Her passion for cooking has led her to the kitchens of France’s finest eating establishments. Looking back on an extraordinary career built on hard work, willpower and an unresolved love of fine produce.
The taste of apple tart, my grandfather’s green beans… Both unforgettable…” These are the memories that immediately spring to Amandine Chaignot’s mind when she reflects on the flavours of her childhood, those that helped nurture the talent of the chef that she is today. “When we were at home we didn’t spend hours at the dinner table, we made uncomplicated meals,” she explains. “But always using vegetables from the garden and meat from the butchers…” And while these experiences may have contributed to her love of high-quality produce, Amandine Chaignot had no particular reason to make a career out of cooking. It was true that as a child she enjoyed helping adults. “I knew how to make mayonnaise by the age of six or seven. But my love of cooking developed very gradually,” she maintains.
Her father was a computer programmer, while her mother headed up the research department at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). No one else in her family had dedicated their life to food. Amandine was an extremely bright student who skipped a year of school. She alternated between dreaming about becoming a vet, a designer and an explorer, then started studying pharmacy once she had her high-school diploma. “Without really knowing why, most likely to see how it went – but it didn’t suit me in any shape or form.” She knew that her real passion lay elsewhere. This realisation marked a sudden end to her university experience and, without having any concrete work, she looked for a short-term job. Like so many other young people, she started working as a waitress in a pizzeria. While the position may have seemed modest, with the term ‘job’ more anecdotal than anything, it almost proved a revelation for Amandine Chaignot. “It was great. I loved working in a team, building relationships with customers and experiencing the buzz of waiting on tables,” she enthuses. She then enrolled on a cookery course at École Ferrandi to learn how to master the basics: sauces, pastries and the simplest of recipes. The young woman had a dream, a modest one at that: “My only ambition consisted of opening a little tearoom in the Vallée de Chevreuse, where I grew up.”
From restaurant to restaurant, from contest to contest
The story turned out quite differently, as she embarked on a career path that led her to work in some of the finest restaurants in France and Europe. The American chef Mark Singer acted as her mentor. She carried out an apprenticeship at La Maison de l’Aubrac then joined Maison Prunier, where she was selected to participate in the Bocuse d’Or. These experiences were followed by the Plaza Athénée, the Ritz in London, the Meurice and the Hôtel de Crillon. A gifted young woman who continued on a single trajectory, always in search of excellence. Each of her head chefs became a source of inspiration for this budding chef. She has retained chef Jean-François Piège’s “love of books and the encyclopaedic side to his research”, Eric Frechon’s “enjoyment of the same actions repeated on a daily basis, as soon as you step into the kitchen”, and Yannick Alléno’s “business development mindset, love of management and understanding of the art world.” A 2007 finalist of the “Meilleur ouvrier de France”, a competition for the country’s best craftspeople, she also entered a competition that only a handful of women try their hand at – the Taittinger International Culinary Prize, where she finished runner-up in 2005. “Even today when I look back on that, it’s pretty crazy,” she recalls. “I really enjoyed getting ready for the competition and giving a great deal of thought to the recipes. I was prepared to cross the whole of Paris at the crack of dawn in search of the mould that I desperately wanted for a particular dish. It remains a 360° experience to this day, it wasn’t just a competition.” She also feels nostalgic for the memory of champagne that this experience left her with. “It’s an exceptional wine – yes, it’s for special occasions but then there are times you want to open a bottle on a spur of the moment. For the sole reason that you’ve had a tough day and you know that the champagne bubbles are going to give it a completely different ending.” Since then the chef has crossed over to the other side and is now one of the judging panel’s most established members.
Ability to reinvent
Amandine Chaignot was head chef of the restaurant Hôtel Raphaël until 2014, when she left for the UK for a second time. Upon her return to France she opened her own Paris-based restaurant, Pouliche (11 Rue d’Enghien, 75010 Paris), in 2019. She planned to base her cuisine on “the French tradition, bourgeois, but with an update.”The ensuing health crisis only gave her six months of normal trading, but Amandine Chaignot found the energy to pivot her business, turning her restaurant into a farmers’ market that opens five days a week. “I wanted to give a helping hand to the farmers that work with us,” she explains, simply. “They suddenly found themselves with nothing but vegetables that they had no one to sell to.” It seemed a natural step for a chef who developed a love of high-quality produce from her grandparents’ garden. Today the reduced activity of her restaurant has given her time to explore new recipes, a luxury that she previously didn’t have time for. “I’m all about dough at the moment,” she smiles. “Brioche dough, laminated dough… I’m trying out lots of new things. I really enjoy feeling the material between my hands. And there’s also something magical about it. Creating so many different textures from only flour, water, yeast and sometimes a bit of butter…” Enough to dream up new dishes to pair with her favourite existing ones as well as to make our mouths water, including “roasted celery with Gorgonzola sauce or vegetarian vol-au-vents with white root vegetables.” Alongside Stéphanie Le Quellec, Fanny Rey and others, she is now blazing the trail of a new generation of imaginative and uninhibited female chefs. And they are a force to be reckoned with – of that you can be sure.