What It Takes to Earn a Michelin Star, According to Acclaimed French Chefs
We caught up with chefs Bertrand Charles of Old Manila and William Mahi of 210° Kitchen + Drinkery at FOURtaste: a four-hands wine dinner at Old Manila for the benefit of Les Disciples d’Escoffier, a non-profit organization that helps train aspiring chefs.
Chef Bertrand has trained with acclaimed chefs Jean Francois Piege of the legendary Michelin-starred Les Amabassadeurs, Jean Pierre Vigato of Restaurant Apicius (two Michelin stars), and Chef Eric Briffard of the two-Michelin starred Le Cinq. He has worked in Mauritius, Morocco, Barbados, and has just left Manila for Switzerland.
Chef William has also worked with Jean-Francois Piege, along with chefs like Alain Ducasse, Nicolas Le Bec, Stephane Gaborieau, Christian Tetedoie, Jacques Le Divellec, Helene Darroze and Michel del Burgo, all of whom have earned Michelin stars for their respective restaurants. He has headed his own kitchens in Beirut, Shanghai, Luxembourg, Istanbul, and Athens—Spondi Restaurant earned a Michelin star during his time.
Together they teamed up to create a sumptuous six-course French dinner, with all the ingredients imported from France. Here, they give their two cents on what it takes to make it as a chef.
Brittany clams paired with wild gambas, Chardonnay jelly and tarragon by Chef Bertrand Charles
What do you think it takes to become a Michelin-starred chef?
Bertrand Charles: It takes a lot of work. I started when I was 17. What age did you start?
William Mahi: Fourteen.
William: We were talking about it just half an hour ago. We were working a minimum of 16 hours a day. That’s how it works if you want to succeed. If you don’t want that, choose another restaurant and work eight hours, no problem. But you will not get where you want to go. Your [culinary] education comes and afterwards you decide what you want to do with your life. There are some chefs who don’t want to go abroad. They prefer to stay in their own countryside, working for small bar and doing family food. Everybody is different. I think at the moment you decide in your life to achieve something, you just have to work for it and one day it will come.
Bertrand: Well, we were working a lot but the times have changed since. You don’t make people work that long anymore anywhere in the world anyway, so I would say that there are less and less chefs.
Pearl oysters with Hijiki seaweed, six-month ceps vinegar and caviar by Chef William Mahi
What does that mean?
Bertrand: Because if you want to reach a certain level you have to work.
They’re not willing to work all those hours.
William: Exactly. Exactly.
So you really need to have the grit for it?
William: Yes, yes. And you have to choose where to work because I believe restaurants have become too much of a marketing tool. And you really have to research where to go beforehand. All the people I worked with, I always went to them for a specific reason. For example I went with this guy because he was good at working with truffles. I went 500 kilometers away to work with this other guy because he really knew how to cook fish. So you really have to select, and not just because newspapers are telling you this one is good. It’s not true.
Bertrand: And it’s happening more and more now.
William: On Facebook, some people were talking about Spain. And they were saying that in their kitchen they were employing about 75 cooks-in-training. So when you say “employee,” our understanding is that you pay the people, right? No, no. Over there, they go to work for free.
Bertrand: And they even have to pay sometimes.
William: Exactly! Exactly!
White asparagus, cooked Meuniere, spaghetti, morels, and whiskey by Chef Bertrand Charles
Bertrand: For example, if you go to Martin Berasategui [8 Michelin-star chef and head of the Berasategui Group], you get culinary formation. It’s official, he has two tracks: sommelier and kitchen. There are students from all over the world who pay something like a school fee to go and learn how to cook with that chef. So you have more and students doing this. It’s good because it means there are still some people who are interested, you know? Even if they have to do a bit of work they want to go into that, and that’s a fantastic house. If you are lucky, when you work there it is something that you can be proud of. So yeah the times have changed a bit. As William says, they are not learning like before. But I believe that there are still some people who are passionate about their work and we still have some future chefs.
William: And it’s important for me that the chefs are remain in the kitchen because so many chefs today have so many things going on at the same time. For me it is very, very important. Some clever guys, what they do when they go overseas is they close their restaurant.
Atlantic cod with consommé, cuttlefish, sea Snail, piquillo, calamansi and Brussel sprouts by Chef William Mahi
William: Exactly. And I think that’s the way because at the end of the day, you know when you work in a kitchen for so many hours, your staff become your second family. The way I form my staff is not exactly the same way I was trained, but it’s more or less the same methods. In my restaurant I have an extremely clean and organized team. They’ve been with me for quite some time now. I’m not saying it’s pink every day because every man has his off-days and says a lot of things, but today I can say that I’m proud of them. Today I’m in Old Manila, and I’m not worried about what’s going on in my restaurant. Striving for excellence—that’s how we’ve been formed and to be honest, I think we are the last generation of chefs. Some will probably come up maybe in a few years or something but there will be maybe one hundred in the entire world who are still there. I was discussing with a guy who was working with me before and the guy was even better than me. After ten years I asked him, “What are you doing?” And he said, “I quit.”
He gave up.
William: Yeah. He just gave up. It’s hard, it’s hard. Because when you reach high, of course there’s a lot of sacrifice: family, private life…some people divorce.
Pigeon de vendée with roasted breast, confit leg cromesqui, and stuffed braised cabbage by Chef Bertrand Charles and Chef William Mahi
A chef is busiest on the big dates when he should be with his wife. Christmas, holidays, Valentine’s.
William: At the end of the day, just focus on what you want and someday you will reach it. Then you can start to relax a little bit and rely more on your people to manage things—make them your chef de cuisine if you start your own company, so you can go more on the business side. Don’t get me wrong, I do my plates in my restaurant and I’m here for my service. Before that I have a lot of things to do, people I have to meet, but I’m there and I do my plates. I check what they do, and that’s it. And that’s the way to do things.
Given that it’s so challenging, how do you sustain that passion?
William: Well, you know, now it’s too late to change (laughs).
But let’s say for an aspiring chef?
William: When you’re young, you have to get a good support system: your parents, your girlfriend or boyfriend, that’s very important because that’s a very big factor. They have to understand. And I have cut off some relationships due to that. ‘Til I became a young chef de cuisine and I met my wife 9 years ago, I never let anyone tell me “I don’t see you enough.” I tell you, just focus and you know there’s always days off and vacations.
What would you say is the hardest part of being a chef and the most rewarding part of being a chef?
William: I think the most difficult thing is the pressure. First from the guest, because when you pay a certain price, you expect to get your money’s worth. Then your chef will will be very, very picky on the quality, the way the dishes are executed and everything, which will have an impact on the team, depending on how you work. But the only thing I can tell aspiring chefs is that you know, I have cried in the kitchen when I was young. I wanted to quit so many times. In Paris it’s hard.
William: But I think to a certain extent, chefs de cuisine get into a kind of madness with all this pressure. Sometimes it’s too much. So the best thing for a chef is just to surround yourself with people you’ve really formed, and those people actually lift you up. Without my team, I couldn’t have gotten my Michelin stars in Athens or succeeded here in Manila.
William: So what I have to say to aspiring chefs is just go, you know? The only thing is that if your chef gets physical with you, just quit. Because that’s not good. I have seen it so many times. That breaks men. They are scarred forever. Change jobs, go to another company, another industry. I’m not for getting physical, I’m more for talking, checking on my staff daily, making sure their mental state is okay and they don’t have problems with his girlfriend or boyfriend. So we have to follow the evolution of the people if you want to sustain.