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The French food revival: Steeven Gilles at Céleste

The French food revival: Steeven Gilles at Céleste

by Great British Chefs 05 July 2018

At The Lanesborough’s Michelin-starred restaurant Céleste, head chef Steeven Gilles cooks high-end French cuisine in one of the most stunning dining rooms in London. But rather than following the stereotypical route of stuffy service and traditional, rich dishes, he’s making the most of London’s open-minded multiculturalism.

There was a time when no other nation could hold a candle to France’s culinary might. The country practically invented Western cooking as we know it today, and its gilded restaurants were true temples to gastronomy. But recently, it seems the rest of the world has caught up a bit. In the UK especially, our tastes have grown more varied and perhaps moved away from the heavy butter and cream-based cuisine we typically associate with French cooking. It’s also perhaps down to the French themselves; many believe that they rested on their culinary laurels a little too much, ignoring what’s going on elsewhere. As a result, more and more of us are choosing to go for vibrant Asian dishes or simple Italian classics over something unashamedly French.

Steeven Gilles wants to change that. As head chef of Céleste, The Lanesborough’s French restaurant, you’d be forgiven for writing the place off as another ode to the old school. But while it has the white tablecloths, the suited waiting staff and the seriously plush surroundings you’d expect to see in a fine dining institution in Paris, Steeven’s approach to cooking is by no means outdated. This is probably down to the fact that he’s young, has a love for travel and has spent time at The Ledbury, one of London’s most forward-thinking restaurants.

‘I’ve only ever worked in Michelin-starred restaurants, since I was fourteen years old,’ says Steeven, who grew up in the northeast of France. ‘For two years I worked with Eric Frechon at Epicure at Le Bristol in Paris, which holds three Michelin stars. This is where I learnt that the quality of the produce must come before anything else and how important seasoning can be. We would always use French techniques, but chef Frechon is more open-minded than some and would also use spices and things from other countries like Morocco.’

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You probably can’t get much more ‘French fine dining’ than Epicure, which boasts plenty of caviar, foie gras, Bresse chicken, truffle and all sorts of other super-luxurious ingredients on the menu. There are nods to other cuisines – soy sauce, coconut and merguez sausage make an appearance – but this is definitely French food through and through. So why did Steeven decide to move to the UK four years ago?

‘Basically, I wanted to learn English, as I thought it was really important,’ he explains. ‘I didn’t speak a word of it when I arrived. I wanted to continue getting experience in Michelin-starred kitchens while I was here, however, so I went to The Ledbury and spent the next one and a half years working there.’

This is perhaps where Steeven experienced new techniques, ingredients and cuisines that just aren’t seen as much in France. The Ledbury is famed for its use of British produce, particularly game, but there are plenty of international influences on show too. And with so many restaurants in London offering a taste of every cuisine in the world, it’s easy for any chef to expand their culinary repertoire whilst living there.

Steeven must have made an impression of Eric Frechon when he worked with him in Paris, because whilst he was at The Ledbury he received a call from him asking if he would become head chef at the newly opened Céleste, with Eric as chef-patron. ‘I told him I couldn’t because my English wasn’t good enough yet and it would have been my first head chef role,’ says Steeven. ‘But I said I knew someone at The Ledbury who would be perfect for it and I could come over as sous chef. A year later, the head chef moved on and I took over.’

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Céleste is where Steeven continues to cook today, with Eric Frechon keeping an eye on things as patron in France. And while it is most definitely a French restaurant, it’s different from the others, thanks to Steeven’s more worldly approach and his time at The Ledbury. ‘What I loved most about working with Brett Graham at The Ledbury was his love for British produce and using the whole of the animal, and that’s something we now do at Céleste,’ he says. ‘There are lots of things we try to do here that are also done at Epicure in Paris, such as using French techniques to cook food, but there are differences too.’

Looking at Céleste’s menu, you can see plenty of classical French influences – but amongst the truffle mayonnaises and butter sauces there are flourishes of multicultural cooking. Lamb saddle comes in a nori seaweed crust; Cornish mackerel is dressed in Japanese miso with aubergines; octopus is served in satay spices with a rabbit sausage. So while the dishes might be cooked following classical French technique, they offer a marriage of the best British ingredients and a mix of French and international flavours.

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However, the question remains: why isn’t this sort of cooking – which is one of the best things about the British food scene – more common in France? ‘Personally, I think we are a bit too arrogant in France,’ says Steeven. ‘We think we are the best but we don’t watch what’s going on elsewhere. That’s why I love London so much; it’s so multicultural and open-minded when it comes to food and you are free to cook however you want, whereas in France – particularly in the south – you’re bound by tradition. I think it’s certainly getting better, and in five years we’ll be the same as London, but there is some catching up to do.’

Working in London isn’t without its downsides, however – Steeven quickly realised how hard it was to find good staff members in the UK, while in France it’s much easier. But he spends a lot of time training his front of house team, and wants to bring a bit more theatre into the stunning dining room, with chef trolleys, cloches and beautiful looking plates of food. He’s also not shy about the fact he’s pushing for a second Michelin star. Whether that happens or not, Céleste is certainly a place where you can experience some incredible French cooking at a Michelin star level, without the restrictions and boundaries you might find in Paris. And for the increasingly diverse British palate, that can only be a good thing.

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