Food lovers making a gourmet pilgrimage to France discover a proud country with gastronomy that is officially recognised as a Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage, while the nation’s chefs dominate the gourmet bible, the venerable Michelin Guide.
But outside this cosy establishment, when it comes to global fine-dining trends symbolised by the increasingly influential World’s 50 Best Restaurants, France is represented by only three restaurants. The highest-rated French address, breaking into the latest list for the first time at the elevated position of 10th, is the discreet, under-the-radar dining destination Table.
Located in the bohemian area of the 12th arrondissement, close to the lively Marche d’Aligre food market in Paris, Table is far from the chic neighbourhoods of the city. It is overseen by self-trained chef, Bruno Verjus, who only opened its doors 10 years ago following a career as a journalist, food writer and blogger.
“Sacrebleu!” is certainly what some French restaurant critics are muttering. I live near the market and remember Table taking over the premises of a beloved bistro, with the lunch menu doubling in price to €25 ($28), not in the budget of most locals. Today, the obligatory tasting menu is a stratospheric €400 ($441).
Michelin has cautiously awarded Table two of its precious stars, but curious foodies from around the world looking for a different Parisian fine-dining experience need to join a long waiting list to get a reservation. So the time seems right to meet Monsieur Verjus and discover just what is so special about his offbeat restaurant and celebrated cuisine.
Located on a quiet residential street, you might walk straight past Table’s anonymous entrance, but when the sliding door opens, you will immediately know this is a very original restaurant. A long metal counter, echoing a classic bistro zinc bar, snakes from one end of the dining room to the other.
On one side, 24 diners sit on high stools, while on the other, a brigade of seven chefs prepare the 10 different dishes that will be served during the meal. There is no back kitchen for preparing food, as at Table, what you see is what you get; the freshest ingredients imaginable – from deep-sea scallops and a nine-kilo turbot to foraged pleurote mushrooms and freshly picked herbs.
The menu changes frequently, not only every day, but often from lunch to dinner. My first impression, which stays throughout the meal, is that I have never experienced such a relaxed atmosphere in Paris, both among the enthusiastic foodie customers, dressed for the most part in jeans, jumpers and trainers, and the unstressed cooks who never seem to be under any pressure.
Omnipresent throughout the meal, overseeing his brigade, chatting with clients in various languages, slicing raw sardines or tossing one of his signature salads, is Verjus, a larger-than-life personality who genuinely seems to be having fun.
When I ask for his opinion about one of the major issues threatening fine dining’s sustainability around the globe, the problem of recruiting and keeping staff happy, he just asks me to look at the smiling faces of his clearly happy waiters and kitchen team.
“Yes, all the staff work very hard here, but I created an environment where Table is only open four days a week, leaving the weekend and Monday free for personal, private time, something that is very important today.
“Also we only have a single service for both lunch and dinner, with a maximum of 24 diners, so I like to think that all the team is stimulated and excited rather than stressed out and pressured. That is the way to keep your workforce motivated in a modern restaurant.”
All the great chefs I have met over the years are marked by an incredible passion for their cuisine, but during working hours, I would not say they often have fun because there is never-ending pressure to maintain their guide book rankings. Verjus, though, avoided years as a kitchen apprentice, only deciding to open his first locale at the age of 51. He has no formal cuisine training and has never even worked in another restaurant.
He begins by telling me: “I don’t see myself as a chef or restaurateur, but as a cook – a ‘cuisinier’ – because working in the kitchen is an energising, living experience for me. I was inspired by the great artist, Eugène Delacroix, who said, ‘A painting is created only when you start to paint,’ and for me, cooking is created only when you get to work in the kitchen. That is where I find my inspiration.
"When I opened Table 10 years ago, it was to create a restaurant where I would want to eat every day, with great ingredients, simplicity and no ‘chichi’ – nothing fancy. And that concept is the same today. There is no stress in our kitchen because all the dishes are essentially simple and can be prepared at the last minute in front of the whole restaurant.
“My cuisine is not about following all the latest techniques or trends like molecular or ‘sous-vide’ vacuum slow cooking. All that counts is the flame itself and respect for the ingredient.”
In fact contemporary food trends in France are not something that Verjus concerns himself with very much. Although, he does admit to admiring “celebrated” chefs such as “Alain Passard, who is totally produce-orientated and has always been very supportive of my style of cuisine, along with the classic haute cuisine of Bernard Pacaud, founder of the three-Michelin-star L’Ambroisie”.
“While the cuisine of the late great Alain Chapel is an inspiration for anyone who respects ingredients and the heritage of French cuisine, for me, the producers I work with are the most important element of my cuisine,” Verjus says. “Every morning when our deliveries arrive, they surprise me and that is the stimulus to create the day’s dishes.
"I believe that more chefs today are moving towards this ‘esprit’ in the kitchen, away from the old-style extravagance, ego and performance that has marked traditional fine dining. Guests should be nurtured, made to feel they are being hosted in the chef’s home and receive a certain energy from the freshness and last minute preparation of the dishes they are served.”
Sitting alongside me are two enthusiastic Malaysian foodies, who tell me it is their first trip to the French capital, and they decided to follow recommendations from the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, because they are “more offbeat and casual compared to the classic Michelin-starred restaurants”.
“The staff are friendly and helpful, we do not need to dress up and the food is simply amazing,” they say of Table. “It feels similar to eating at Gaggan [Anand] in Bangkok, and Bruno Verjus certainly puts on a show for everyone. But the difference here is that it is not Bruno who is the star of the show, like Gaggan, but the ingredients and the dishes.”
In between lightly poached foie gras topped with crispy bottarga and a succulent Arctic crab claw smothered with a tangy sabayon sauce, Verjus confides that his “inclusion this year in World’s 50 Best Restaurants has brought me into an international food community where I feel very welcome, where I exchange a lot with other chefs around the world. But here, I am not a member of the aristocracy of France’s celebrated Michelin chefs. I do not get invited to gala dinners at the Elysée Palace by the President.” When it comes to La Liste, the French classification of the world’s best restaurants, he says “it is as if Table does not even exist”.
“But for me, that is one of the advantages of being a self-trained chef, allowing me to pass under the radar of the gastronomic world in France, while at the same time being treated like a superstar all over the world,” he adds.
“And here at Table, you just have to look around to see we have some of the world’s top global chefs dropping in virtually every day.”
And having lunch with friends just in front of me is none other than Eric Ripert, celebrity chef of New York’s legendary Le Bernardin restaurant. He enthuses that, “I decided to come because some clients of ours, who are connoisseurs, love Table. During my trip to Paris I visited classic fine-dining restaurants, but wanted to try Table as well as it is a different style.
“I love the personality of Bruno Verjus, he is a very talented chef and welcoming host. The decor, being very casual, is fun and refreshing and I enjoy that aspect of the experience. I love the food and Chef Bruno sources impeccable products of the highest quality. The style of the food is excellent, it reminds me of our philosophy at Le Bernardin that the fish is the star of the plate. Whatever goes into the recipe elevates the main ingredient.”
At the end of the meal, after 10 delicious, surprising, exhilarating dishes, ending with a spectacular combination of chocolate and caviar, we are presented with a flourishing literary description of the menu. Many of the diners ask Verjus to autograph it and then pose with them for a selfie.
All very un-Parisian, another world from a classic French restaurant experience, but a trend that for me successfully demystifies the often secretive and intimidating world of haute-gastronomy, a change in fine dining that is here to stay.