In Paris, the countdown to the most anticipated restaurant opening of the year began in June. This is because to fire someone without attracting a lot of attention, you do it in May—late May—when everyone is focused on their upcoming vacances.
This was when Dorchester Collection’s Hôtel Plaza Athénée announced it had parted ways with chef Alain Ducasse. His three-Michelin-star restaurant Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée would close permanently on June 30.
The news came as a shock, due to Ducasse’s legacy of success as well as his star power, but the next day—outside of food circles—café conversations were back to sample sales and the merits of Mykonos versus Páros.
Still, everyone wanted to know why the man who’s arguably France’s most well-known chef got the boot.
The best answer comes from one of France’s most venerable food critics, now retired, who tapped me on the shoulder while I was sipping a stand-up espresso at the Gare de Lyon.
“Ducasse pushed too hard with his naturalité menu,” the critic declares, referring to a roster of ascetic dishes featuring vegetables, legumes, and sustainably sourced fish and shellfish. “His restaurant was too cerebral. Who wants to eat the spine of a sturgeon cooked with chickpeas? Actually, it was rather good, but it wasn’t right for the Plaza Athénée, where people go for a good time, not a meal that sermonizes about nutrition and climate change.”
A few weeks later, in the thick of Bain de Soleil season, a 39-year-old chef named Jean Imbert was quietly appointed. He had already cruised to stardom as a contestant on the French iteration of Top Chef, and he had previously run a restaurant with his grandmother in the 16th Arrondissement.
François Delahaye, the hotel’s general manager, who also serves as director of operations for the Dorchester Collection, first instructed Imbert to reboot the hotel’s Le Relais Plaza, a brasserie that has been one of the most stylish spots in town since its inception, in 1936. Next, Imbert will tackle the creation of a new fine-dining establishment to occupy the rooms overlooking the courtyard garden, where Ducasse had earned his three Michelin stars.
While most Parisians were unfamiliar with Imbert’s cooking, it was lost on no one that the media-savvy chef has 432,000 followers on Instagram, runs restaurants in St. Tropez and Miami with Pharrell Williams, and is also masterminding a canteen for Dior’s headquarters.
But what sort of a gastronomic lifting could he give Le Relais Plaza, a sumptuous la vie en rose brasserie with a landmarked Art Deco interior, a piano player, and a Swiss-bank-account-funded clientele that appreciates the impeccably low lighting? Imbert is clearly talented at whipping up buzz, but can he cook? And what do Parisians really want to eat these days, anyway?
Two weeks ago, as the new Le Relais Plaza opened for service, I was able to find out. I took my seat at a corner table and studied the menu while listening to a blonde torch singer. It was full of earthy French-comfort-food favorites, and it stunned me. There was a seditious brilliance in offering stuffed tomatoes with rice pilaf to this caviar crowd because these people don’t cook, which means a homey childhood favorite is more alluring and luxurious than yet another spoonful of Petrossian.
And the torch singer wasn’t just crooning for the usual silver-haired and meringue-tufted crowd. There were many affluent younger Parisians and French weekenders in the mix, including the tanned young couple next to me, from Lyon, who extolled the virtues of summer-weight cashmere while tucking into plump langoustines mayonnaise and thermidor, followed by sea bass cooked inside of a fish-shaped pastry crust.
I couldn’t resist the Terrine de Ma Grand-Mère, a full-flavored mixture of coarsely ground rabbit and pork served with pickled vegetables and a mellow vinaigrette. I followed it with a gratin of sea-bream filets under a layer of toasted bread crumbs—that domestic totem of thrift—on a bed of rice with baby spinach, mushrooms, and a beurre blanc sauce as comforting as a baby’s blanket. It was all delicious.
“My cooking is profoundly French,” says Imbert, when he stops by my table. I reply that I found his menu surprising because I’d expected a bold gastronomic statement as he came out of the gate at this five-star luxury hotel.
Imbert is clearly talented at whipping up buzz, but can he cook?
He shrugs, raises his eyebrows, and shakes his head with a patient smile. “No, I cook food that’s meant to be sincere and comforting,” he says. “This is what I think we want to eat right now, honest traditional French cooking, maybe with a little twist here and there, but nothing gimmicky. I just want to make people happy. And I also don’t want to become a fashionable chef.” Good luck with that, I thought after he’d walked away.
But then I got it. His social-media footprint may be enormous and groomed, but Imbert is an advocate of simplicity and subtlety, those Gallic gastronomic values that so often get lost in a big, noisy world which has been coached by food media to love big flavors, baroque creativity, and the next big thing in the kitchen.
So Imbert just might be the shrewdest young chef in Paris right now. And 20 years after having originally hired Alain Ducasse, François Delahaye is suddenly looking crazy like a fox. And seeing dollar signs.
Alexander Lobrano is a Paris-based writer and restaurant critic. His latest book, the gastronomic coming-of-age story My Place at the Table, is out now