SPILLING THE BEANS:
Paolo Griffa, head chef at the Michelin-starred Le Petit Royal, talks to Bill Knott
Chefs are a motley bunch. My training as a chef, such as it was, took place in the kitchen of a Cambridge pizza restaurant during a year out from university. I learnt - amongst other things - the wrong way to hold a knife, how to make coleslaw by the gallon (and drink similar quantities of beer), and the quickest way to defrost a packet of prawns (you put it through the dishwasher).
It was not the most rigorous or inspiring tuition, but I had the cooking bug, and I carried on cooking professionally for the following 12 years. Others start much younger, going to catering college at 16 and acquiring a technical skill in the same way you might learn to be a spot-welder or a hairdresser. Many more simply fall into restaurants by accident, peeling spuds in the pot wash and gradually climbing the ladder.
For those who progress to the top of their trade, however, it is often possible to find some strand of culinary DNA in their past, something in their childhood that prompted their obsession with food and cookery.
So it is with Paolo Griffa, head chef at the Michelin-starred Le Petit Royal, his Courmayeur restaurant nestled in the Italian Alps. Paolo grew up in Alba, Piemonte, famous for springy, egg-rich tajarin noodles, rich and cheesy fonduta, beef cooked in Barolo, and especially for tartufi bianchi, white truffles, with a price tag as elevated as their ethereal aroma.
The young Paolo Griffa, however, preferred his truffles made from chocolate: in fact, he adored anything sweet. Piemonte is also famous for its hazelnuts: it is the home of Nutella, Ferrero-Rocher, Frangelico, the hazelnut liqueur, and baci di dama - "ladies' kisses" - a local speciality that has spread throughout Italy and beyond: small domes of hazelnut shortbread sandwiched with dark chocolate and eaten with coffee.
Cooking for other people, sharing food with them, spending time together… those were the values that I absorbed from my childhood, and how I still think about food today.
Many of these hazelnuts found their way into the cakes and biscuits of his mother and grandmother, and Paolo remembers them fondly. "But also, what I remember are the big meals we would have in the Christmas holidays, when my mother and grandmother would cook together for the whole family. Cooking for other people, sharing food with them, spending time together… those were the values that I absorbed from my childhood, and how I still think about food today."
Paolo was, he says "a born pastry chef." After leaving hotel school in Turin and working in various restaurants, mastering pastry, ice cream and chocolate, Paolo took a job with Davide Scabin, chef/proprietor of the highly experimental Combal Zero in Rivoli. "What I had learnt about desserts up to that point was perhaps too easy, too close to what I'd eaten at home.
"Davide told me 'I don't like desserts', which was a challenge! I discovered that desserts don't have to be super-sweet: tagliatelle, foie gras, even bone marrow… I used all of them in various desserts, and it changed my life."
His relentless curiosity took him to many different kitchens: to Studio, in Copenhagen, to learn about Nordic cuisine and fermentation; to Châteaubriand in Paris, where he experienced the hurly-burly of a hot, frenetic bistro kitchen ("we had 200 people for dinner every day: it was great, but I realised it wasn't for me"); then to the more tranquil pastures of Serge Vieira's eponymous two Michelin-starred restaurant in the southern French countryside.
Half an hour's drive south of Vieira's restaurant is Maison Bras, the legendary fiefdom of Michel Bras. "We used to meet chefs from Maison Bras when we were all out foraging for herbs," recalls Paolo. Did any fights break out over the chickweed and the fiddlehead ferns? "No, we all got on fine: besides, there were only a couple of local bars, so we had to be friendly to each other.
"Michel Bras is a beautiful man, with an incredible knowledge of maybe 300 different wild herbs, and he was happy to share what he knew. He and Marc Veyrat were a great inspiration to me."
For me, Difference's Jamaican Blue Mountain has the perfect balance, with flavours and aromas of caramel and nuts. And I like to use coffee in recipes, too: maybe in a marinade for bresaola of wild boar or venison.
A veteran of multiple prestigious cooking competitions - he has entered 16, winning 14 of them - Le Petit Royal gave Paolo the chance to take his years of experience in other chefs' kitchen and distil them into his own style, in his own place; from the beginning, in late 2017, he was determined to take the flavours and aromas of the Valle d'Aosta and put them on the plate. His restaurant opens for the summer season, then again in winter for the ski season, so he constructs two very different menus - "the summer menu is fresh, light and green, the winter menu more full-bodied and rich, with lots of game and more rounded flavours" - but both are fiercely local in inspiration.
Trout, for instance, comes from the pine-forested valley - "why would I use red mullet from the Mediterranean when we have this lovely fish on our doorstep?" - and Paolo makes a distillate of pine and lichen, in which the fish is steamed.
There is arctic char, too, and sturgeon - "sturgeon has very robust flesh, so it can stand up to slow cooking and strong flavours: a red wine sauce, for instance" - while red deer, roe deer and wild boar all stalk the valley. "We always have venison on the menu: it has really sweet flesh because of its diet of berries. In fact, everything here tastes very much of where it comes from."
Paolo does not work to a set menu; instead, each season sees the creation of 45 new dishes, and diners can choose different themes, ranging from a menu constructed of entirely local ingredients to one featuring "fire and flames", and one menu is entirely vegetarian "and six of the dishes are vegan", adds Paolo.
Paolo is fuelled by his own passion and creativity, but also - being a good Italian - by coffee: lots of it. "I have four cups before work, then I drink it all day in the kitchen.
"For me, Difference's Jamaican Blue Mountain has the perfect balance, with flavours and aromas of caramel and nuts. And I like to use coffee in recipes, too: maybe in a marinade for bresaola of wild boar or venison. I also make spaghetti with roasted tomatoes, basil and a dash of coffee: it kind of replicates the flavour you get when you cook tomatoes until they start to caramelise."
And what of the future? More cookery competitions, perhaps? "No," says Paolo, firmly. "I have a restaurant to run, and my focus is entirely on my customers. They are my judges now."
ABOUT BILL KNOTT
Bill Knott worked as a chef for 10 years before turning his hand to writing; since then, he has written for a host of publications worldwide, including a stint as restaurant critic for the Daily Telegraph. His Gannet column in the FT's How To Spend It spanned three decades. He has also featured frequently on television and radio.
When not travelling the world in pursuit of great food and wine, or as an ambassador for the international humanitarian charity Action Against Hunger, he lives in West London, surrounded by cookbooks. He never skips lunch.