Laurent Lemal was born in the north of France, in Lille, an area that defines as “completely different from the south”. After studying cooking for five years in Tissu du l’île du Tuquet, shortly after starting his professional career, he had the opportunity to work in different restaurants of Alain Ducasse as La Celle. In Toulon he was the chef, for the first time, of a more modern bistro.
In 2009, Luc Richard and Karin Puringher, owners of the Domaine Riberach de Béles in the Pyrenees Orientales, seduced him with the project of transforming the old winery into a wine hotel with gastronomic restaurant. Thus, Lemal participated in the design of his own kitchen and the restaurant was opened in 2011. Three years later, in 2014, he got the star of the Michelin Guide and, this 2017, the Bocuse d’Or has awarded one of his dishes as the best vegetable dish of the contest.
Laurent Lemal: “Working with vegetables is my signature”
How do you define your kitchen?
I searched everywhere in France. I looked for what chefs do now on the internet. I work with my instinct. We can change the menu twice a month, if we want. It depends on my mood. For example, we make a hot meat and my signature is always an entrée with ice cream because for me the different textures and temperatures of the dish are very important. When they ask me what is my favorite dish, I always say that I have none of them. I simply explain who I am in each dish.
Where does this concern for the product come from?
I have worked for six years in the restaurants of Alain Ducasse where I have been subchef. I have worked with the philosophy of Alain Ducasse that is to pick always the best ingredients so that, in this way, you already have a lot and there is no more to add. I have maintained this philosophy but I needed to change and I have adapted it my way because I wanted to open my mind and to know how is the cuisine in each country. I have worked in different European countries looking for a new technique, a new way, a new vision of the kitchen so that, when we are in France, we talk about French cuisine and we are like this. Sometimes, though, it’s important to open up and look at places where you find wonderful things. For me it was a great discovery when I was in Spain, Austria, Germany, Switzerland … I found many different techniques and, for me, it is a good way to improve.
Do you think the new young French chefs are changing this perspective and are open and prepared to change the idea that there is French, Spanish, German cuisine …?
Yes, now we have to talk about modern cuisine because, for example, in France we have a base to work, we have le beurre blanche, le fumet poisson, etc., which are not found in other countries and it is typical of French cuisine. It is important to make French cuisine, but it is also important to open the mind to other countries because we do not know everything.
Do we have, perhaps, a problem with the original recipes that have been lost along the way?
No. Sometimes, on the menu, we have classic cuisine but we do it with a different technique. We make it lighter. This is important because now we do not use a lot of fat or cream. We make a low fat cooking.
How important is the Bocuse d’Or in your career?
The Bocuse d’Or has brought us to many media. It is not expected that someone like me can win because I come from a very small place, with few people and it was a surprise.
People who came by the Michelin star now can also come by the Bocuse d’Or?
Yes. When I won the Bocuse d’Or in France, we had it full for four weeks. The impact was much higher than when we won the Michelin star.
And, now, do you notice any change from this recognition?
Yes, many media have called. My dish was awarded as best vegetable dish and many people called to do training, also many vegan and vegetarian.
Is it dangerous that it becomes a benchmark for vegan and vegetarian media or is it an opportunity?
I think it’s a matter of time. I started doing this five years ago. For me, demonstrating what can be done with vegetables and vegetables is an opportunity because it is my signature.
What is your next goal?
Continue in this restaurant with the quality and maybe get the second Michelin star. That is not a target but the quality of the restaurant has increased a lot in these last five years. For me it is very important to keep my kitchen equipment. I have been working with my second for three years, much of the team has been here for over two years.
I really liked the Arabica (dessert with chocolate and orange coffee) …
In France it is a classic flavor: oranges, chocolate and coffee. I think it’s a good mix and we try it with different textures. We did not use too much chocolate on our plates. We chose vegetables and fruit, strawberries and raspberries, only local.
In the context of the Km0 philosophy, which are the best products in this area?
I am working with Laurent Divel regarding saffron, also with tomatoes, herbs, strawberries, raspberries … We work with Le Jardin de Perpignan, which are thirteen cooperatives of different producers, especially peaches, apricots, spinach … We are now using 90% of local products. We did not use butter. Now we have a dessert in which we use sheep’s milk from Mas Marcé in the province of Girona.