Out of all the tantalizing smells that waft around a Michelin-starred kitchen, there is one that Michelin-starred chef Jean-François Piège loves above all: cooking rice.
“When it’s on the staff lunch menu and we prepare it in the open kitchen of Le Grand Restaurant, it fills the house with this incredible scent,” he says, explaining that being surrounded with it brought the “same impression of fulfillment and the same emotion as a well-executed dish.”
That’s why it became the secret ingredient of the Violet Leaf & Bergamot candle he developed with Jo Malone London, the result of a two-year project he jokingly describes as one where he “had nothing to do but tell a story” to the British fragrance brand’s global head of fragrance Céline Roux and perfumer Mathilde Bijaoui.
The titular ingredients are just as mouthwatering to Piège. Bergamot nods to his love for the earl grey tea served at London’s Claridges hotel, while the notes of violet leaf nod to the Southwestern French city of Toulouse, where it is a delicacy turned into confections, liqueur or even perfume. It is also the hometown of his wife, Élodie.
“It’s my way of appearing a little in this,” she jokes.
But although the French chef’s name is writ large in the culinary world, the “Piège brand” is a universe he shares equally with Elodie Piège, a former communications executive turned general manager of the Piège group, with five restaurants and two more where he is consulting chef.
Neither ever imagined becoming restaurateurs, successful ones at that. She had studied commerce with an eye toward the world of finance, before ending up in the communications department of five-star hotel Martinez in Cannes.
He’d fancied himself a gardener as a child, before his passion for gastronomy took over, instilled by his grandmother’s cooking, and starting an apprenticeship that led him eventually to working with famed chef Alain Ducasse. Even then, he “was more interested in knowing how to cook a langoustine than knowing if my name would be on the door,” he says.
The pair met at the Crillon in 2006 when she joined its press and public relations department after working at Claridge’s. Piège, already a Michelin-starred chef who was considered one of the most promising of his generation, was leading its restaurant Les Ambassadeurs, where he had won two more stars.
They spent a lot of time together because what Piège came up with was the only standout element of a legendary but aging hotel without a pool, Élodie Piège explains.
Having connected over a desire to create unique experiences, their work relationship soon turned into romance. The pair married in 2010, a year after Piège had left the hotel to work with another hotelier.
In 2014, the couple struck out on their own with the opening of Clover, an 18-seat bistro that Élodie Piège named in English as a promise to themselves to take the concept outside of its Parisian comfort zone.
From its inception Clover was meant as an umbrella moniker that would be less a franchise than a series of restaurants that would meet its public in the middle, giving a Piège twist to what they fancy.
Like a plant-centric menu, which saw the first restaurant renamed “Clover Green” in 2018, as its sister establishment focused on charcoal-grilling and rotisserie was dubbed Clover Grill.
The next one, named Clover Bellavita, will open in that luxury mall in Taipei, Taiwan, and is slated to explore fine dining. It is slated to open at the end of the year, but they’ve not been able to make plans for the final steps owing to still-extant travel restrictions.
Not being able to visit is something of a sore point as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the couple particularly hard, not least because the ability to roam is the lynchpin of their thought processes.
“Our work is made of encounters, sharing, experiences and entrepreneurship,” they agree, firm believers in the idea that gastronomy may be a highly technical field but that it needs outside influences to be truly interesting.
“Synergies happen when you step outside of your remit. [People] should be chosen according to their talents, not their industry,” says Élodie Piège. Hence the choice of design duo M/M for their visual identity and the logo of the Jo Malone London candle, or calling upon photographers better known in fashion or art for their projects.
If his dishes are delicious, more so are the stories behind them.
Take the dessert titled “In a corner of the garden.” The chef recalls how, after using a group of ceramic mushrooms made by French lifestyle brand Astier de Villatte clustered at the end of a service, he was struck by the idea that they looked like something “in the corner of the garden,” now the name of the dessert that he serves. He is currently working on more ceramics, which may be available for purchase.
Likewise, at the opening of Mimosa, he recounts how he had arrived in St. Tropez for one of his first jobs outside of meal hours and managed to convince a restaurateur to whip something up for his group of young apprentices — a version is now on the menu, named after that person.
“Sometimes, the idea doesn’t come from me per se, it’s the context that brings it to me,” says the chef. “My job nowadays is finding a story, an environment and successfully translating it into reality.”
That is no doubt the reason for the close ties he has with fashion, a world he describes as filled with daring, able to take you on paths you couldn’t explore in a restaurant and accepting of many things but never of approximation.
Although he is loath to name drop, Élodie Piège reveals her husband has an enviable collection of kitchen coats imagined by each of the designers he has worked with.
At the heart of their projects is the idea that a restaurant is made of things that leave an imprint. “It’s 50 percent what you eat and 50 percent what you find there — seeing, touching, feeling,” she says, recalling countless hours spent scouring markets for silverware or buying extra suitcases to bring home exquisite candy-striped glasses found while on holiday.
That’s how Jo Malone London’s products first made their way into Clover, brought by Élodie Piège. The chef was immediately sold on these products, which are used in all their restaurants.
“I liked the idea that when you wash your hands there, you keep the smell of the place on your hands,” he says, explaining that scent comforted him and made him receptive to emotion.
But this first candle has another raison d’être.
The couple see it as a way of making sure even those who can’t visit one of their restaurants can take home a slice of the Piège experience.
Demystifying gastronomy and reaching all walks of life is something of a signature for the chef, who started breaking that mold during his tenure at the Crillon by offering upscale versions of popular fare like couscous and TV dinners as an antidote to his own awe at the hotel’s gilded decor.
It was also one of the reasons why he signed on as judge for culinary talent shows like “Top Chef,” where he ended up doing a ten-year stint despite early criticism from some who thought he brought gastronomy down by participating in low-brow TV entertainment.
The author of a dozen cookbooks, he doesn’t see cooking as the remit of a select few, sharing his encyclopedic knowledge in easy-to-follow instructions or even exploring specific topics like fat-free recipes, following his personal weight loss journey.
His next book, titled “Zéro Viande, Zéro Poisson” (or no meat, no fish in English) and coming out next week in France, revisits French classics with a vegetarian lens. A demonstration that vegetables aren’t doomed to being just garnish and that animal proteins aren’t entirely necessary, it also fits in with his awareness of the double gauntlet of moving toward thoughtful consumption and the rising costs of living.
“The hardest part, and true meaning, of being a restaurateur, is making people come back,” Piège says.
“If it had only been about cooking, I’d be long gone,” Elodie Piège jokes.
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