurant?
A: The most important thing is that you have to touch the emotion. You need guests to feel good — to feel comfortable. They need to feel genuine care.
Q: What’s your go-to dish if you have to cook something quickly?
A: I have a very strict diet. I am nearly vegetarian. So I’d say tomato with olive oil, soy sauce and coriander.
Q: What’s the most difficult dish for you to get right?
A: Simplicity is difficult. In every dish there is a trick. In every dish there is a specific way to do it and there are the love and emotions that you put into it. Everyone can have the same recipe, but not everyone will have the same end result. I can’t make ratatouille like my grandmother. It’s the food that brings warmth to your heart and reminds you of your childhood.
Q: As a boss, are you a disciplinarian? Or are you quite laid back?
A: I understood, after many years, that alone you are nothing. You need people around you. I try as much as I can not to play with the emotions of the people around me. Even if I do it sometimes, I see that I made a mistake. I like to have a quiet working atmosphere where everybody has respect for each other.
Q: When you go out to eat, do you find yourself critiquing the food?
A: Absolutely not. I’m very cool when I’m not working. (Obviously), I don’t want to be disappointed. But I don’t like to judge.
Q: What request or behavior by customers most frustrates you?
It’s all about the emotions. Something I don’t like is if someone hurts my emotions. I am very sensitive, but I’m working on it. Before, I used to care a lot about the feedback on the quality and mistakes. In cooking you have to be extremely consistent. When you’re cooking with passion, you put a part of you into it. A mistake can happen, and this can hurt my feelings and my emotions. Now, I just move forward.