Entretien avec le chef Juan Arbelaez, le top du top chef

Interview with chef Juan Arbelaez, the top chef

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At a time, which today seems to us to date from prehistory, you had to rely on the singing accent of the famous Meïté or on the rigor of the star Joël Robuchon to see cooking on television. Today, while the show Top-Chef breaks audience records year after year, it is a young man with a fine Zorro mustache who arrived from the happy bazaar of Bogota, in Colombia, who embodies good humour. plateau. Columnist for the Quotidien show, here is chef Juan Arbelaez, who also has a whole bunch of other media responsibilities. A former student of the famous Cordon Bleu Institute, conductor of several restaurants including the famous Plantxa and Yaya, the young man is the champion of a cuisine of the moment, where the flavors of the world and enthusiastic manners subtly infuse our good old traditions.

What kind of culinary environment did you grow up in in Colombia?

To be honest, I have the impression of having grown up in a great kitchen. At home, we have always loved to eat, and we have always had a passion for the product. Chilli pepper and lemon are certainly the foods that accompanied my entire youth. They notably make up the base of aji, a sauce that is found everywhere - it resembles the dog sauce of Creole dishes. It is served with empanadas, or with rice or potatoes. We are enormously lucky in Colombia, too: here, the Andes Mountains split into three in such a way that we have all the possible thermal levels. Result: questions of product seasonality do not exist. On the Pacific side, I remember eating shellfish soups with peppers, oregano and potent ginger, all simmering in fresh, barely extracted coconut milk. There are also red bean dishes whose cooking enhances the rice that is served as an accompaniment. And then this famous ceviche with tomato sauce. Colombia is a very rich land, with different terroirs, which are full of sunshine. And then, in truth, you don't really know a fruit until you have tasted it in Colombia.

Is respect for the land something that counts there?

All of this is in danger. Like almost everywhere in the world, I think that we have suffered a lot from the excessive industrialization of our regions. Large chemical companies like Bayer and Monsanto have ravaged them in recent years with their pesticides, and little by little our know-how began to disappear. But things are changing. Today, Colombians are demonstrating. They are in the street. They are fighting in particular against the overflow of imports into the country, which are stifling local producers. Our agriculture is in danger, but we are lucky to have young people who are fighting. It's essential.

Why did you absolutely want to learn to cook in France? What has always fascinated you about the cuisine here?

French cuisine is based on extraordinary technique. When you taste something very French, like a poultry juice for example, everything is crazy because there is real know-how in extraction. In France, too, there is a tradition of passing on things. A whole bunch of great cooks have written books that are today reference books for learning how to cook, like guides. This is why today the concepts of brunoise, julienne and bain-marie are known throughout the world. French cuisine is the origin of everything. I remember the first time I worked in a French restaurant kitchen, at Pierre Gagnaire's Balzac, in Paris. It was as if I had suddenly landed at Disneyland. I was twenty years old, and my eyes were full, my nostrils were full, and my mouth was full. There was this incredible tuna, weighing almost a hundred kilos, which several people had to lift. It was also the first time I saw black garlic and bronze fennel. I was in a laboratory, and I took the opportunity to enrich my mental library of flavors as much as possible. In the restaurants where I worked before starting, I also learned to look at food from another angle, to think of new ways of cutting and mixing it, to bring it to states up to that point. never seen. I learned creativity, and even with an onion.

So what did you do with your Colombian influences and your French training?

When you become a chef, it is above all a matter of seeking your own originality, of finding your signature, your signature. Obviously, I tried to draw on my roots to do that. I tried to combine the ingredients I grew up with and the French cooking technique I learned in Paris. This diversity is an opportunity, I think. Today, I'm trying to revive French cuisine, or even brighten it up. For example, I make an orange duck with a tamarind paste sauce, chili pepper and Colombian green pepper. There are the same slightly sweet and sour, very powerful notes of the classic duck with orange, but with, in addition, a really new scent.

What is your vision of the world of cooking?

There's something hard in the kitchen. We speak of a “chef”, a “brigade of cooks”, and a “shot” to start the service. Cooking is military, almost. For a very long time, I thought that only this hardness, only constant discipline, could allow me to rise. I let myself be exploited, a lot, by those above. Today, things have changed. You need flexibility and kindness. This is what the future of cooking rests on. I am very close to my cooks, and I don't like being called "chef". It's Juan. Even in appearance, I'm not really a leader. I cook in a t-shirt and jeans to take the pressure off cooking. But, in truth, I don't think it's the outfit that changes anything. It's a question of state of mind, of the energy that we release. It's simple: you don't have to be a shit in the kitchen. My warm side necessarily has to do with my origins. Colombia is a country of friendliness. When you enter an elevator and come across a stranger, you inevitably greet them, whereas this is not the case in France. On a bus, in a bar, everyone talks to each other. When we have dinner, everyone shares the dishes, we serve each other in the middle of the table, and it bonds people, it connects them. It’s a powerful notion. This form of openness played a few tricks on me when I arrived in France. It was hard. Plus, I arrived in Paris in winter, and when it's cold outside, people are even colder. I ended up adapting. In truth, the Parisian is like an artichoke. It's hard on the outside, but when you get to the heart, it's always tender.

Seasonality of produce seems to be the main mantra in your kitchen. How do you do this at a time when you can eat strawberries in winter?

In France, we work exclusively with small producers who allow us to work throughout the seasons. In truth, we don't really ask any questions: when we call them, we ask them what they have in stock. We are dependent on their harvests, or the fishing of the moment. And my cards fit. From this point of view, it's impossible to cheat. It's like that. I still think we can't force the earth to give us the things we want when we want.

As such, you have now been producing organic olive oil for several years. What is behind the scenes of this story?

During the 2014 FIFA World Cup, there was a match between Colombia and Greece. I went to see him in a bar with friends who, a few months earlier, had introduced me to the olive oil they were producing in Greece. Before the match started, we made a bet. If Colombia won, the guys were going to invite me to Greece. Obviously, Colombia won, and we went to Greece. There, we formed a unique bond. I met their family who have been making oil for eight generations. Together, we visited a magnificent organic plot and that’s how we started producing our olive oil!