“In all countries, there are good chefs, but for centuries, French cuisine has been the number one.”
And Manuel Martinez would know. To shed light on what it takes to become a grand chef in France today, I spoke with Martinez who is not only Michelin-starred, but also holder of the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) title.
For a chef to receive either in a lifetime is a great accomplishment: to receive both is extraordinary. Today, at the head of the prestigious left-bank Parisian restaurant, Le Relais Louis XIII, Martinez sports the elite blue, white, and red collar signifying his well-deserved status.
“It is the elite of French cuisine,” said Manuel when describing his experience competing for the MOF title in 1986. The competition was challenging, but far from impossible. After having earned two Michelin stars for his cuisine at the Relais Louis XIII in 1985, Martinez decided to take his skills to the next level, and join the elite ranks of the MOF. His victory proved to be a great catalyst in his career, as he next became Head Chef of at one of Paris’ most formidable restaurants, The Tour d’Argent.
After nearly ten years of gastronomic excellence there, the love affair between Martinez and the Relais Louis XIII entered its second instalment in 1996 when he revived the restaurant back into the forefront of the haute-dining scene in Paris.
Ideally located in Saint Germain, just off of the Quai des Grands Augustins, The Relais Louis XIII has known its fair share of Michelin stars and extraordinary talents in the kitchen. Over the years, its kitchen has been the training ground for the likes of Eric Fréchon, now the head chef of Le Bristol, Yves Camdeborde of Le Relais du Comptoir, and Yannick Alléno, head chef of Le Meurice.
Both a temple to French cuisine and a historical site, The Relais Louis XIII is named after being the very place where Louis XIII was declared King of France in 1610 after the death of Henry IV. In the 20th century, before it became the epicurean temple it is today, the restaurant was a favourite of Picasso, who lived just across the street and appreciated the beautifully-crafted recipes and warm interior décor.
Becoming one of the few Meilleur Ouvrier de France every four years is not a privilege reserved for chefs. In fact, the title of the competition translates as 'Best craftsman in France'. France’s pride in its creative industries is world-renowned, and for centuries, the country has been developing methods of encouraging its craftsmanship industries.
The 'cooking and restaurants' category, one of the most stringent and demanding, tests the skills, dexterity and know-how of the culinary elite. Chefs must be prepared to have mastered the classic French recipes, some of which date back to the 17th century. Following a three-step process, the competition is designed to weed out the weaker talents, leaving only the best of the best in the final round.
Cuisine is developing all the time, but the art of classic French cuisine is still preserved in its full glory thanks to the Meilleur Ouvrier de France competition and the work of chefs like Manuel Martinez. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the French gastronomic ritual was added to the UNESCO list of world intangible heritage items. In a way, yet another mark of recognition for Manuel and the many grand chefs of France who have preceded him.
Le Relais Louis XIII: 8 Rue des Grands Augustins, 75006 Paris, Tel. +33 (0)1 43 267 596, www.relaislouis13.fr