'Bling-bling' chef shakes up gastro world at Paris palace

Paris (AFP) –


Jean Imbert has one of the trickiest jobs in France -- not only taking over from the country's most decorated chef at one of its fanciest restaurants, but also proving himself to some of the sniffiest food critics on the planet.

The world of French gastronomy is not known for its love of young upstarts, and Imbert seems tailor-made to rub some people up the wrong way.

The 40-year-old made his name by winning TV competition "Top Chef" and then exploding on social media, where he could be seen hob-knobbing with the likes of Jay-Z, Pharrell Williams, Marion Cotillard and Kylian Mbappe.

These are not the usual credentials for someone to take over the restaurant at the Relais Plaza hotel -- one of the so-called Parisian "palaces". Its previous boss, Alain Ducasse, had more Michelin stars than anyone in the world.

Previous head chef Alain Ducasse ran restaurants with a total of 21 stars at one stage.
Previous head chef Alain Ducasse ran restaurants with a total of 21 stars at one stage. FRANCK FIFE AFP/File

And yet that is where Imbert finds himself, having started at its brasserie last week while the restaurant prepares to reopen in 2022.

Imbert himself is staying uncharacteristically quiet as he knuckles down to the task.

But plenty in the industry are having their say.

For food critic Francois-Regis Gaudry, it's all too "bling-bling".

"He has neither the CV nor the experience for such a place," he told AFP, adding that his talent for celeb selfies and brand endorsements were decidedly "extra-culinary".

For Le Figaro's food critic Emmanuel Rubin Imbert's appointment was "unworthy" of a top hotel.

- 'Daring move' -

Franck Pinay-Rabaroust, the founder of food magazine Atabula, also has his doubts.

"It's an earthquake," he said. "He's broken all the codes. For the first time, we are putting a chef into a palace who doesn't have any stars, who hasn't proved himself with other big chefs.

"At best, it's surprising. At worst, it's worrying," he added.

Some of Imbert's fellow chefs, however, have been more encouraging.

"You can have a great experience even from a chef without any stars," said Glenn Viel, the youngest French chef to earn three.

"It's quite daring, quite ballsy and it could attract a younger clientele looking for something new. I'm sure he'll be successful," Viel told AFP.

Imbert took over as head chef of the Relais Plaza hotel on September 9.
Imbert took over as head chef of the Relais Plaza hotel on September 9. Dimitrios Kambouris GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/File

For some, Imbert's rise reflects a wider change in the approach of luxury hotels, especially as the pandemic forces them to tighten their belts.

Hotels increasingly feel it is unnecessary to compete with individual restaurants, where the star chef is more likely to be present and communing with diners, said three-star chef Guy Savoy.

He pointed to the recent closure of starred restaurants at the famed Prince de Galles and Shangri-La hotels.

"The Ritz has also practically stopped this constant race for stars," he said.

A chef like Imbert can bring great, but simpler food that works well for a hotel, said Helene Darroze, who has a total of five Michelin stars at two restaurants.

"These chefs ask themselves far fewer questions, they are more intuitive," said Darroze, who is a TV celebrity herself from her role as a "Top Chef" judge.

"It's a 180-degree change" for the Plaza, she added.

"But that doesn't shock me. The food is less complex, less worked up, but the taste is there."