As the world attempts to navigate through these current challenging times, so does chef Maxime Gilbert of Hong Kong’s two-Michelin-star restaurant Écriture. Ahead, he tells us how he plans to innovate and evolve.
It’s late afternoon on a weekday in April when I walk into Écriture, the two Michelin-star contemporary French restaurant headed by executive chef Maxime Gilbert. To my surprise, I’m asked to wait, because the restaurant is still full of lunchtime diners. I’m confused and even doubtful – many restaurants I’ve visited in the past few weeks have been as empty as a politician’s promises. Intrigued, I take a peek around the corner to see if this is indeed true and my eyes widen as they take in the busy room. Can Hong Kong, along with its restaurants, be on the road to recovery at last?
You may already have dined at Écriture and are familiar with its exceptionally creative cuisine, as well as the special kind of theatre that Gilbert presents. Not in the sense of dry ice and superfluous plating tricks, but in the stagecraft service and table-side carving, and the shows of smoking put on especially for you. Dining here is an experience – and it’s one worth revisiting as the change of seasons brings with it new produce and therefore new recipes and menus to savour.
Named after the French word for “writing”, the restaurant’s story began when it opened its doors in 2018. Its genre, or rather cuisine, is contemporary French but, as Gilbert explains, it’s also about “going back to basics”. Underpinned by traditional French cooking, his cuisine focuses on respecting produce as the basis of every plate of food he serves. It’s where nonessential components are removed, where real cooking takes place and where the true flavours of the produce can be found.
“If there are ever any small herbs or flowers on the plate it’s because it brings something to the dish,” says Gilbert. “It’s not there to just make it beautiful. If the dish is beautiful, it’s because the produce is beautiful; the cooking is beautiful. Not because of the plate.”
We start at the beginning of Gilbert’s story. “Even at a young age, I’ve always loved cooking and eating. My family are all gourmands – we love to eat.” It was this love of food and eating that sparked his interest in becoming a chef. His introduction to fine dining, however, came from his father who worked in the cognac industry and would return home after travelling the world with stories about the top chefs he’d met. Thus inspired, Gilbert went on to study and train to become a world-class chef, dreaming of achieving a Michelin star at his own restaurant one day.
That dream became a reality when Écriture was awarded two Michelin stars within six months of opening and retained its stars this year too. “It’s not what we work for, but it means a lot to us,” he says. Asked whether he now dreams of three stars, he says “yes” without a second’s thought, adding “but it takes time”.
His determination to achieve this is something he learned from the world-renowned and celebrated French chef Yannick Alléno. As the latter’s protégé, Gilbert cut his teeth at a number of high-end establishments including the Hotel Le Meurice in Paris, La Grande Table Française in Marrakech and Stay by Yannick Alleno at the Shangri-La in Beijing. Asked what it was like to work with Alléno, Gilbert says with a laugh, “It was hard, but it was good.”
“I was 21 when I arrived to work with him. He’d just taken over Le Meurice, and he said: it’s one star, but I come here for three stars, that’s the goal.” After three years, Alléno and his team, including Gilbert, achieved the highest accolade of three Michelin stars. “I still have a very good relationship with Alléno. I talk to him very often and he always has good advice.”
Thereafter, Gilbert became the head chef at Hong Kong’s Amber. It was there that he came to understand how a restaurant – and not just a kitchen – is run. “This experience taught me a lot. It wasn’t easy. We opened seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was non-stop,” he recalls. “It’s good to work in a place like this as it will quickly show you that you cannot be a little princess.”
Gilbert’s next chapter has been realised today at Écriture. During my visit, he prepares several dishes from his new Library of Flavours tasting menu, which features four to seven courses made with produce from French farmers, producers and suppliers. The reason, as Gilbert explains plainly, is because “I’m French and I love French produce, so I support France”. Our chat meanders into the state of Hong Kong’s food and beverage industry, how restaurants all around the world have been hit extremely hard, and that this is his way of supporting his native country during this time.
New dishes, as always, spotlight the produce. One highlight, Green Asparagus, uses the legendary spears from Pertuis, which are braised in seawater brought in from Brittany, before being topped with thin slices of beef ham-cured John Dory, which hails from a small family-run supplier in northwestern France. The Brittany Langoustine is fragrantly steamed in Vin Jaune, one of the rarest French wines, and is complemented by the fresh green peas of spring and a claw bouillon infused with liquorice. A Parisian butcher supplies its finest meat for the Roasted Blanc de Blanc Lamb, which is grounded with the earthy flavours of grilled maitake, sorrel and a silky uni miso cream.
“We’re very lucky in Hong Kong, as we’re one of not many cities that are still open,” says Gilbert. “But we need to adapt. To have a profitable business, to keep our team, to not lose jobs, we have to create revenue. So we need to be creative.”
To adapt, Écriture is in survival mode by temporarily switching to a tasting menu only, while Gilbert is also offering a weekend lunch to satisfy guests who are no longer travelling and must remain in Hong Kong. He’s also been drumming up creative ideas to keep going, such as a new delivery menu, and he’s taking part in online culinary classes and live chef talks. Among the latter will be a collaboration with chefs Anatoly Kazakov of Selfie and Vladimir Mukhin of White Rabbit, both of which are considered Moscow’s most progressive restaurants.
On the subject of recovery, Gilbert expresses his anxious uncertainty. “To be honest,” he says, “everyone is suffering and I don’t know how it will go.” It’s an emotion many of us have felt in recent times. Fortunately, it’s not long before I catch a glint of resilience in his eyes and a positivity in his voice that says he won’t go down easily. With that, I’m reminded of the important – and in my opinion necessary – role that fine dining restaurants play in this story. They’re the table of luxury and the plate to escapism that we need, especially now, and I vow never to take them for granted again.