Like a fish in the water
France | Paris
Chef of the one-star restaurant Auguste, Gaël Orieux is a Breton scuba diving fan and an advocate for more responsible consumption of seafood. He is involved in the Mr. Goodfish European campaign (“Good for the sea, good for you”), an association between several French, Italian and Spanish authorities and experts trying to promote better seafood choices.
How and why did you become a chef? Where were you trained?
I have a very atypical background for a chef. I don’t come from a family of gastronomes, for one thing. My parents are Bretons, but I grew up in Maine-et-Loire, which is not far, but in another region, and not on the coast. However, we had a house in Brittany and the whole family was there, so we went as often as possible, and the sea has always been a passion for me.
I actually came to Paris for that reason: I wanted to study to become a scuba-diving instructor! And as I was walking on the street, I passed by a cooking school that was doing an Open House day. I went in, I was curious. I had no clue at the time, I couldn’t tell cucumbers from zucchini! But I liked it right away, so I decided to pursue.
After studying, I interned in Paris, and then I started with Paul Bocuse. After that, Alain Senderens at the Lucas-Carton, then Taillevent, Roellinger, and then the George V, and finally the Meurice.
You opened your own restaurant in 2005: what makes Auguste special and successful?
It’s located in a very chic area of Paris; most of my customers work for the nearby Embassies and Ministries. Along with politicians and businessmen, we also have foreigners, coming to the area for business or pleasure. But overall, we have a lot of regulars. What our customers are looking for is a quality meal for a reasonable price. They also appreciate a somewhat light cuisine and being served rapidly.
When and how did you start sourcing and cooking fish the way you do today?
It took some time to become what it is, but I wanted it like this right away. You know, strangely enough, I have more meat on my menu than fish! I rarely have more than three. But the ones I have, I try my best to source well.
It all started in 2005, when I had to create my own menus for the first time. I wanted to know what species were in abundance on which coasts, and what other criteria I had to take into account. I had a hard time finding an appropriate tool. I tried guides, but the list format is often international and too static. I wanted regional information, and frequently updated too, because the sea is constantly changing.
So I went for the bold option: I went directly to the Ministry for Agriculture and Fishing, since we’re neighbors! I then fought for the creation of a database synthesizing all the information on fish stocks and the like. I was invited to sit in the meetings. We were connected to Philippe Vallette of the Centre National de la Mer, Nausicaä (National Sea Center in Boulogne-sur-mer, T.N.), and gradually, Mr. Goodfish was set up. It’s a very complete tool, with valuable information on a wide range of criteria to help people make better seafood choices. I use it every day.
(To find out more about the Mr. Goodfish campaign, obtain information on which fish to buy according to where you live and even discover recipes, click here)
And from that point, how do you find suppliers?
I check where the fish I want to buy is most abundant, in season, etc. And then I find a fisherman, on the Internet or through recommendations of people I know. At the beginning, it took me time to find fishermen like this, but now I have people in mind for any sustainable fish on any coast of France. I deal everything directly now, straight from the fishermen on the coasts to my kitchen. Transportation improved very much, the products are delivered directly to the restaurant in parcels with a special refrigeration system to preserve all the nutritional and sensory properties. And since I work directly with artisanal fishers or seafood gatherers in a short supply chain, no information is lost along the way so I know all about my products.
Do you feel the need to inform your clients, to educate them to the values of taste and ethics you defend?
Absolutely – I would even say that I blame chefs: we now know for fact that people buy from the fishmonger according to what they ate at the restaurant. We therefore have the power to influence their consumption of more sustainable species! So we should all show them that such or such fish that they don’t know yet is just as good as other ones, so well-known and over-consumed that they’re now endangered.
This implies caring, searching for information and suppliers and trying to make better choices. When customers don’t know a certain type of fish on the menu, we find ways of explaining its texture and taste by making simple comparisons with another fish that they already know.
What are the inconveniences of the way you source and cook fish?
I don’t see any! Seasonal and short-chain supplied fish is cheaper, fresher and tastes better! And you know what you buy and cook, therefore you can inform your clients on what they eat. It requires more work at the beginning, finding suppliers and so on, but with Mr. Goodfish I find it very easy: all I have to do is find fishermen in the indicated area. Nowadays, you can find everything online! And it brings you out into the community, makes you exchange, especially at the beginning when fishers don’t know you… I remember sometimes obtaining large orders only, and deciding I’d find other chefs around to share it!
Do you have a part to play within your community? How do you see the future of fishing?
Of course! Food professionals are a basic link of the food chain, we have the power to steer the market by bringing on stage sustainable seafood products and promoting them.
All I wanted to do was give an example of how easy it is to make more sustainable choices. I’m doing my best in everything I do, explaining to customers, to my waiting team, and hopefully it will inspire other chefs. But it seems that more and more of them are becoming aware of the problems and try to find solutions, so I believe we’re on the right track.
In my opinion, the future of fishing is positive as well: fishers are overall very responsible, very aware of environmental issues, and they know what they have to do.
What are your greatest frustrations and rewards?
My greatest frustration? People’s prejudice. When I hear things like “that fish is not good”, or “that one is always so dry”, etc.
Consequently, when I insist for a customer to try something they thought wasn’t good, and they find it delicious, I have the best possible reward.
Click here to view some of the brilliant chef’s recipes