Chef Jocelyn Herland, the man holding Alain Ducasse's London flag, has had a few challenging, but rewarding, years from gaining and maintaining not just one or two, but three Michelin stars for his mentor's London establishment. Born in Auvergne, Jocelyn has worked with Alain Ducasse in Paris since 1997. After 10 years of hard work, he was given the opportunity to head up Alain Ducasse's new restaurant in London. Having had no working experience outside France, carrying Ducasse's name across the channel was definitely a big challenge.
Let's start from the beginning. What was the earliest experience you can remember that you loved cooking and wanted to be a chef? And why fine dining?
I loved my grandmother’s cooking since I was young. Nobody from my family was in the restaurant business, but I grew up with lots of dinner gatherings with relatives and friends. I already felt the strong power of food in my head and I knew that was the direction I wanted to go. It was very fortunate that I got my apprentice in Paris working with Alain Ducasse at an early stage of my career. I really enjoyed Alain's cooking philosophy and my work there. Hence I focused my career in this type of cuisine.
You have worked a lot with Alain Ducasse. Describe your experience of learning from him. How much flexibility does he allow for your own creativity?
Alain is such a good mentor. He gives a lot and it is up to me how much I can take. Learning from a top chef is always interesting but challenging at the same time. Alain doesn’t just focus on the plate; he emphasizes our relationship, as a chef, with each ingredient and how to balance the whole plate. Once you reach a certain level, he will only provide guidance and let you create your own dish. Even now, he is still quite involved in this restaurant. He comes here at least once a month to review the menu. We always have long discussions on new dishes or areas that we can improve.
How do you get inspiration in creating a new dish?
In keeping with Alain Ducasse’s philosophy, the ingredients are the key elements to focus on. I spend a lot of time tasting ingredients, doing tasting inside or outside London and exploring new ingredients from different cultures. And of course, it’s important to have an idea of what particular ingredients can be combined into one dish, but it is much more important to accept feedbacks from everyone and to fine tune the dish.
Let’s talk about London. The restaurant started in late 2007. What was the biggest challenge of running a new restaurant at a foreign location?
To run a kitchen properly, you need to know everything. I only had experience from Paris before I came here. It was definitely a big challenge - the sourcing of ingredient is different, the cost of the produce is different, and the expectation of diners is totally different! It is very important to know what customers expect in the dining room in order to delivery what they expected. That was the biggest challenge. The way things work well in Paris might not work here. To overcome this, feedback is very crucial and many corrections were needed at the beginning. It takes time to get things right. Now, we know a bit more but are still learning and trying to improve every day.
Did you have any pressure initially to get Michelin stars for Ducasse’s London establishment?
No pressure at all! Alain Ducasse wanted to set up a restaurant in London - a place to bring good food to diners and as usual, he wants to deliver gastronomy at its best. That’s it. That was our objective in mind. No one said to me you must get 1-star in first year and 2nd next year. I just focus on my work, respect the ingredients, respect each dish, respect each team member and respect each diner’s expectation. And of course I have a good service team trying their best to provide flawless service to every diner every night.
What’s your favourite dish or ingredient of this restaurant?
In general, for all Ducasse restaurants, my favourite is always the vegetables. Other than vegetables, UK is excellent for all ingredients. It has a lot of good seafood produces – scallop, sea bass, turbot; and good game seasons as well. Our spirit is French so we keep our French cooking but it is great to incorporate UK produces.
What are other fine restaurants you would recommend in London?
There is a huge variety of cuisines in London. You got Benares, Hibiscus, Connaughts, just to name a few. We also have a large selection of Japanese and Chinese cuisines ranging from casual to formal. The restaurant choice in London is very diverse.
On an interesting note, do you get a lot of picky or overly demanding diners?
Yes, it is the customer who has the wrong expectation for good food that is causing the problem! Our team endeavours to satisfy each diner - if the customer comes in half-hour early or one hour late, okay, no problem; or half way through each dish they want to change to something completely different, okay, we will try. I don’t know why, but some of them just don’t get satisfied even if we produce the highest quality of food and deliver the best service… Maybe they expect fireworks on the table or something! Also, there are people who come here with the objective of rejecting our food or to criticize everything we have done. Again, it is those few diners who have the wrong expectation that make our life difficult. Fortunately, these are a minority of the diners.
And lastly, a question from many young chefs -- what do you need to be good at in order to become a successful chef?
Just enjoy, learn, and contribute! Must enjoy and be passionate at what you do; must learn from and listen to every team member; and must be able to contribute your strength to the team. Another element is patience. You need to stay with a team long enough to really learn and there is no fast track. Many young chefs nowadays just stay at a kitchen for a few months to gather a lot of big names on paper. It is meaningless! You need time to learn the basics and to build a solid foundation. Take the time. Don’t rush yourself!
Published by Kevin Chan. Kevin is a food traveller who has lived and travelled extensively throughout Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Drawing upon his experience, Kevin offers a worldwide perspective on fine food. www.finediningexplorer.com Read Kevin's archive.