Jean-Christophe Ansanay-Alex is barely known in the UK, but the two-Michelin-star chef is a big name in France as the carrier of the Bocuse mantle - and now he's opening a £2.2m restaurant in London. Will the Lyons man avoid the opening pains that have affected other megachefs in the capital? Joanna Wood reports
Quirkiness is an attribute often assigned to the British, but you could use it to describe French chef Jean-Christophe Ansanay-Alex, too. He's the Lyons chef (patron of the two-Michelin-starred l'Auberge de I'Ile on the Ile de Barbe) who is set to launch Ambassade on London's Old Brompton Road next month.
Ansanay-Alex is not exactly flamboyant: he is slight, mousey-haired and softly spoken. But fling a few light-hearted queries his way and you start to get a sense of his sense of humour and self-deprecation. Does he prefer fish or red meat? "They're like blonde and brunette, both interesting." Does he like peaches or apricots? "Peaches stuffed with apricots". What was the last book you read? "Tin Tin". Are you a Renault or Peugeot man? "German" - in other words, neither, but a strange answer nonetheless.
As a chef and restaurateur Ansanay-Alex is barely known outside his homeland, so his choice of London as the location for his second restaurant is unusual, too. L'Auberge de l'Ile is on an island in the middle of the Saône river, which runs through the city of Lyons. To the disinterested observer, expansion across the waters in the middle of this city seems a more obvious route than spreading your wings the other side of the English Channel.
But as far as Ansanay-Alex is concerned, there was no question of staying - either in Lyons or in France. "I've wanted to live in an English-speaking country since I was a boy, so when I decided to open another restaurant it was an Anglo-Saxon destination that leapt to mind."
Other factors contributed to the decision. The relatively short air-hop over to Lyons is one, then there's the fact that London is the "economic capital of Europe", with the chance to make money from the banking hordes. Ansanay-Alex is at pains, though, to stress that he's not over here simply to make a financial killing. "For sure I need to make money and give my backers back some profits, but this is not my main focus. We only live once and I want to do things that interest me. For me, opening in London is a chance to do something a bit different from Lyons, to grow up," he says. "Lyons is my wife, London is my mistress," in that typical French turn of phrase.
The 42-year-old Ansanay-Alex's interest in what he calls the Anglo-Saxon can probably be traced to boyhood holidays in the USA and student jaunts to London, giving him a taste for life beyond Lyons that was suddenly, sadly curtailed. Youthful dreams were put to an end when Ansanay-Alex's father was diagnosed with cancer, a situation that caused him to return to the Ile de Barbe to take over the family restaurant from his parents.
His return to the family fold proved to be the catalyst for l'Auberge de l'Ile and in 1993 his cooking netted a first Michelin star. It was a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that he achieved the accolade cooking in the kitchen single-handedly. And we don't mean in the sense he was a bit short staffed in the kitchen - Ansanay-Alex lost the use of his right arm in a car crash. The accident occurred late one night after he fell asleep at the wheel after evening service on his way to see his then girlfriend, who lived a mere 10 minutes' drive from the restaurant. He was 24, and had just returned to work at l'Auberge.
Initially, the whole right side of Ansanay-Alex's body was paralysed and doctors predicted he would never recover fully. But Ansanay-Alex had other ideas and his muscles slowly began to work again - except for those in that right arm. He taught himself to work left-handedly instead. "It's not a big deal," Ansanay-Alex insists. "The accident made me different, not special. When you have no option, you just get on with things."
Pushed, Ansanay-Alex does concede that the brush with death and the paralysis changed his attitude to life. "Maybe because I had to work harder to overcome it, it made me focus more, I don't know. Certainly it made me realise that when things go wrong at the restaurant, it's not a big deal - there are much more important things than if someone breaks a plate or a glass."
Ansanay-Alex is keener to talk about the project in hand. His Ambassade restaurant is on the former site of Lundum's, Shaw's and a French bistro, Chanterelle, in South Kensington. Ansanay-Alex started his search for a place in London five years ago - and he has been coming to London every month since then.
Back to the 1970s?
Inside there's a firm timeline back to the 1970s: deep purple, off-set against stretches of white leather panelling that look, with their buttoned centres, like rows of suspended midriffs. This is all interspersed by glass or mirror divisions, while underfoot, there's a charcoal-grey, shagpile carpet. Chairs are white leather and chrome table linen is crisp and white for table decorations there are vases sprouting single white arum lilies. It's a style that will shine at night, and Ansanay-Alex is to be praised for not going for the over-used palette of beige-and-blond-wood.
Dishes that have been perfected in Lyons are tweaked where necessary for the London market (see panel). "His style is very much classic food done in a modern way," says Armand Sablon, the 2007 Roux Scholar and former sous chef at Galvin at Windows. Sablon will share sous chef duties at Ambassade with long-time Ansanay-Alex protégé, Sylvain Bouget-Lavigne (aka Sly). Despite his French-sounding name, Sablon is English, while Bouget-Lavigne has also worked in the UK (with Andreas Antona, a long-time friend of Ansanay-Alex's, at Simpson's in Birmingham). In fact, most of the kitchen and front-of-house brigades (both 12-strong) have experience of the London market. "Particularly in the front: you need people who know London habits, there's no point just bringing people over from Lyons," Ansanay-Alex explains.
It's an unusual standpoint, as incoming chefs often import greater numbers of trusted employees, which doesn't always make for a quick adjustment to the local market. Ansanay-Alex intends to use both Sablon and Antona's kitchen contacts for the food, too. Scallops will come from Scotland, fish from the South Coast, meat through Midlands-based industry butcher Aubrey Allen. Salad leaves are due to arrive from Kent's Secrett's Farm. "I don't want to work with a French product if I can find a beautiful English one," Ansanay-Alex says.
South Ken is an enclave for French expats in London - the French embassy and lycée are nearby - but the area is better known for its world-class museums rather than restaurants. Ansanay-Alex did look more centrally, and found a place in Mayfair, near the Connaught, "but what I came to understand by walking around London was that the city's not just about Mayfair," he says. "It's Chelsea, Notting Hill, Hoxton - all of these places. Jamie Oliver is in the east and Fifteen is a destination restaurant. Location is important, but it's not all about location if you are a destination restaurant."
Time will tell if Ansanay-Alex has made the right call. Certainly it needs to work from his backers' point of view, as they've pumped £2.2m in to the restaurant's refurbishment, on the back of lease that's for just 18 years. City trader Marc Grosjean, and Jean-Michel Aulas, founder and chairman of computer software company CEGID (and president of French premier league football club, Olympique Lyonnais) have put in the money. It's the common pattern: they were both regulars at l'Auberge de l'Ile, and both have extensive business connections in London. Ansanay-Alex will be hoping that their network will bring in the high-spenders.
Jean-Christophe Ansanay-Alex was born in 1965, the scion of a hospitality family. His grandfather was a hotelier, his parents the patrons of l'Auberge de l'Ile de Barbe in Lyons's ninth district. Academically bright, he went to college in Lyons and toyed with the idea of a career in linguistics or architecture.
But the pull of his heritage was too strong, and after studying at the Lycée Hôtelier Savoie Léman, Thonon-les-Bains in the Haute-Savoie, he went on to learn his trade with Pierre Orsi in Lyons and Philippe Millon in Albertville. The mid-1980s saw him take up a post as private chef to Christina Onassis - it taught him above all how to deal with VIPs and fed in to his future restaurant designs, making him insist on discreet nooks and crannies.
National service followed, then a spell as chef de partie with Didier Clement at the Grand Hotel du Lion d'Or in Romorantin-Lanthenay in the Loire Valley. He took over the family restaurant in 1990, gaining a Michelin star in 1993 for his cooking. A second star was awarded in 2002. He also has a consultancy with La Sivolière, a boutique hotel in Courchevel in the Haute-Savoie.
Ambassade, French for embassy, refers to the fact that Ile de Barbe, the island on which Ansanay-Alex's Lyons restaurant is located, was declared an independent sovereign state within France in 1977 and can print its own stamps and mint its own money. Ansanay-Alex is the island's honorary governor, and to take it to its logical conclusion, the London restaurant is its "embassy" overseas.
- Owners: chef-patron Jean-Christophe Ansanay-Alex Jean-Michel Aulas, Marc Grosjean
- Designer: Lyons-based Philippe Magnin du Sauzey
- Design inspiration: the flag colours of Ile de Barbe (purple and white)
- Seats: upstairs - 40 (including a communal, circular host's table seating up to 10) downstairs - 12-seat private dining room, six-seat chef's table overlooking the kitchen
- Investment: £2.2m
- Launch: 1 July
- Brigades: kitchen 12 front of house 12
- Key personnel: sous chefs - Armand Sablon, Sylvain Bouget-Lavigne pastry chef - Pascal Molinès general manager - Olivier Duprez restaurant director - Frédéric Claude restaurant manager - Caroline Marinelli sommelier - Jacques Varet
Food and drink
Ansanay-Alex's cuisine is based on classic technique but, like the man, there are quirky touches. He plays around with textures and temperatures, so you might be served an amuse-bouche of vegetable crisps (carrot, beetroot, lotus flower, sweet potatoes) with fresh herb beignets or a warm crayfish gel with white peaches and chilled almond milk, or a tart of baby summer vegetables with green mustard ice-cream to kick off the meal.
These sit alongside simple brasserie fare, particularly at lunchtime. He serves a plate of flavour-punched, juicy, tender Gloucester Old Spot pork chop with rocket and olive oil mash for instance or milk-fed lamb baked in a salt crust which comes with a green pea gnocchi.
Desserts are similarly balanced: liquorice ice-cream in a gingerbread cone has long been a signature dish. Warm apricots on a Breton sable base is a classic that works well, too. And petits fours include delicate macaroons alongside popcorn coated in raspberry powder.
Food and cheeses (a cheese addict's selection from regional artisan French and British producers, which includes Carré de Vignes, Saint Félicien, Devon Blue and Stinking Bishop) can be skilfully matched with wines from the French-dominated 500-bin cellar, which includes a good selection of wines at the lower end of the list, starting from £22.
There is an à la carte menu, plus an option of five courses for £65, or £90 for seven courses, or a £30 three-course lunch menu.