In early 2020 Charles Coulombeau won the Taittinger prize, an international culinary award for “signature” cuisine. Both assertive and calm, this 28-year-old chef turned the page on Gravetye Manor (1 Michelin star/Sussex, UK) to start a new chapter in his story: managing the restaurant La Maison dans le Parc in Nancy. So of course, we wanted to check in with him as he embarks on this new adventure. He tells us how he’s taken to everyday life as a chef, a profession that combines creativity and management.
Alongside your wife Roxane, you’ve just taken over management of the restaurant La Maison dans le Parc in Nancy. How did this come about ?
After the competition, it seemed the right thing to do to leave England. We wanted to bask in the spotlight that was shining on us at the time and go for it. We were hired by a very prestigious estate in the Charente region, but the coronavirus crisis led to the restaurant withdrawing our job offers. We were left with nothing overnight. So we contacted some recruiters who put us in touch with various restaurants, one of which was La Maison dans le Parc. First of all, we hit it off with the owners (the chef who set up the restaurant, Françoise Mutel, and her daughter, Rosalie Mutel), and then we fell in love with the place, which is quite a unique spot in the very centre of Nancy, overlooking a beautiful private park. We’d always worked in hotel restaurants previously, whereas this is just a restaurant. You wouldn’t think so but it actually makes a huge difference. We liked the fact that we would no longer have the constraints of a hotel and its guests on our shoulders. La Maison dans le Parc didn’t close at any point, so it was a smooth handover – there was no reopening of any kind. It wasn’t a case of us turning up like knights in shining armour to save it; the business was already working very well, the restaurant was fully booked for lunch and dinner, and it had a very loyal clientele.
What are your aspirations for this restaurant ?
The restaurant lost its Michelin star in January, which I think was one of the factors that led to a change of management. Then with the coronavirus outbreak happening two months later, I gather that the owners wanted to move on. For us, losing the star is a challenge that we’re relishing, and so our aim is to get the star back fairly quickly. They had only lost it very recently, so getting it back won’t require any major work. There will be some minor changes of style in terms of the management, dishes, and visual identity, but we don’t want to lose our customers because they’re very loyal. What we need is for people to see the changes happen gradually. We’re not going to come in and destroy everything or change the menu overnight. I don’t want it to become “Charles and Roxane’s restaurant”, I want it to remain La Maison dans le Parc. It’s a shared story, one which is in the process of renewal.
How do you define your creative process ?
If the creative process is going to start anywhere, then it should start with the place itself. For example, the restaurant in England was highly reputed for its garden and vegetable patch, which served as places for experimentation for William Robinson, one of the pioneers of modern gardening. I used to find talking to the gardener and knowing what we would be able to harvest really inspiring. But this source of inspiration only really applied to that place because the clients had a lot of expectations from the vegetable patch. They expected to see vegetarian and vegan menus… But are the people of Nancy going to want the same thing? I don’t think so because there isn’t this story to tell about the vegetable patch. However, there is another story here which is connected to local producers, the history of the city and the heritage of the Lorraine region. It’s something we’ll have to tap into, along with the clientele’s expectations, so that we can coordinate our creation and development around it.
How do you come up with a dish ?
I generally start with one core ingredient. If I’m at the market and I see a magnificent cauliflower, it will make me want to do something with it. We try to limit the number of elements around this ingredient so that it doesn’t take the attention away from the main event. There are classic pairings that go together very effortlessly, then in addition to that we’ll throw in a little twist to make the dish unforgettable – something that might come from experience, out of impulse, or because we feel inspired. I want the customer to remember the meal, even years afterwards. Otherwise, as far as I’m concerned, it’s just a box that’s not been ticked.
I like creating a sense of curiosity with the menu, by writing “cruciferous” rather than “cauliflower”, for example – it’s going to make people ask questions. This interaction with the waiter or maître d’ always leads to an interesting customer experience, and I appreciate that there’s a slightly playful element here, but I find this distinctly lacking in places that are overly stuffy and where you hardly dare to speak… It also allows the whole team to be involved in the process.
Before lockdown, I’d never taken the time to sit down behind a desk to create. Having to stay at home meant I had to come up with the menus for Nancy sat down on a chair and to use my parents’ kitchen. I found it difficult to create in these conditions when it’s something you tend to just do in your imagination. I returned to some of the techniques that Michel Guérard used, specifically for drawing the plate. Drawing helps me to understand how to plate the food. It’s not the graphic side of things that drives me, it’s more the ingredients. It’s still important, though – before you fill your stomach with something that tastes good, you’ve got to give your eyes something good to look at.
I make sure I don’t intellectualise the recipe too much, if I have to wrack my brains too hard it means that it’s either not the right time to be doing it or that the idea needs to be left to brew for a while, in which case I’ll come back to it a few months later. But it all has to be quite spontaneous so that the flavours are simple.
Inspiration comes from everywhere; I think that staying curious and open to your environment are the biggest challenges for a chef. I also believe that inspiration is a muscle that you’ve got to train and, for me, it’s also about getting my colleagues to take part. I encourage people in my team to share their experiences and to come to the kitchen with ideas.
Do you change the menus regularly ?
We change the menus on the first of the month, which ensures that we stay on top of our game. It can be easy to rest on your laurels if you don’t bother to change a menu because it’s working well. We don’t necessarily change everything all at once, but we make small incremental changes in line with the seasons.
The lunch menu used to be changed on a weekly basis, which allowed our business clientele to come back regularly. This is restrictive because it means that you constantly have to be in creation mode and force the process. It doesn’t always work well. Based on customer feedback on a new dish, we will sometimes make small changes so that by mid-week we can say that we’ve truly mastered the dish. But by then it’s already nearly time to change to the next menu. We’re definitely going to move to changing the menu every fortnight so that the chefs have time to master the recipes and the waiters are also able to assimilate them.
What kind of relationship do you have with your team ?
I see myself as more of a coach than a player. I’m there to spur people on. I’m the one who’s going to set the pace and show them things, but it’s more a discursive learning process where they’ll learn by watching, doing and making mistakes, mainly. I encourage them to go for it and to stay open to criticism by acknowledging that their personal tastes aren’t the same as everyone else’s.
Have you felt more confident in your cooking since being awarded the Taittinger prize ?
Generally speaking, I was already pretty confident and the prize is something that matches my style of cooking, as I try to do simple things but that are well-executed. The main outcome of the competition was gaining recognition and credibility in the eyes of other professionals because the prize has tremendous value within the community. I wouldn’t say that it’s given me more confidence in my own abilities because I didn’t need any: it’s in my nature to push myself and I don’t need to be pushed. It’s an attribute that I find in one of my other passions, sport. I play a lot of sports because I enjoy challenging myself. It was the same when I took part in the competition, it was a challenge that I relished. I practised a lot beforehand. Hard work pays off, you’ve got to try and take a chance. It’s linked to what I said earlier: don’t be scared about taking risks.