Chef Samuel le Torriellec:”If we are in the top, we are all a bit crazy”

His relaxed appearance hardly betrays the constant pressure this man has been living in for the
past 25 years, while rising from a cooking apprentice to an exquisite chef. Samuel le Torriellec reigns over the kitchen in L’Atelier, the haute cuisine restaurant of Hotel Epoque, a 5-star boutique hotel in Bucharest, and he is a juror in the popular “MasterChef” show. Married to a Romanian woman, he feels 75% Romanian and says he settled here for good. Without claiming such a title, he is actually leaving a strong mark over Romania’s contemporary cuisine – by being a role model for many would-be chefs.

What makes a good chef – the right school or the extensive practice?
For me, the best school is the restaurant. But, when I was 16, I went to a public cooking school, because in France some of them are very good. In the first year we learned both to be a cook and a waiter, and also we learned oenology. Back then we didn’t understand why we had to learn so many things, but later on, when you become a chef, you understand that you need to know everything. After two years, I took the exam and went to a school to learn catering and confectionery.

When I was in Normandy, I was helping one chef. I went to school from Monday to Friday, but when I got out of the bus I took my bike to go help this chef. I was there at 8, finishing at 12. But at the end of the evening I got to sit at the table beside the chef. For me it was like sitting like near Charles de Gaulle. When I finished the school, I worked for 3-4 months for free in one sweetshop. Then I went in the army for one year. When I returned, my first chef told me: “I am going to Paris to work in a 3-star Michelin restaurant. Will you come with me?” I accepted rightaway.

And how was the new experience in Paris?
It was really hard. Normandy is little, everyone’s nice to you, but Paris is like Bucharest. Everything is like a business. In the restaurant it was harder than in the army. When you’re in the army, you know that is not your job. But our chef in Paris was really hard on us. In a 3-star Michelin restaurant they only accept perfection. You have to push yourself to the limit.As a chef in such a restaurant, you have to bear a lot of pressure.

The owner pushes you because there’s a lot of money and reputation at stake. So, we were starting work at 8:00, but we arrived at 7:00, and left at midnight. We worked day and night. Because of the pressure we lived in, we were always thinking about what we had to do the next day. Sometimes I woke up at 3 or 4 in the night remembering that I forgot to prepare something for the other day, so I would wake up at 6.

When you spend 14-16 hours a day in a restaurant, does it become your lifestyle?
For me, if I don’t cook for 2-3 days, I feel that I am missing something. It is not a sacrifice, it is a choice. You never know if you ever arrive at this level, but when you are here, you are like a Formula 1 pilot, you always have to give your best. If you want to be good on the long term, you need to have a good life, to practice sports, to clear your mind. Without sport, you are not in shape to resist working 10-12 hours every day. And I want to work at least until I am 60.

Full interview