After a childhood spent roving the wilds of France, chef Bastien Meyrat, chef de cuisine at JW Steakhouse, believes we should have more respect for our food. Here, the chef tells us about French gastronomy, Asian influence and what he’s dishing up.
“We need to change the way we think about food,” chef Bastien Meyrat, the newest chef de cuisine to join the ranks at JW Steakhouse at the Marriott Downtown Abu Dhabi, begins in earnest.
“In the last 20 years, we have just eaten without being conscious about what’s happening around us. We’ve become disconnected from what’s on our plate.”
He might have a point.
Born on the border where France meets Switzerland, Bastien grew up surrounded by the natural world, hunting and fishing with his father and uncle and reaping the rewards of the landscape.
It was these formative years, cooking and eating the produce that came as a result of this lifestyle, with his grandmother by his side, that he became drawn, irrevocably, to the kitchen.
“A lot of people say their favourite food memories when they were young came from their mother, but my mother is an awful cook,” he laughs ruefully.
“But whenever we visited my grandmother, I was always fascinated by the food she cooked. She came from a generation where you made everything yourself, and where kids were usually in the kitchen.
“She wasn’t afraid to let me play with the big knives and with fire, and she taught me a lot about classic French food.”
By the age of 16, Bastien, spurred on by a love for the kitchen, was resolute that he wanted to be a chef – “It wasn’t well received by my parents,” he laughs – and began his training in Zurich.
It was around 12 years into his career that Bastien lost the spark for food he had nurtured since childhood.
Burned out, he took on a brief stint at a bank before becoming sous-chef at the 2008 UEFA European Football Championship. But something was still missing, and it wasn’t until Bastien packed his bags and made for Asia that he figured out what it was.
“I moved to Thailand and Indonesia,” he says. “Asian cuisine gave me a new energy to be creative. I moved higher and higher until I ended up managing eight restaurants. I had a great salary and a great life, but I wasn’t cooking at all.”
Of all his experiences in Asia, Bastien found that a stay in Laos was the one that shifted his whole philosophy on food.
There, he found people who weren’t bound by rigid recipes, people who had to chop, prepare – and kill – their food.
Cooking became less about perfect technique and more about understanding food again –something that Bastien had lost sight of.
“I was so focused on recipes and writing things down that I stopped using my instinct,” he notes, thoughtfully.
“Laotian food really opened my eyes to the possibilities. They use everything from livestock to insects, and if you want to cook, you have to kill with your hands, not a gun. It taught me a lot about the respect we should have for our food.
“The philosophy of French cuisine is to make food very opulent; they always use the best part of the animals; it’s a very wasteful cuisine. When you’re in Asia, you realise that a fish head can be delicious, you just have to know how to prepare it.
“I worked with people who weren’t chefs, they just cooked from home,” he continues. “But they have a knowledge that they share from generation to generation. Maybe it’s not about knowing recipes or techniques, but it’s about how many times you cook something and get better at it.”
It’s this blend of French technique and Asian experience that chef Bastien will bring to the kitchen at JW Steakhouse.
With a pared back menu featuring one of his grandmother’s classic dishes – a duck confit with beans – Bastien is hoping to deliver classic cooking without the waste.
“That was one of the first recipes I ever cooked for my parents that impressed them,” he laughs, talking about his grandmother’s famed duck.
“I did that recipe over and over, but I never had it on any menus. “I don’t know why, but in the UAE steakhouses tend to go in the fine-dining direction,” Bastien muses.
“[At JW Steakhouse], we want to keep modern presentation, but go back to a more rustic style. We have fire, salt and meat, and most of all, we’re trying to connect a little more with our customers.”