Thirty years ago, Patrick Henriroux followed the illustrious Fernand Point at the helm of La Pyramide restaurant. From Chef Point, he learned to achieve “simple perfection” in cuisine. Since then, he has turned this institution into a treasure untouched by time.
Thirty years ago, at considerable risk, you took over La Pyramide, one of the true temples of French gastronomy.
It’s true that it was a risky venture. I wasn’t even thirty, but I had big dreams, and taking over this place was like taking over from Paul Bocuse today. It was the home of Fernand Point, the first chef to earn three Michelin stars, which he did in 1933, and who kept those three stars for 53 years without ever losing a single one. These walls have seen the training of culinary masters: Bocuse, Troisgros, Chapel, the Haeberlin brothers, Louis Outhier – all the heavyweights of the 1970s and 1980s learned the ropes of the profession here. And Monsieur Point, a very colorful character indeed, taught them what he called “simple perfection” or, as he’s officially quoted as saying, “Success is the sum of a lot of small things done correctly.”
What made Fernand Point so extraordinary?
Well, physically, he was a giant: six-foot-five, 364 pounds, with a 65-inch waist, and nicknamed “Magnum” because he used to drink a magnum of champagne a day. He originally hailed from Bresse and was a very good cook, but he was an even better restaurateur. You could say that he understood that people were coming for an experience and that receiving guests properly was essential. He was the first to put Baccarat crystal on the tables – the most beautiful dishes, real silver cutlery – and he had a tremendous gift for finding talent in others. He surrounded himself with very good people.
What have you preserved of this legacy?
When you become part of an entity that has such history – two hundred years in the restaurant business – you tell yourself that you’re not there to destroy anything, or to create some sort of school or shrine. My only goal with my young staffers – who, at that time, averaged 20 years of age – was to keep this wonderful history alive. We’ve retained a few key dishes: the turbot in champagne, the Bresse chicken en vessie with truffles, a recipe that’s been taken up by Bocuse and many others, but was in fact a Fernand Point invention.
Speaking of his dishes, when a guest asks us to recreate one of Chef Point’s recipes, we do so eagerly. We’re sometimes asked for the “Marjolène” cake, which was actually a culinary mistake: A pastry chef had overbaked some small hazelnut cookies and set them aside for a week, and they turned stale. So the head chef said to the poor young man, “Do something with those or Fernand will kill you.” So the pastry chef came up with a recipe: a layer of hazelnut cookie, a layer of chocolate, another layer of hazelnut cookie, one of praline, and a little vanilla cream. And Fernand, who didn’t let anything slip by, tasted it and thought it was perfect. So that blunder ended up on the menu.
And so, for thirty years you’ve carried on a 200 year-old legacy of fine dining here.
Exactly. Over the years, we’ve worked hard to win back a regional clientele, then a national clientele, until we opened up to a more international clientele by joining the Relais & Châteaux association in 1999.
You know how plant-based foods are so trendy these days? Well, that’s something we’ve always done. We select local vegetables and, in summertime, can have up to sixty on the menu. Our cuisine is delicate, elegant, and deeply rooted in the territory. We’re right in the middle of the Condrieu and Côte Rôtie vineyards, and I design my cuisine with shades of these two wines. Condrieu wines have aromas of white peach, white flower, and lemon, and the Côte Rôtie wines go wonderfully with duck and beef. We always have two emblematic dishes on the menu: the cream soufflé with crab and caviar and our chocolate piano.
You’re the son of a farmer and feel very strongly about the quality and freshness of your ingredients.
Here in Vienne, we’re blessed to have one of the three largest markets in France. Every Saturday morning, around 400 producers present their foodstuffs along about a mile and a half of product aisles. Suffice to say that there is an abundance of fresh produce – and I’m there at 4:00 a.m., every week.
After I arrived here, it took me four years to build a network of producers. And nowadays, it’s considered very fashionable to have small producers, so I guess I’ve been in fashion for thirty years. But I’m not making any claims – we’re cooks, we work to please our guests and make them want to come back. Fortunately, by virtue of our location, we’re a very good stopover on the Paris-Riviera route, equidistant from Paris and Nice. We have a contemporary, refined, warmly welcoming hotel that has a great deal of charm.
And do you find it easy to work as a family?
Yes, we work as a family. But I was in the French navy, you know, and that’s where I learned that everyone needs to have a specific assignment. It sounds a bit strict, but it prevents a lot of conflict. And working with my wife and children every day is a joy.