A family affair

Michelin-starred French chef Jean-Michel Lorain has branched out into Bangkok, opening an upside-down themed restaurant featuring French cuisine served with Asian style. Elly Earls meets the man himself to find out more about his quirky concept and why he’s keeping it in the family


Born into a family of chefs in Burgundy, France, in 1959, Jean-Michel Lorain was always destined for culinary heights, and he certainly hasn’t disappointed. At the age of 27 he became the youngest chef in France to win three Michelin stars – a distinction he shared with his father Michel – for the family’s traditional French restaurant Côte Saint-Jacques. He’s gone on to receive accolade after accolade under his own steam, and shows no signs of slowing down.

If anything he’s only getting more adventurous, his latest venture taking him far from his native France, and the family restaurant at which he’s worked for most of his career, to central Bangkok where he’s recently opened his first Asian outpost, J’aime by Jean-Michel Lorain. Of course, it’s still a family affair. His daughter Marine Lorain is running the show while he spends 90% of his time back at Côte Saint-Jacques, which he eventually hopes to pass on to her, keeping the family legacy alive for as many generations as he can.

Meanwhile, J’aime, which opened in late 2014 and became the first restaurant created by a three Michelin-starred chef in Bangkok, is something of a departure for Lorain from the French tradition that typifies Côte Saint-Jacques. Not only is the style of service typically Asian, the décor is upside down. “The windows go from the ground to the ceiling, there’s a piano on the ceiling and everything is upside down,” Lorain grins. “It’s a bit funny, a bit bizarre – but it works.”

As does the style of service Lorain has chosen for J’aime, even if it is something of a pleasant surprise for many of the venue’s customers. “The concept of the restaurant is French food with an Asian style of service, with lazy Susans, for example,” he explains. “French cuisine is always presented as something strict and formal, so my idea was to present it in a more casual way with an Asian, family style of service so everybody can share the food. Sometimes, guests are a bit surprised, but afterwards, they love the concept.”

The food itself, though, remains exquisitely French. The menu Lorain has put together for J’aime, which is brought to life in Bangkok by his protégé Italian chef Amerigo Sesti, showcases 25 years of Lorain’s cuisine, plus a few new dishes, with mains such as pan-seared duck foie gras and breast of pigeon and desserts including the typically French millefeuille ‘Napoléon’.

“The inspiration for the service was Asian, but with the food, we propose something entirely French; it’s not fusion cuisine, it’s really French,” he says.

Behind the scenes, Lorain has been involved at every juncture of J’aime’s conceptualisation, despite the fact that he spends 90% of his time at his restaurant in France, believing that a Michelin-starred establishment needs its chef on site. J’aime, he notes modestly, is less exclusive and high-end than Côte Saint-Jacques, being merely a restaurant created by a three-starred chef. “It’s more of a casual concept,” he says.

Nevertheless, Lorain always oversees every aspect of his kitchen designs and has even brought in a tableware consultant for J’aime to ensure the presentation of the tables is absolutely tip top. “We worked together with a French designer to add our own chinaware and everything on the table was designed by us,” he notes. “Then, when it came to the kitchen, I tried to have the maximum input in the design, drawing all the plans and choosing the equipment. I also made on-the-spot visits to verify the progress of the works.

“Not all chefs work in the same way so not all kitchens are designed on the same model,” he says. “It’s very important to [get the kitchen design right] as we spend many hours in it. If the kitchen is not well designed you can lose many hours. For me a kitchen must be functional, neither too small nor too big, pleasant to work in and with good equipment in the right place.”

To ensure the finished product was exactly as Lorain wanted it, his daughter was always on hand to oversee progress.

The Bangkok opening hasn’t been entirely stress-free – although things have improved since 1993, when Lorain first tried his hand at opening a restaurant in the city. “I opened a restaurant 20 years ago in Bangkok, but the owner was obliged to close it after two to three years because we had a big crisis in Asia and especially in Bangkok,” he recalls. “I’d always thought about opening again in Bangkok so last year I did it!

“The challenges I face now are different; 20 years ago the produce was a problem because there wasn’t much arriving in Bangkok, but now that’s not as much of a problem because there is lots of produce in Bangkok and Asia and we can also easily import the rest from Europe.”

At the moment Lorain’s team uses 50% local produce and 50% imported from Europe, but is always working to source more ingredients locally. “It’s still not easy because the quality isn’t consistent, but day after day, we have more and more – I’m always talking with other chefs and trying new producers,” he says, adding that the key difficulties in Bangkok now are around training.

“People are not trained to serve the food as we want it to be served,” he notes. “Keeping people from moving on to other jobs is also a challenge. Luckily, I have my daughter as the restaurant’s maître d’. She has created a great ambience so people stay. We also have our own training programme, which the staff love as they can learn about French food and the way to make and serve it.”

Looking to the future, more Bangkokians will have the chance to learn from Lorain and his team if his next project goes ahead. “I want to try to develop another business in Bangkok around French fast food,” he says. “I want to propose something different, healthier – a better quality of fast food than you can find on the streets now.”

But his main aim is to continue his family’s legacy in France, with his daughter at the helm in Bangkok. “I’m the third generation of chefs in my family in my place in Joigny so I want to pass my place to my daughter. This year will be the 70th anniversary of Côte Saint-Jacques and my goal is to keep the story going,” he concludes.

Elly Earls