David Toutain, the traveller

Interview with the French chef, awarded this year by the Identità Golose Guide

David Toutain on the stage of Eataly Smeraldo rece

David Toutain on the stage of Eataly Smeraldo received (from Romina Tamburini, president of Surgitalia Spa) the prize for Best Foreign Chef according to the 2015 Identità Golose Guide. After a wide experience, in France and abroad, and a long journey around the world, Toutain returned to Paris to open a restaurant named after him (tel. +33.1.45501110)

French chef David Toutain is only 33 but has already succeeded in assembling an extraordinary cv, enviable technical skills, a sound and well deserved fame. He was chosen by Paolo Marchi as this year’s Best Foreign Chef according to Guida 2015 di Identità Golose, presented on Monday at Eataly Smeraldo. On that same occasion, we had the chance to sit with him at one of the tables in the big Milanese store, ask him a few questions and listen to his always smiling, articulate, careful replies. Starting from his professional journey, which includes an experience inside the maison of the great Alain Passard, when he was still young.

When one receives a prize, it is perhaps right to think about the road that has led to that goal. How would you tell your story as a chef, what were the crucial moments?

My love for the kitchen came a little by chance. At fifteen I had my first experience, in Normandy, where I was born. At nineteen, I decided to move to Paris, where I was lucky enough to work with Alain Passard, at L'Arpège, and stay there three years, arriving to be a sous chef. At that point I decided to start another experience, and went to work with Marc Veyrat and even there I stayed for three years, as sous chef. What interested me and inspired me of these two great masters was their artistic spirit. They are both chefs and artists, at the same time, with a very clear vision of the kitchen and of the stories they want to tell with their dishes. I then left France, and worked for a few months in the Basque Country, at Mugaritz. I then wanted to leave again, and go to the United States. This because I had always been fascinated by American work ethics, by their rigorous and decisive approach, very different from the French one: I wanted to better understand this reality and I believe this experience made me much richer. Even my wife is American, even though we met at Mugaritz, where we worked together. After a few years in America we decided to return to France and open Agapé Substance, where I was the chef for a year and a half. It was a very cosy restaurant, around 30 square metres, where we had only one, long table. A table d'hôte that was an extension of the kitchen, on which we offered dishes based on the moment’s inspiration, without following any menu. It was a very important and beautiful time for me, also thanks to the fact that it was the first time in which I was the executive chef, with the possibility of creating my own dishes, while until then I had always had some big master above me. From whom, of course, I learnt a lot and it was essential, but I needed to open my own restaurant. I then made a different choice: I went on holiday for a whole year.

Paolo Marchi explains the decision of giving the award to David Toutain

Paolo Marchi explains the decision of giving the award to David Toutain

I can imagine the choice of stopping, at that time in your career, was not an easy one. What urged you to take this long pause?
I am a lucky man, I could afford to completely stop for one year, using that time to travel all around the world. I needed to think about the future, about what I wanted to do and the place where I wanted to continue my life, whether in France or abroad. I had many opportunities because lots of chefs invited me to cook with them: the journey began in San Francisco and ended in Melbourne. I took part in many charity dinners, many festivals, but most of all I travelled. I adore travelling, meeting different people, attitudes, cultures. I love France very much, but leaving is something that excites me. Getting to know these different worlds, these different cuisines, is marvellous and makes you richer.

What was the most important thing you learnt during your yearlong journey?

How essential it is to have a strong personal identity: what I chose to do is cooking while remaining faithful to my way of cooking. And when I eat, I want a special experience, I want craveable food, discovery, surprise. I then understood I wanted to return to Paris to open another restaurant that would allow me to express myself in an even more complete way.
David Toutain in a photo taken by his wife Thai

David Toutain in a photo taken by his wife Thai

Besides this, how would you describe your identity as a chef?
My grandparents were farmers, they owned a farm. This thing influenced me a lot, even though I realised it only later, growing up, when I returned, consciously, to my origins. Hence the importance of raw materials, especially vegetal ones. When as I child I would stay with my grandparents, everyday we would go to the vegetable garden to pick what was necessary to prepare a raw vegetable dish. At that time I couldn’t understand why, but now this is very clear to me and I’m aware I was very lucky to grow up tasting the real flavour of these products, and of the meat from the animals bred in the farm, of fresh milk. My cuisine is founded on raw materials, where technique is very important, of course, because I love studying and working with pairings, textures, flavours, but it all begins with raw materials. The thing that interests me the most, is the flavour of what we eat, this is why perhaps my choices are less artistic than those made by others, less emotional or aesthetic: my cuisine is founded on flavour, on taste.

After returning to Paris, after your trip, you opened another restaurant, named after you. What are your goals with this new experience?

The most important thing for me, right now, is to build something that can last in time, managing to look ahead towards the next five, ten years.

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Niccolò Vecchia


Niccolò Vecchia

Journalist, based in Milan. At 8 years old, he received a Springsteen record as a gift, and nothing was the same since. Music and food are his passions. Author and broadcaster at Radio Popolare since 1997, since 2014 he became part of the staff of Identità Golose 
Instagram: @NiccoloVecchia

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