Thierry Marx speaks softly and intently. While his controlled demeanor doesn’t suggest the sort of person who would lose his temper, you wouldn’t mess with this former paratrooper who is one of France’s leading chefs.
His head is shaved and he’s powerfully built. He’s focused and economical with his words. Does he shout in the kitchen? "Never!" says the chef who heads the new Mandarin Oriental in Paris, switching to English for a single emphatic word during an interview conducted in French.
It’s like hearing Marcel Marceau speak in "Silent Movie."
"If you shout it means you are scared: It’s a big team here and I don’t want people to be scared," he says. "We try to be well prepared. The military taught me leadership: How to use everyone’s skills, and not just in an emergency."
Marx is less flamboyant than some of his U.K. peers, though he’s achieved celebrity in France, appearing in a version of the TV show "Top Chef." He held two Michelin stars for more than a decade at Chateau Cordeillan-Bages, in Gironde, and was named Chef of the Year by Gault & Millau and by "Le Chef" in 2006.
He lets his cooking do much of the talking. The popular description of him is a Gallic version of Ferran Adria. He’s a friend and admirer of the El Bulli chef, and of Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck, yet he cites Pierre Gagnaire as his biggest influence and it’s the time he has spent in Asia, particularly in Japan, that stands out.
"My cuisine is a play on texture and temperature," he says. "I’ve been very influenced by Japan. So you play with the texture and temperature but you respect the product and it’s also really important that the diners enjoy the taste, that they’re comfortable with it."
"In Japan, it’s a real philosophy, not only cooking. The right question is: Do you cook because you want to give food to people or do you cook for the emotion? I cook for the emotion and also for the communication because when you cook for somebody it’s about personal spirit, not just providing food."
(The kitchen is headed by Tamaki Yoshida, 31, who has a degree in economics from Japan. She has also worked for Joel Robuchon.)
It has to be said that Japanese influences are not hard to find in Paris these days. I had an exceptional lunch at Passage 53, a tiny restaurant with a big reputation where chef Shinichi Sato serves minimalist dishes such as cauliflower with squid. Sato previously worked with Gagnaire and at l’Astrance.
Back at Marx’s flagship Sur Mesure at the Mandarin Oriental, two set menus are served at lunch: 75 euros ($108) for five dishes and 180 euros for 11. I’d recommend the 11. The standout plate for me was Oeuf eclate — cracked egg — where Marx seeks to represent the various flavors when cooking an egg.
A deep orange slow-cooked yolk is overlaid with a slice of transparent jellified vegetable consomme, so it looks like a fried egg, which is accompanied by an egg-white cylinder, surrounded by herbs and peas and splashes of color.
"For me, it’s important to show there’s no conflict between tradition and innovation, that you can have a very classical cuisine and yet, at the same time, very innovative, very creative," Marx says. "In France, if you do something too modern, if you show too much audacity, it means that you have to accept a lot of criticism and it’s quite difficult to change what people think about cuisine."
Marx should know. He says his parents are far removed from the world of gastronomy, and his mother runs a sausage-and- French-fries stand at a soccer stadium in the east of France.
"For her, sausages and French fries are good and they don’t cost a lot of money," he says.
Marx, 48, comes from an unprivileged background, a family of Polish refugees. So how has he become a champion of modern gastronomy and how is he coping with the demands of running the food operation at the Mandarin Oriental, including the simpler Camelia restaurant, where his menu even features chicken curry: in fact, meat with an Indian-spiced glaze.
"I come from Menilmontant, in the north of Paris," he says. "It’s not a wealthy area. Traditionally, it’s a working- class district and even today it’s not very beautiful. So it was important for me to show people who still live in the district that even if you come from places like this in France with work you can fulfill all your ambitions and you can succeed.
"It’s difficult to open a new restaurant in Paris because there are a lot of competitors, but I know very well what I want to do. So I should follow Queen Elizabeth and say, ‘Keep calm and carry on.’ That’s exactly what I want to do here."
Sur Mesure, Mandarin Oriental, 251 Rue Saint-Honore, 75001, Paris. Information: http://bit.ly/pR6ip5 and +33-1-7098-7300.