By Karen Ann Monsy
With his shock of salt and pepper hair, Yann Bernard Lejard is unmistakable in a crowd. But then, he’s usually the one surrounded by a crowd in fine dining settings. The French executive chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain, is best known for being something of a Pollock of the restaurant world. Like the famed abstract expressionist painter, Yann too is lauded for his plating techniques that involve pouring or splashing ‘sauces’ in a style most reminiscent of Pollock’s own. Regularly invited abroad to demonstrate his skills, Yann is happy to plate his dishes with a heaping side of drama that often involves jumping, tossing and blowing techniques that make SaltBae look rather tame. It’s all about bringing high art to the table, he says — and it’s enough to make everyone whip out their phones for the show, every single time. Excerpts from an interview:
Before you became a chef, you used to express yourself through street art. Could you tell our readers something about those days?
It was a crazy time for me. Instead of going to school, I used to roam the streets and paint the walls. It was a great experience though, and it allowed me to become familiar with curves, lines and design.
How did you end up in the culinary world?
Since I was young, I’ve always expressed an interest in becoming a chef. When my parents saw that my direction in school was not up to the required level, they enrolled me into a culinary school in the South of France. I remember my mother saying to me, “This way, you will never be hungry.”
Was that a surprising career direction for you?
Totally. It took me a long while to figure out what I was doing and what direction my life was going in. I went from working in the smallest restaurant you can imagine to working in one of the best hotels and restaurants in the world.
What are your thoughts on Jackson Pollock, whose work seems to inspire your own?
I did not know Jackson Pollock well in the beginning; however, people around me started to tell me about him when they saw that my style was similar to his. That’s when I started to study his work. I even went to the MOMA in New York last year to see his paintings. I can say that even though a lot of people try to copy him, no one will ever reach his genius — myself included.
Social media has been influencing food styling for a while now, but you seem to have taken it to new levels. Was turning fine dining into high art always on the menu?
Yes, of course. I cannot imagine a menu without a touch of high art. I like to see things from a different angle, and bring that point of view to the clientele.
How long does it take you to create these plates?
It can range from three to 15 minutes. Most of the time, it is pure improvisation; I never draw or think in advance. I select a product and a colour, and let the right part of the brain do the rest.
Some of the pictures of your #boardplatingbyybl on Instagram look quite dramatic, and involve jumping and blowing techniques. Could you explain these for viewers who might find it all very unusual?
I agree that the process of board plating can be unusual at times. I like to focus on the performance. I can be judged for the taste of my food, the presentation, or the service — but then, I would be just like any other chef in the end. The reason I came up with this idea of live board plating was to bring something different to the table and to express much more of myself through my plates.
What kind of conversations are you hoping to spark through your work?
Conversations about creativity and freedom of expression would be ideal.
How do you achieve such bright colours? Do you use food colouring?
I don’t; I prefer to use natural fruits or reduced juice from vegetables or extract. Whenever I travel the world, I ensure I send my recipes to the concerned kitchen in advance, so they’d have enough time to source the ingredients I’d need for my creations.
Can you comment on the temporary nature of your art, seeing as it’s a fair bit of effort only for the food to eventually be eaten and plates cleared away?
I like to see the expressions on people’s faces… Those can last for a long time. I realise that food can be seen as something that is eaten and cleared away, but that is not my vision. [Famed French epicure] Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once said that discovering a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than discovering a star.
Karen’s on the lookout for the perfect beetroot hummus recipe