The Long Game: Guy Savoy

–With reporting by Alexandra Michot

It’s been 55 years since Guy Savoy stepped nervously into the kitchen of chocolatier Louis Marchand to begin his first apprenticeship, and 43 years since he opened his first restaurant on a quiet street in Paris’ 16th arrondissement. Restaurant Guy Savoy earned its first Michelin star the following year in 1981, got its third star some two decades later, and has been ranked at the very top of the world’s best restaurants by La Liste for seven consecutive years. The time in between has brought the normal assortment of ups (the Legion d’Honneur; the opening of a second Restaurant Guy Savoy in Las Vegas) and downs (a devastating fire, the loss of the third star). But at 70, Savoy is still cooking, still at his flagship restaurant in the Monnaie de Paris every night it is open, and perhaps most remarkably, still effusive about the joys of the profession.

“I’ve been cooking for 55 years,” he says. “Actually 110 if you count the two services a day.” He works fewer days per week than when he started—and beginning in February, the restaurant will be closed Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays to give its entire staff three consecutive days off— but the total number of hours is the same as when he first tied on an apron. His days begin around 8.30 when he checks the produce that has come in and adjusts the menu accordingly, and end somewhere between 23.30 and 01.00, depending on how busy service is, and who is in the dining room. “Sometimes, it’s a bit later if suppliers have come to eat,” he says. “Like last night, the farmers from Sete who supply my oysters were in the kitchen having dinner. But that doesn’t count as work anymore. And I live 45 meters away, which helps.”

He’s witnessed a lot of changes during his decades in the industry, beginning with the physical—the dark, cramped, airless kitchen where he began is now the spacious kitchen in the former Paris mint, with large actual windows looking out onto the Seine. (When the restaurant moved into this location in 2015, executive chef Laurent Solivérès, who had by then been with Savoy for 26 years, told the New York Times, “This is the first time in my life I’m working in daylight. Every day feels like Christmas.”)

Photograph by © Laurence Mouton.

Photograph by © Laurence Mouton.

The culture of workplace has changed for the better as well. “It was a bad legacy from the brigades where we used to ‘break’ young people,” Savoy says. “When I started, I was toxic. But I soon stopped. I don’t want any more [screaming] in the kitchen—only the sounds of preparation and cooking. Even if you’re the chef, shouting during service is unbearable. After a tantrum, you feel bad, you blame yourself. It can be discouraging. For me, the restaurant is the last civilized place in the world. And that includes the working conditions in the kitchen.”

He sees other industry changes as similarly positive. The explosion in rankings and awards, for example, “shows how passionate people are about gastronomy and food. And it adds value to the profession. When I started cooking as an apprentice at the age of 15, being a chef or cook wasn’t as sexy as it is today! Back then, you didn’t always take up the profession by choice.”

The rise of social media has also been a boon. “When I opened the restaurant on rue Duret in 1980, the only way to get attention for your restaurant was through word of mouth,” he laughs. “I would have loved to see customers shooting my dishes as they ate!”

Not every trend or development meets his approval. Too much tableside storytelling, he says, “makes me tired as a customer. When I’m at the table, I want to enjoy myself and be left in peace.” He finds tasting menus similarly irritating, and has always kept his restaurants’ offering a la carte because “in a restaurant, I like to have choice. If you only offer a single tasting menu, it’s no longer a restaurant, you have to call it something else.”

Locavore and zero-waste restaurants don’t impress him either, though for the opposite reason. “As far back as I can remember,” he says. “we’ve always cooked local seasonal produce, used leftovers, been careful to use every part of an animal or vegetable. Don’t throw anything away, don’t waste, don’t run the water for kicks…that’s nothing new. My generation was raised like that.”

It hasn’t all been easy, not by a long shot, but the worst moment in his career came in 1993, when an overnight fire tore through the restaurant, burning it to the ground. Asked how he got over it, he makes a joke—“With a good insurance policy!”—before turning serious. ”You bounce back because you have no choice. You have employees, suppliers, people who are counting on you. And I was lucky to feel supported by friends and customers. I’m lucky to be in a job that celebrates life. So if you do it to the full, you get back on your feet.”

In comparison, the vagaries of reviews and rankings feel like minor concerns. “You can be mistreated in one guide and at the top of another,” Savoy says. “Some awards are pleasant, some opinions are not. But at the end of the day, what matters is that your restaurant is full and your customers are happy. I define myself as an aubergiste rather than a chef anyway. What I love is welcoming people and making them happy.”

How has he maintained that attitude over the years, while keeping four restaurants in business for what amounts to a combined total of 97 years? Good people have helped—some of his managers have been with him for 25 or 30 years. But “aside from surrounding myself with talented, dedicated and caring partners and employees, the secret to success is… there is no secret,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s just hard work.”

That may be true, but there are things that help, and keeping in shape is one of them– “the first ingredient in the recipe for staying in this very physically demanding job,” as he puts it, “is health.” Savoy boxed for 20 years, but now, he says, he takes a more relaxed approach. “I stretch every day, I cycle, I walk in the mountains, I get as much oxygen as I can. I never stay away from nature for long.” But like cooking, sport, he adds, “has to be fun. Otherwise I can’t do it.”

He also takes time to unplug, often at a cabin he owns in Switzerland, that is so barebones it doesn’t even have electricity. “It puts my feet back on the ground. I’ve even started to tame a fox,” he says with a characteristic twinkle in his eye. ”Without thinking I’m the ‘Little Prince.’”

When he’s not in the Alps domesticating wildlife, Savoy is as addicted to work as ever. But, he adds, “It’s a positive addiction. You take the best things from the sea and the land and you turn it all into pleasure—it’s a constant buzz.” He also derives energy from the human relationships that are at the heart of his work. “The restaurant is like a university: you learn something new every day. I’m also surrounded by young people, which is refreshing. Passing on knowledge to them is an essential part of my job.”

That’s part of the secret too. “If you continue in this profession because you have to, with no desire to pass on your skills, you’re heading straight for the wall,” he warns. “Make sure you have happy teams with you, and look forward to meeting them every day and helping them grow.”

Nurturing that connection and mentoring others is one key to staying inspired and creative in the job. Another is staying true to yourself. “Do what makes you tick without making concessions. And keep the rebellious, idealistic and daring spirit of a teenager.”

That’s not something you expect to hear from a man who entered his eighth decade this past summer. But it’s not hard to see the idealistic, daring teenager in Savoy. “The notion of success or achievement as we understand it means nothing to me,” he says. “I’ve never considered myself to have ‘arrived.’ My deadlines are twice a day, and I put everything on the line every time I play.”

He intends to keep doing that until he’s 100. And although he couldn’t have imagined, back when his mother was cooking omelettes at her modest buvette near Lyon and he was about to start his apprenticeship, that he would one day run a restaurant like the one in the Monnaie de Paris, his happiness about that outcome is palpable. Six decades in, “I still love being there every morning,” he says. “You’ve got to keep that up, the desire, the joy of giving pleasure.”

Illustration by Jakob Tolstrup.

Related articles

5 Questions with Sarah Knight

MAD Alumni Q&A

Sarah Knight's resume would read like the title of a John Le Carré novel, if Le Carré wrote about food: Waiter, Chef, Butcher, Rancher. But in that list of jobs is a far more interesting story of an aimless American teenager who fell into restaurant work.

5 Questions with Karyn Tomlinson

MAD Alumni Q&A

Each month, Digest interviews one of MAD Academy’s alumni. First up, chef Karyn Tomlinson, who worked at TK in Minneapolis and Fäviken in Sweden before opening her first restaurant, Myriel.

The Color Code of Conduct

MAD Long reads | Digest

Six years after a reckoning at her restaurant, Erin Wade talks about the impact of her team's innovative solution to sexual harassment: the color code of conduct.