A conversation with Bertrand Grébaut of Septime – The World’s 50 Best Restaurants
Bertrand Grébaut is something of a celebrity in the food world, although he squirms uncomfortably when you suggest it. Grébaut is one of the stars of the “Géneration New French Bistrot”, as French newspaper L’Express recently christened the young chefs on the Parisian food scene. So what’s special about this new generation of chefs? They’re young, talented and quick. Grébaut earned his first Michelin star at the young age of 27 when he was working as head chef at L’Agapé. That kickstarted his own project to found his own restaurant, and with the prize money from an Evian-Badoit grant, a year later Septime swept into the 11th arrondissement of Paris.
Since its founding in 2011, the Septime brand has diversified, with Grébaut opening up Septime La Cave, a wine bar, and most recently, Clamato, a seafood and oyster bar. They are all nestled on the same street, rue de Charonne, in the north-east of the city. I go to meet him in Clamato, perching on one of the bar stools while waiting for him to emerge from the kitchen the floor below. The restaurant opened only a week ago, and already it is packed on a dull Sunday afternoon. When Grébaut comes out onto the restaurant floor, our conversation is frequently interrupted by diners coming over to give him enthusiastic compliments.
When I ask him about this later, he shrugs modestly. “A year ago, six months ago, no one would have recognised me. But now….” He leaves the sentence unfinished, but it’s easy to end it for him. Now he has three successful locations under his belt and a World’s 50 Best Restaurants nomination to boot, he’s a known face in Paris. I ask him if he feels that he’s gained entry to some sort of private club, mentioned in the same breath as he often is with other young talents: Inaki Aizpitarte of Le Chateaubriand, Michael Greenwold and Simone Tondo of Roseval, and Sven Chartier of Saturne to name a few.
“This is a media thing. It’s true in one sense, but it’s also not true. The press love to see us as this big club – and of course we know each other, and it’s a nice community, but it’s not a clique. We’re all different. Take Michael Greenwold, for example – I’ve been cooking a lot longer than him, so of course we’re going to be doing different things. And comparing Inaki to some of the younger chefs on the scene – it’s just not the same thing; they’re working differently. Today, everyone thinks that if you’re a chef in Paris, if you’re based in the 11th arrondissement, if you’ve got fancy plates, use wild herbs, if you’re mentioned in Le Fooding, then you’re in this niche. But it’s not as simple as that,” he pauses. “Yes, I do know nearly everyone – but then this is Paris, isn’t it? It’s small.”
For a chef with credentials such as his, one would expect to find his restaurants in one of the wealthier arrondissements to the west of Paris, in the 8th or near the Champs Elysées. His choice of location, however, is all to do with the underlying concept of Septime. “The idea from the beginning was to create a mix between the quality cuisine you get in a three-starred restaurant, and the warmth and casualness of your local Parisian bistro [what is today known as bistronomie]. In Septime we’re offering high-quality modern cuisine, very fresh and natural, in a laidback and relaxed setting, with prices accessible for everyone.
This is why we’re based here, we’re looking for these little economies, and of course the charges here are lower than they would be in the 8th arrondissement, for example.” Grébaut also lives in the neighbourhood and knows it well. He’s a big fan of the eastern and north-eastern side of Paris, citing the wide variety of different people from all walks of life who populate the area as a major reason for setting up here: “This is going to be our clientele. We want to be as affordable as possible, for everyone.”
At this point, there’s the clinking of bottles and suddenly a man pops up from behind the bar. “Where did he come from?” I ask conspiratorially in a whisper. Grébaut laughs at my confusion, and explains that Septime is connected via the wine cellar with Clamato, which prompts my next question: was it just serendipity to have found the space next door? “Before, it was a motorbike garage, then it was put on the market and our neighbour, who we knew quite well, suggested to us that we might want it. It was an opportunity, and we decided to take it – we weren’t looking for a new space, but what we didn’t want was for a rival restaurant to take the space.” So one of the hottest new bar stools in town is the result of a competitive edge.
Everything about the Septime franchise is minimal, even the menu, which states simply three ingredients per dish, letting the kitchen take over from there. In fact, Grébaut started his cooking career comparatively late by usual industry standards. Rather than training from the age of 15 or 16, he pursued a degree in graphic design before making the leap to cuisine (he was a graffiti artist at some point). His graphic roots are apparent in the style of the restaurants, from the typography on the menus to the interior design.
“All the design is decided on with Théo [Pourriat – the sommelier and co-manager of the restaurants]. We didn’t get in an architect, we did everything ourselves.” He adds that apart from having its practical uses, his degree in design meant he learnt to be “more open to things, so when I started I was able to progress more quickly because I had more maturity.” Would he recommend a similar route for chefs starting out? “I would say just don’t do it. [laughs] If you’re young, do your studies in something else, and then if you still want to do it, then get into it. It’s a lot harder than it seems. All of these TV cooking shows make it seem really glamorous. I love it, it’s amazing, but I would say to young people starting out to do other things first, to remain open to other options. To travel, to work abroad, to study something else.”
When I ask him if he would consider opening up a location in London, he snorts. “No! It’s cold and it rains all the time.” Despite my protests that Paris’ weather is almost identical to London, he won’t budge. So if Londoners want a taste of France’s bistronomie, they’d better hop on that Eurostar.
For further information about Septime or to book a table visit here. If you are visiting Paris check out Bertrand Grébaut and other 50 Best chefs’ installations at COOKBOOK exhibition at Palais de Beaux-Arts here.