Sitting at the back of his Parisian classroom, Yann Bernard Lejard was 14 when he realised that school wasn't for him. His eyes fixed on the window, Lejard tells me that his mind was very firmly somewhere else – in the kitchen.
But his head wasn’t filled with the usual fleeting thoughts of what next to place in his own stomach. While the rest of the class were busy learning their algebra, Lejard was dreaming up the next meal he would be making his mother, and what he was going to cook for his friends the next time they all came over.
“I started to cook when I was six years old. I used to cook with my mother and try my own recipes,” says chef YBL, as he is known in the industry. “When I was 14, my parents had to make a decision. They said: ‘You are always showing interest in cooking. Why don’t you try a catering school? You can learn a career, and you will never be hungry in your life, because as a chef you can always eat.’”
Mixing painting with cooking
Now an executive chef at the top of his game, overseeing 11 restaurants at the Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain, Lejard has not only achieved his childhood dream, but also found a way to combine it with another love from his youth – painting. It's the merging of these two passions that has helped him to perfect his craft. The chef is known for his exquisite plating techniques, and uses his crockery to draw out the food he makes using vividly coloured garnishing, edible flowers, wires and metallic foils, and bold brushstrokes of sauces.
“When I was young, I would be out on the street, painting the walls and doing graffiti with my friends. I grew up around art, my grandparents had a collection,” he explains. “It was something I kind of put to the back of my mind and started working, working, working, but then when I got into plating, it felt very natural.”
A chance to start something new
When you are cooking at Lejard’s level, presentation is part of the deal. But the chef truly treats his crockery as a canvas. His plate art has earned him 100,000 Instagram followers and counting, all hungry for his next creation. Far from subtle, Lejard’s now-famous plating style was perfected during his time working at Glow in Saudi Arabia, a place where he was able to experiment after years of working in classic Michelin-star restaurants across Europe.
“I decided to quit and move to Saudi Arabia. For me, I found a kind of peace there,” he says. “When I did the first pictures of my plating, I sent them to my mother, and she told me: ‘Yann, it looks like an explosion. It reminds me of the day you were born.’”
Lejard's entrance into the world, it transpires, was as dramatic as his plates. It was midnight at a hospital in Paris where most doctors and nurses had been sent home for the night, but due to a complicated birth, staff were called back to "help clean up".
“I’m not exaggerating, this is what my mother told me,” he laughs. “So maybe for me, Saudi Arabia was a second birth – I see it like this. All these years in the kitchen, it made me realise what was really my purpose in life. I always liked to do graffiti and drawing, and when I combined this all together, I found a kind of peace in myself.”
'My aim is to try and attract the eyes'
It's clear to see the graffiti influence on Lejard's plates. From the vivid colours to the deliberately messy lines, it's obvious he's having as much fun with these creations as he was with his spray can as a delinquent teen. But as fun as his concoctions are, the food is very serious, and the inspiration for his creations are firmly rooted in the ingredients. "Every day, I choose one ingredient and based on that, I choose one colour that I can extract," he explains. "Then I put a plain plate in front of me. I take five minutes to think a little bit, and then I improvise totally. In terms of creativity, it's all improvised."
An avid user of social media himself, the chef understands the power it holds over the food industry. Look around any restaurant as food arrives, and you’ll notice people reaching for their phones, and when it comes to discovering new places to eat, social media is becoming the first port of call. But while Lejard indulges in it, he insists that it’s not this audience he is creating his plates for.
“My aim is to try and attract the eyes,” he says. “I think nowadays pictures are very important to attract the eye, to catch the eye. But for me, when I’m designing the plates, I just want to express myself. There are so many chefs in the world, and the job now is so famous, it’s very difficult, you know? If you want to create, you cannot copy and I always keep this in mind – I want to show what I can create.”
A focus on food sustainability
Extravagant though his creations may be, food sustainability is not lost between the colours for Lejard. When he speaks, it’s evident he is highly socially aware and ensures, where he can, that Bahrain’s farmers are supported in his work, while limiting food waste. “On the other side, as nice as it is for food to look good, people are starving in the world. We are living in a century that is quite difficult, so me, in my artistic approach, I make sure everything on the plate is edible,” he says.
Executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain, is a new role for Lejard, and one that will see him lead 130 chefs in, among other things, the art of plating. “They saw my progress in my five years here, they always saw my style of plating, and they don’t want to copy, because they understand that if you want to copy, you cannot create. So I try to push them to elevate themselves until they find the next level of excellence.
“The world is changing fast and if I can have the possibility to leave a very light print of my individual person in this world of seven billion people, I will be satisfied.”