THIS WAS NOT how I planned to meet Amaury Bouhours, the new executive chef at the storied Le Meurice hotel in Paris, located in a sublime corner of the 1st Arrondissement across from the Tuileries Gardens. The onset of the Omicron variant put a damper on my plans to interview the chef on his home turf at the 2-Michelin-star Restaurant Le Meurice Alain Ducasse. Instead we met on Zoom, like most of the world did in January, for Bouhours’ first interview with a U.S. publication since taking over as executive chef last June, when Ducasse, one of the godfathers of contemporary French cuisine, handed him the reins.
Bouhours is 33, well-coiffed and, rather miraculously, looks rested despite having a new baby and running one of the top restaurants in Paris during a global pandemic. Over video chat, he tells me that the latest highly transmissible COVID-19 wave hasn’t put a damper on his plans. Restaurant Le Meurice Alain Ducasse, which has 14 tables, has been booking a month out. “It’s difficult to get a reservation right now,” Bouhours tells me, making little fanfare about his or the restaurant’s success, let alone his impressive resilience.
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Even over this less-than-ideal internet medium, it’s not hard to understand why people — mostly Parisians for the moment — want to eat there. I actually gasped when I got a virtual view of the restaurant, which sits at the base of Le Meurice hotel, rated a five-star “Palace” hotel by the French government. Then again, I’ve never been given a private tour of a room that was inspired by the Salon de la Paix at the Palace of Versailles and refreshed, or “revisited,” as the hotel puts it, by legendary interior designer Philippe Starck.
The intimate dining room has soaring ceilings and is a perfect marriage of modern and classical. It’s Old World meets postmodern and the result is undeniably Parisian. The space beams with a sense of history, elegance, and grandeur — a distinctly French display of good taste. Starck’s iconic chairs sit on a carpet that resembles an abstract painting worthy of any blue-chip contemporary art gallery, all set against decor that harks back centuries — namely, antique crystal fixtures and chandeliers, sumptuous drapes, and a large fresco-style Renaissance painting on the ceiling.
The food, Bouhours tells me, is “simple.” Perhaps this is true by French fine-dining standards, but the menu, like the decor, still exudes sophistication, marrying tradition with cutting-edge. Diners can choose from a prix fixe menu of either five or seven dishes. Both options offer a cheese and dessert course, with selections from three other categories of plates consisting of appetizers and salads, seafood, and meat/poultry.
During the early days of the pandemic, the restaurant was closed for over a year — from March 2020 until it reopened in June 2021. Bouhours said he used the time to reflect on what he could change in his generation’s approach to cooking, farming, and fishing. The problem he settled on was pollution. “I think Le Meurice can make a [positive] change to pollution and the environment with how we source. I think it’s important to educate my young team. Many of them are under 30,” says Bouhours. During the pandemic, Bouhours also donated his time and skills to charity work, including making meals for a women’s shelter in Paris.
Seasonal is a term that often gets bandied about in the food world, but Bouhours says his ecological vision goes beyond fruit and vegetables. “Now it’s hunting season, so I have venison.” All the food waste in the kitchen is composted. There are no cut flowers. “I use a lot of organic vegetables,” he notes, focusing on sustainable and caring cultivation that requires a committed farmer. “All the ashes from the barbecue go back into the ground. What we take from the earth we try and return to the earth,” he says. From a sourcing perspective, Bouhours admits: “It’s a little difficult for the hotel. Just like it’s simpler to put all the waste in the same bin.”
Bouhours is an ambassador for a new generation of eco-conscious, modern French chefs drawing inspiration from outside the traditional French culinary establishment. He, like many millennials, is a global citizen and has an open mind about how to tinker with and even change what might have been sacrosanct haute cuisine française. “I love to travel and test recipes and eat in different countries. The modern French kitchen is about using techniques from all over the world,” Bouhours says. “I use a lot of international techniques. For instance, I use Japanese barbecue to cook meat because it gives it a very strong yet not aggressive flavor.”
Beyond any one menu or dish, Bouhours is pioneering a new twenty-first-century gastronomic restaurant — a term he defines as “a combination of the service, the kitchen, and the teamwork.” His goal, he says, with his team members — all in their twenties and thirties — is to make the restaurant “a cocoon that has very modern hospitality and is very relaxed and humble.” (This is certainly a counterpoint to certain stereotypes of the French dining experience.)
Bouhours is famously the handpicked protégé of Alain Ducasse, one of the most well-known French chefs in the world. They met in Monaco when Bouhours was working at Le Louis XV at the renowned Hôtel de Paris. That was followed by a stint with Ducasse at the Plaza Athénée, Le Meurice’s sister property. And then, most recently, Ducasse brought Bouhours to Le Meurice as a trusted steward of his eponymous restaurant. In an interview last year, Ducasse described Bouhours as “embodying a youthful outlook and fresh approach to ‘essential cuisine’ with a passion for authentic flavors and the excellence of contemporary French gastronomy.”
‘What we take from the earth we try and return to the earth.’
When Bouhours gave me a Zoom tour of his kitchen, I got a better sense of what Ducasse meant by “youthful outlook.” First, everyone in his kitchen, which I saw late in the afternoon on Paris time as they prepared for dinner service, looked like they were born well after 1990. There is no doubt that this is a very serious culinary operation — with prix fixe menus set at 280 euros and 340 euros per person. But serious doesn’t have to mean no one is having fun. Could the smiles all have been a front for the writer? I suppose it’s possible, but the tour was impromptu and no one in the kitchen seemed to know I was coming. The joie de vivre in the kitchen was palpable.
Aside from good vibes, I also spied the most succulent-looking plate of raw shrimp I have ever laid eyes on. “Is that even real?” I asked. Visual wizardry is part of the Meurice signature. Cédric Grolet, the 36-year-old patisserie sensation who was named the World’s Best Pastry Chef in 2018, oversees all the pastries at Le Meurice. He produces sculpted fruit in a trompe l’oeil style, fashioning sweets that look like everything from lemons and mangoes to hazelnuts. If you didn’t bite into the reconstituted hazelnut and discover it was made with salted butter caramel, praline, and a shortbread biscuit, you would probably never know it was not a real nut.
I ask Bouhours if he is ever able, at least for a minute, to take a break — from cooking, overseeing the packed restaurant, and being a father — to rest on his laurels. “I have a lot of energy and am very active,” he tells me. The work ethic, he says, was instilled by his father, who told him that he needed to work hard if he wanted money. (Bouhours says he has held a job since he was a teenager.) His next venture, inspired by his Spanish wife, will be a seaside restaurant in Spain that serves fresh fish.
Almost as an aside, Bouhours, who is mild-mannered yet deeply focused, tells me he wasn’t a very good student, even in culinary school. This is surprising to hear from someone who subsequently attracted the attention of Ducasse. He attributes that recognition to his on-the-job skills. It’s why his message for young people is to “believe in your dreams” — if he’d allowed himself to get discouraged, he wouldn’t be here now.
Hannah Seligson Writer
Hannah Seligson is a regular contributor to publications such as the New York Times, Town & Country, and the Daily Beast. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.
Marion Berrin Photographer
Marion Berrin is a French photographer based in Paris, France. She works on film, and through her work she tries to evoke rather than describe. She collaborates regularly with M Le magazine du Monde, T Magazine, and brands such as Dior and Isabel Marant, among others.