Interview with Chef Franck Page, Le Bristol Hotel

With a long resume of recognitions and international experience Chef Page has a unique philosophy of food

Chef Franck Page is a classically trained French culinary artist that was first initiated into the world of professional cooking in a Michelin rated establishment. With a long resume of recognitions and international experience Chef Page has a unique philosophy of food. Having worked in numerous countries around the world he has spent most of his expat life in Lebanon, surviving Rafik Hariri’s assassination, the 2006 war, and becoming nearly Lebanese himself.

SoBeirut: As a chef with a lot of international experience, how do you describe working abroad in the culinary industry?

Franck Page (FP): I can say its not easy to be an expat chef, its very difficult because when you arrive in different property, different country, when somebody invest in expats they should get something in return, and to train people to explain new philosophies in terms of food and culinary culture. It’s not something easy but what I can say is it’s a fantastic exchange with people in a country. It’s not like we visit a country as leisure for vacation, we live with people, we live the country, we live the good and the bad in a country so it can be only a positive experience.

SoBeirut: How did you initially learn the ins and outs of the food business?

FP: When I was young I was not a very good student at school and I came from a simple family and when you come from a simple family your parents will not pay your school if your results are not there. So my father decided to stop it to send me, ‘now you don’t perform well at school its time for you to do something with your hands.’ So I started an apprenticeship.

SoBeirut: And what first led you to decide to make a career out of cooking?

FP: As far as cooking I didn’t have too much choice, my father was a butcher in a small village and in the summer time he had his farm. So you know I had two choices, either I work with my father, but you know between father and son sometimes the relations are not easy, my father has a strong character so maybe it would create a clash, so I decided to go into a different company and I started the basics of cooking. By basics I mean things like how to clean a pan. And I never forgot that, when you grow up you realized this chef what he said to me it was right! Because for example if I take a pan and its not cleaned properly I will put my butter I will put my milk and already it will be burned or scratched inside, so all this kind of details is so important in my field.

SoBeirut: On your first trip to Lebanon you ended up spending several years here. How did you time in the country impact you?

FP: My seven years in Lebanon we can say it’s a success story. I arrived the first of January 2001 alone with 75 kg of luggage. In 2007 I moved with my wife 2 kids and a container 20 feet in each direction, to China. So I met the right person in Lebanon, my wife, and we built together a family. My wife she’s happy to come back to her own country, I’m happy to come back in my second country because as a chef I didn’t spend only two or three years in Lebanon, I spent seven years, and at the right time, and a difficult time. In 2005 I was here when they killed the Prime Minister, Mr. Hariri. In 2006 when we had the wars between Israel and Lebanon I was here, I can say I lived the country because we had the wars. I was one of few French chefs that decide to stay and to support the country.

SoBeirut: So what drew you to the country?

FP: The challenge. I didn’t plan to move from Mauritius, I planned to stay up to six years. They asked me to come to see the hotel in Lebanon. One day I made a quick trip, just one day in Lebanon. I was seduced by the product, by the hotel and I said you know Le Bristol was part of the Lebanese hospitality and history. They invest a lot of money to make it new, but this hotel has a history in Lebanon so for me it was a good challenge to put my finger print in this property. And for me its always good to you know when you do an opening you put your standard, you put your mark. I’m the kind of person I like to have a challenge so when I joined Le Bristol I told myself, ‘Franck you have one year and a half to put this property in the top 10 of the Lebanese hotel hospitality industry and two years to make it the number one in terms of hotel and food industry, it’s a challenge.’

SoBeirut: How has Lebanon changed since you were last here?

FP: I rediscovered the market, the people the labor, its totally different than 2004, 2005. You should train again the new generation of talents of people. The good talents in 2006 left the country following the wars, all the talents was ready in the local market, they left the country and went to Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Jeddah, Riyadh, Kuwait, so the new generation should be taught well, should be taught well. This includes philosophic influence. It’s something very, very important today. Food philosophy but also life philosophy. So it’s more of a challenging to come back and open a hotel in this time than 10 years ago.

SoBeirut: As a classically trained French chef, what do you think of Lebanese cuisine? v

FP: Its fantastic, I will give you a small story. When I used to work in Paris always I passed Noura the famous Lebanese caterer in Paris. But always I thought, ‘oh Lebanese is like Indian cuisine, they should put many spices to cover the real flavor of the meat or the food.’ So you know French people sometimes are like, they are very closed minded. One day I arrived in Lebanon and I had an opportunity to go on a Lebanese restaurant and I tried the Humus I tried the Motabbal I tried the Tabbouleh and my god it was fantastic! I was in Paris I never tried the Lebanese restaurants because I thought they tried to use spices to cover the food when its not fresh. You know when you work in a good French restaurant good French company always you are sensitive of the quality of the meat the freshness of the vegetable. So when I was in Lebanon I discovered real Lebanese food and I can say its like French cuisine. Its tasty food with fresh ingredients, I was never worried in Lebanon about fruit, about vegetables, about fish. We are more worried about meat because we depend on importation but I was never worried about these three basic ingredients.

SoBeirut: What strikes you as unique about Lebanese cuisine?

FP: I love in the Lebanese cuisine there is the concept of sharing and I believe that the Lebanese cuisine is representative of the Lebanese people. When I arrived in 2001 in Lebanon I was invited to eat with a family, I was shocked. Why would he want to invite me in his house? You know French people, we are different. Did he want something from me? No its because people are like this in Lebanon, if I have two chocolates and we are three people we give them for you, I don’t care for me. They are most welcome in this country they are so, so kind without any idea behind it. So I believe that the Lebanese food reflects this mentality, this philosophy of the Lebanese people.

SoBeirut: Your recipes include influence from your travels around the world, what have you borrowed from Lebanese food?

FP: I make a fantastic humus with truffle, I can make fantastic humus with Foie Gras when I was in contact with Noura Paris to enroll as a kitchen director the challenge was to make a Lebanese restaurant and to try to get the Michelin star. It was an interesting challenge. For example, in Lebanese cuisine they make the chicken liver with molasses of pomegranate. The idea is to use this ingredient but to make with Foie Gras I can make my kibbeh instead to have a meat inside, to have a foie gras with truffle with the kibbeh. You have the philosophy of the Lebanese kibbeh but with the French flavor. You can make lobster tawouk instead of chicken tawouk.

SoBeirut: Do you still think its possible to adapt Lebanese cuisine into the Michelin arena?

FP: Its possible and it’s a challenge to do it. Just we should review this family style to make it at a spirit of family dining restaurant. This is the Lebanese product the Lebanese cuisine it’s a tasty cuisine and it’s a healthy cuisine so we are in the current trend. The trend of today and the trend of tomorrow. This cuisine can have vegan pallet, vegetarian and normal clients. Just we should review the way we serve it from a family concept how we will make it into a fine dining restaurant.

SoBeirut: Which Lebanese restaurants changed your mind about the cuisine?

FP: As a Lebanese restaurant I love Mounier, I love Fakher El Dine. I never forget the humus with lahme, and Fakher El Din, restaurant. When they brought the plates it looked nice and when I started eating, oh! I said it was fantastic. When the waiter comes back to take the plate the plate was like it never had anything inside. With Arabic bread I washed the plate, it was fantastic. This is why it gave me many ideas about humus, to analyze humus, is working with meat in Lebanon. I like the simple fattouch, I like a simple tabbouleh, I like manaquish, I like these Lebanese flavors. I like the salad of Lebanese zaatar, I love this zaatar.

SoBeirut: In Lebanon specifically they grow a special quality of zaatar you don’t find other places.

FP: Exactly, exactly. And also I like the sumac in Lebanon. I use in my kitchen I make sumac caramel as a decoration maybe with a raw fish. It gives this acidity what you have in the sumac. When you have for example lobster casserole at the last minute if you add some sumac it will give you this freshness in the mouth. This little bit of acidity of the juices of the lobster. So I like to use this combination but again we should be sure of something. We’re not talking about fusion cuisine, always fusion is confusion. We should have two or three flavors in the dish, not to be mixed. Clients become lost.

SoBeirut: Where do you prefer to go to eat in Lebanon these days?

FP: Today I don’t know too much the restaurants but in some of the restaurants always I’m disappointed. It can be a simple dish, you can make me a fantastic potato salad but the potato should be cooked well, potatoes should be seasoned well, nice dressing, little bit of shallots chopped fine, not big pieces where you pallet will be overwhelmed. Simple food makes me happy. The best restaurant for the time being for Lebanon I believe it’s in my home and the chef is my wife!

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