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Alexia Duchêne, chef
On how she thinks about developing her culinary style, modern French cuisine, and opening her own restaurant.
Alexia Duchêne is a New York City-based, French-British chef who has seemingly done it all in the culinary world. Not yet 30, she’s worked in some of the top kitchens in Europe, has a show on Canal+, written a cookbook, been a finalist on Top Chef France, and opened a restaurant in New York City. A recent transplant to the city, she was most recently at Margot and is working toward opening her own spot in Manhattan. She and I sat down over coffee to talk about how she thinks about developing her culinary style, modern French cuisine, and opening her own restaurant.
Brianna Plaza Tell me a bit about your background as a chef.
Alexia Duchêne: I've been cooking for 12 years. I started at 15, working mostly in Michelin star restaurants. Basically, I got into cooking because my parents were big foodies and I've always loved going out to restaurants. I think before even liking to cook, I just loved the atmosphere at a restaurant and how it made people happy.
I went to culinary school. I went to pastry school in Paris, too, where I worked at one of the oldest bakeries in Paris, which was really good for all the basic French techniques. I feel like the French mentality in the kitchen was not for me, there’s a lot of hierarchy. If you're at the bottom, you don't have a say. It's not that I thought that I had things to say, but I would've loved to be part of the conversation when decisions were made.
I went to London to do the opening of Frenchie. Then I worked at Claridge's farm-to-table restaurant, Fera, which was a Michelin star. That was my first experience with real seasonality because at Michelins in Paris, we would do eggplant in winter, we would do mangoes out of season, stuff like that.
I traveled a bit to Copenhagen because I wanted to see if I wanted to move there. I love the city as a tourist, but I would never ever move there. It's my favorite city to eat and I think some of the best restaurants are in Copenhagen. I love the feeling when you go there for a week and you hop to different bars and restaurants, and everything is so good. But I was there for a month in March, and it was just dreadful. It was so cold. Nobody goes out. You go to work, and then not a drink after work, nothing.
I was working in this place called Studio, and we were 12 in the kitchen. And some nights, we'd be cooking for eight people, and that, for me, was kind of crazy. There's just a culture of no stress and take your time, which is nice, and I think there should be a balance, but I think if you don't have the rush of or the adrenaline in the kitchen, I feel like there is something lacking, and that's why I decided not to pursue a career in Copenhagen.
Then I worked a bit in the South of France for a season, which was really cool, for an English chef named Harry Cummins that has a restaurant in Marseilles called La Mercerie. That was really nice. That was the first time that I had a really open-minded management and a very international team.
I think that was really cool because everybody was here for a season, for four months, and we all moved to a town that we don't know, and that was really special for me.
I went back to Paris and I worked a year for Giovanni Passerini. He's a really cool Italian chef from Rome. He does really elevated Italian, and I worked there for a year. After two months, I became a sous chef, and it was really a great experience learning how to be super creative because he was changing the menu all the time. If ten minutes before service he wanted to change something, he would change the whole dish. Chef Jeremiah Stone of NYC was his sous before me and I feel like all his sous chefs have the same pattern of wanting to create all the time.
And then Top Chef called me. They’d been calling for three years in a row. And for the two first years, I was way too young. It was never in my career plan, so when they called me the third year, I was at a point where I done a year at Passerini and it was cool, but I didn't really know what my next move was. So I thought, why not? I got on the show and finished third. That was quite unexpected for me. I didn't expect to go this far because I was competing with people that were super, super talented.
I think that it gave me years of experience in two months and also a lot of contacts. Since then, Alain Ducasse reached out and we had meetings about my future. It was just very, very rewarding. Top Chef in France is now being recognized by chefs. So when I go to restaurants, like two, three Michelin stars, I feel like there is a sense of respect and some sort of acknowledgement, and people come out and be like, "Hey, I love what you did on the show."
That’s what's really cool: all the things that come after that and all the meeting people, the opportunities, and being able to do things that you would never be able to without the show. I got to travel a lot, do pop-ups, collaborate with brands, and it was fun for a while, but that's why I came to New York. I wanted to go back to restaurants.
The first time I came to New York I was 17 and I stayed for two months, and I was working at this place in Midtown called La Grenouille, which is very old school French. I loved the energy.
Before ever coming to America, I remember being six, seven, and knowing that this is where I was going to be. I've always dreamt about it. The first time I came, I was feeling home for the first time because I'm half French, half English. In France, I don't feel fully French. And when I went to London, I didn't feel English because I don't have a British accent. I feel like here I fit pretty perfectly, and I feel like I've never felt so at ease after just six months here. That is what makes it obvious that this is a next step for me.
Brianna Plaza: What is different about cooking in New York versus Paris?
Alexia Duchêne: I think New York is a bit more like London because there's so many different cultures that intertwine in the city. There is less pressure in what you're cooking and I feel like you can try things. I feel like you can be a fan of a certain food and try to honor it in a way, and it wouldn't be perceived as weird.
In France, if you're not Mexican and you do a tostada kind of play on something, people will be like, "Oh, that's weird.”People like to put people in boxes, and I feel like it's hard as a French person to do something else other than French.
I do really have a French backbone, but I love cooking stuff that inspire me from travels and friends. I have some Mexican friends, they taught me a few things, and I think it's really cool. I love to implement what I’ve learned in some dishes. I feel like I do have more freedom here, and the fact that I don't know that many people, I think I also don't care that much.
I feel like in France, I have this thing over my shoulder, where I always feel like someone is going to say something or a journalist is going to come in and want to trash me on socials, and I think that's what's cool here, that I don't really care.
Brianna Plaza You’ve been working for a long time and you're still quite young. How does that inform your culinary style?
Alexia Duchêne: I feel like I know where I want to go in a style, and I think I'm still very early in finding my cooking style. I love minimalistic, very less is more. I love doing dishes with just a protein or a veg and a sauce and a little condiment and playing with things like that.
I have a deep, deep love for fish and seafood, and I think that's what I'm trying to really explore everywhere I cook. I think my style has evolved for sure, but I think it's funny, the more I grow, the more I want to go back to what I started learning at 15.
I think that French cuisine has had a lot of bad press, which is fair. I think there are a lot of different cuisines that need more of a shining moment. I think that now, my goal in the next chapter is I would love to be able to honor France and keep the classics going and make sure that the legacy continues. A lot of French chefs leave to go to work in Copenhagen, South America, and all that, and I think it's cool that some of us try and keep the dream alive. That’s what i want to do for the next couple of years.
Brianna Plaza: What do you think modern French cuisine is?
Alexia Duchêne: I think it's mostly being in touch with your surroundings and going to the market. It's funny, people have this dream that in France, we go to the market, but nobody goes to the market. Yes, as a home cook, you go to the market. But as a chef, you are never going to the market because every little supplier comes to you. Here, yes, you get Baldor, but if you want the really good stuff, you have to go to the market.
I’ve been going to the market here and it's amazing the different things you find. I feel like the growers make an effort to grow even cooler things than you find in Paris. When I see something amazing, I try to reinterpret a French classic with those ingredients.
I think modern French cuisine is basically being in touch with the season. French cuisine has been around for years and years, but I feel like bringing a bit of depth and layers to French cuisine with different cooking techniques, sauces, and condiments that are not necessarily French but could be. I think that is what, for me, modern French cuisine is now.
Brianna Plaza: How do you think about recipe development for restaurants versus what you put on your Instagram?
Alexia Duchêne: I’ve never developed a recipe for a restaurant. It's kind of hard for me and for the team that I work with.
First of all, I never test anything before I put it on the menu, which I should maybe start doing. I’ll be thinking about something and I’ll put it on the menu tonight. So I don't feel like I really developed that much. I'm much more intuitive in a professional kitchen.
I feel like what I'm trying to put on Instagram are recipes that are really fun. I don't test them that much. For pastry, I’d say that if I do a recipe and I film it, and it's not a good recipe, I'm not going to post it. But for savory, I kind of go with the flow.
I like more contrast in my recipes for restaurants versus Instagram. Yes, people are interested in what I cook in a restaurant, but I think the people that follow me on Instagram are home cooks that really want to do something a bit different. They don't want something with cheese on everything or something that's too simple. I think people come to me for the little twists on something that is pretty simple, achievable, but at the same time can have the wow effect and impress people.
Brianna Plaza: You've done some pop-ups and most recently were at Margot. What’s your next move?
Alexia Duchêne: I was supposed to stay for the long run at Margo — I was a partner in the restaurant. Everything ended quite suddenly when they wanted to shift to a much more casual concept.
My next step is opening my own place. It's in the works: I'm finalizing the deck and finding investors and the idea is to open something in Manhattan.
I think Brooklyn is amazing, but we want to be in Manhattan for what I want to do, which is going to be like French-ish with an insane wine list (my husband does all wine).
We're really trying to create something that you don't see that much in New York anymore. I think that what people lose in restaurants is the theatrical part of it. I feel like when our parents were going to restaurants they were dressing up to go out, the servers were wearing the tux, and it was fun and decadent and oppulent.
And I feel like now you go to a restaurant, the food is great, and that's it. It's not a full experience or a show. And I feel like what Carbone, for example, does and why they're so successful, is because of that. I feel like doing that with super elevated food, amazing sourcing of produce, a beautiful interior, and great wine. I think that could be something that is quite special.
Brianna Plaza: Do you think that that kind of restaurant doesn't exist anymore because people don't want it? Or that chefs are just not interested in doing that?
Alexia Duchêne: I think it's a mix. First of all, I don't think a lot of people are interested, but a lot of chefs are interested. I think it's an experience that you have to want. My parents are foodies, and we would go out between three to four times a week, so I was always in restaurants. For me, I always loved the special attention when you arrive, or when the server remembers that I love something. Those little things are quite special for me, and I feel like nobody does that anymore.
I feel like everybody's doing small sharing plates, and I've been doing it, too. I've been also a victim of those small sharing plates, natural wine, less is more, overcharging. Honestly, I don't want to do that anymore. I feel like sometimes that's a model that is done to make more money, but at the same time, the restaurant is not making that much more money, and the customer is not that happy. You're at a four-top, you're sharing a bunch of things, you basically get a spoon of everything, and that's it.
I feel like people want something that's comforting, something that feels familiar but unfamiliar at the same time. I think that French food will never go out of style, even though it has its ups and downs. And even though there are French restaurants in the city, I feel like a lot of French restaurants are an interpretation from an American point of view. I feel like there are not a lot of French chefs in New York.
You need to be intentional first. It shouldn't feel like you're just repeating a spiel that someone taught you. And I think it should feel modern. I think it's all about recruiting the right personalities. I read the whole profile on Carbone and how the front of the house is all about theatricals and stuff. And I think that was really inspiring because to be able to do that with intention every day, at every service, I think that's crazy.
We want to do something that feels welcoming to everyone. The natural wine lover from Brooklyn would come and say, "There are a few things for me," and also the the corporate guy that comes with his boss or someone that just wants a nibble and a martini before going to a party, can have that experience too.