ROUEN, France – At first glance, Benjamin Lechevallier would seem to be the very soul of the ambitious, tireless French chef.
At 35, he is the chef and owner of Origine, in this midsize city two hours northwest of Paris. Opened in 2011, the restaurant won a Michelin star in its first year and has rarely had an empty seat since. Lechevallier takes pains to buy his ingredients from a local grower he meets at a highway rest stop to save time, and he recently renovated his dining room because he feared that his regular customers might become bored with the décor.
Yet he closes Origine every weekend – prime dining time – so he can be with his wife, who works full time, and two small children.
“It’s unheard of in Rouen to close on the weekend,” he said. “But it’s my choice. I’m open and busy on Monday when everyone else is closed, and I get to see my family.”
In France, as in many countries, a new generation has tried to loosen the demands of work to make more time for family. But in few professions is the shift more surprising than among elite French chefs.
Eric Frechon, 50, who heads the kitchens at the Bristol hotel in Paris, including the three-Michelin-star restaurant Le Jardin Français, says that many of his fellow chefs – and not just the younger ones – are choosing what he calls a “more comfortable” lifestyle.
“I am sure they want to be with their families more than I was and more than I still am,” he said. “And we all also have to work within French laws and a 35-hour workweek. The combination makes many chefs close on weekends, or at lunchtime because they cannot afford to hire more help.”
While Frechon understands, he thinks it’s a shame. “I work in a palace, and my obligation is to be open every day for the diner,” he said. “I realize that everyone can’t do that. But it’s the diner who suffers. Our job is to give pleasure, and when we’re closed, we cannot do that.”
Frechon is like many, perhaps most, passionate chefs here who still conduct themselves like star athletes, single-mindedly devoted to excellence. Working hours are brutally long, details are devilish – one smudged copper pot in the kitchen can change the course of a life – and expectations are absurdly high. The job can absorb every waking moment, while family life and love take place somewhere else.
But Benjamin Toursel, 40, and his wife, Agathe, made a choice before they opened Auberge Le Prieuré in 2003, in the village of Moirax, about halfway between Bordeaux and Toulouse.
“I’m ambitious, I strive to be the best, but my wife and I decided from the beginning to build our work around our family,” Toursel said. “We live above the restaurant. Our two daughters see us work in and out of the kitchen. We eat most meals together. Our family life is part of our work life, and our work is part of our family life.”
That hasn’t hindered their success. The restaurant has a Michelin star, and Toursel has been widely praised in the media as the best young chef in the Aquitaine region.
Jean-Pierre Vigato, the chef and owner of the two-Michelin-star restaurant Apicius in the Eighth Arrondissement of Paris, is part of the older guard. He fears that the future of French gastronomy is in jeopardy if young chefs are unwilling to give the job everything they can. He is 61 and has been in the kitchen since he was 14.
“I gave everything to the kitchen,” he said. “I was incredibly demanding of myself, and I loved it. My children, because they were children, were incredibly demanding and their mother raised them. I was present, of course, but I worked hard in the restaurant and I still do. I couldn’t have done what I’ve done if I hadn’t focused on my work.”
Today, he said: “I feel that young chefs are trained by the television to expect fame and fortune. When I was starting, we did it for the love of the work. I have given it all to the restaurant; I’d be lacking in grace to complain. I started out with two employees and now I have 50.” One employee is Vigato’s son Jerome, who works as a sommelier.
The younger chefs, though, have earned their laurels the hard way. They were trained by the experts, like the Pourcel brothers in Montpellier and Alain Ducasse in Paris. On the plate, they strive for purity and even perfection.
“I’m young, I’m ambitious,” Lechevallier said. “I’ve had offers from New York and beyond. That’s very exciting. But for now I’ll stay here, work, watch my children grow, and then we’ll see.”