Video: Pascal Barbot at MAD3

"Why do we repeatedly put ourselves in danger in the kitchen of my restaurant?" was the question chef Pascal Barbot posed at the beginning of his talk at MAD3. At a time when it seems like most high-end restaurants put a premium on their kitchens’ ability to consistently execute dishes — some of which may have taken months to produce — Barbot strives to keep things spontaneous. The chef of Paris’ three-Michelin-star L’Astrance described how changing recipes on the fly and encouraging a spirit of risk-taking during service are essential to his happiness as a chef, and the success of his restaurant.

At L’Astrance, Barbot communicates with the front of house (run by Christophe Rohat) to get a feel for each table, so that he may adapt the cooking to their preferences. Are these guests on a business lunch? Is it part of a honeymoon? Does one diner want to drink white wine and the other only red? Are they gastronomes ready to put themselves in the hands of the kitchen or do they have specific preferences? These are all the things Barbot takes into account before creating bespoke menus, à la minute, for each person in the dining room. It is, in many ways, the kind of instinctive cooking you can often see from the chef’s countrymen, like Pierre Gagnaire and, of course, Alain Passard, whom Barbot worked under years ago.

Although Barbot’s restaurant only serves 25 clients per service, which makes this approach more manageable, the philosophy still comes with an undeniable level of risk. But Barbot says that it’s actually quite fun and pleasant; it makes his kitchen freer, more in the moment, more intuitive. “It’s about taking all the knowledge and skill that you have,” said Barbot, “and using it to channel your feelings.” Hell, he’ll even force it upon the freshest members of his staff: “Sometimes I’ll take someone who is young, new, and nervous and completely change their mise en place,” he said. “I like to provoke, so that people in the kitchen can react and cross their own boundaries.” 

It’s all done with one goal in mind: “We need to please our guests.”