The son of three-Michelin star chef Bernard Pacaud chats to PORT about reviving an iconic French eatery under his father’s guidance
Mathieu Pacaud was just 15 years old when he started to learn the strict discipline of the haute cuisine. Despite being so young, he was fortunate enough to gain a place at the respected restaurant Le Jamin in Reims, France, under the watchful command of esteemed Benoit Guichard – once labelled ‘the world’s best chef’, by the French Government at the time.
Pacaud took this experience with him and embarked on a seven-year stint at the three-Michelin star L’Ambroisie. It was here where he really forged his reputation, working his way up to reach the position of Chef, giving him the privilege of working alongside his father, the venerable Bernard Pacaud.
Today, Mathieu is one of the masterminds behind the rebirth of historic restaurant Le Divellec (reborn as simply Divellec). Here, we chat with Pacaud about Divellec’s novel menu, reinventing French cuisine, and bringing the traditional atmosphere of L’Ambrosie to Asia.
You started your career at age 15. What do you recall from that early beginning and the key lessons you learned?
My father sent me to the restaurant Le Jamin thinking I needed to be confronted with a tough experience, as I was bored and unruly at school. It was a tough experience indeed, but I loved every bit of it, maybe because of the adrenaline you have when you are part of a brigade, or maybe because I felt that it was changing me for the better.
I learnt my first recipes and techniques a LeJamin. But, more importantly, I learnt the importance of being organised, of keeping my area spotless, of obeying to the chef, which are the first essential steps of learning the job.
What drove you to move to Beirut at the age of 20?
I felt that it was time for me to go abroad, I had the urge for living a new experience. I wanted to taste foods and dishes I had never heard about…I wanted to hear a language I did not understand. Beirut seemed far from anything I had known before: it was both exotic and unusual.
What have you learned working alongside your father, the laureled chef Bernard Pacaud, at L’Ambroisie?
It’s not easy to work in the restaurant of your father, especially when the place is considered to be an institution. My father was aware of that and he wanted me to earn the respect of the other brigade members, so he placed me at the bottom of the ladder. It took me seven years to work my way up and to reach the position of chef alongside my father.
During this time, I learnt the pillars of French cuisine: how to make a proper jus de viande, how to get the seasoning right, or why it is just impossible to do three-Michelin star cuisine without exceptional products. I think there is no better place than L’Ambroisie, and no better chef than Bernard Pacaud to understand the importance of such knowledge. They both embody the respect for French cuisine and the respect for the best products.
Le Divellec is one of the most famous seafood restaurants in Paris. How does it feel to be part of the reopening of a place with such a decorated history and role in French cuisine?
It is really a privilege to be part of the second birth of such an institution. Aside the political legend that the restaurant embodies, we also have to remember that Jacques Le Divellec was a leader and precursor in his field – he was the first chef to serve carpaccio and ceviche in Paris, for instance. I would like Le Divellec to keep this leading role in the reinvention of French cooking.
What was the process of transforming Le Divellec into a contemporary restaurant and the thinking behind it?
We wanted to bring something new and reinterpret the whole concept. At Divellec today, vegetables are as central to the menu as seafood is, as it is a part of my personal cooking style.
We are very lucky to have our vegetables grown and delivered directly from the gardens of our summer restaurant in Corsica, located in the world-class Domaine de Murtoli estate. We also wanted the restaurant to be more contemporary and relaxed, which is why we tried to decorate it as an architect would decorate his own apartment.
Le Divellec’s menu is a co-creation with your father. How did you both contribute?
We really worked together on the menu. It would have been a disaster to have some dishes created by my father on one side, and some dishes created by me on the other side. We knew we had the same priorities, which was to source amazing products, to do our best to sublimate them and to give them a modern twist.
What is your favourite dish on the menu?
We have recently added to the menu a salmon-based dish – sorrel salmon, Paimpol beans and Mostarda di Cremona – that I think reflects the spirit of our restaurant perfectly well. The sorrel gives a traditional touch, as it is a combination of flavours that has been working well in the kitchen for decades, while the Mostarda di Cremona and Paimpol beans provides a sense of novelty and completeness in the flavours. We have been working a lot on this dish to try and find the perfect way to cook it.
You are also planning to duplicate L’Ambroisie in Macau, Asia, inside The 13 hotel. How do you plan to adapt the traditional atmosphere of L’Ambroisie to a hotel-casino?
Our goal is to present the guests with the possibility to be transported to Paris for lunch, or a dinner. We have asked our suppliers to recreate the same plates, cutleries, glasses. The executive chef and the restaurant manager of L’Ambroisie Macau have worked for several years at L’Ambroisie Paris and are familiar with the atmosphere we want to create. Our goal is truly to recreate the experience one could have in Paris.