Portrait by Scott Wright of Limelight Studio. See more here.
If three years was too long for you to wait, imagine how Paul Pairet must feel. For him it's been closer to 15. But after all of the snags, stops, and outright overhauls, the former Jade on 36 chef and mind behind acclaimed restaurant Mr & Mrs Bund is ready. Next week he unveils Ultraviolet, a 20-course study in cutting edge cuisine complemented with high-tech visual, aural, and even olfactory accompaniments. Oh, and did we mention the experience is available to only 10 diners a night? Indeed, to call it a risky proposition is an understatement. Whether it will live up to the hype remains to be seen. In the meantime, though, we managed to meet up with Pairet to get a few words on his magnum opus before he dots all of the i's and crosses all of the t's.
Paul Pairet: Oh yeah. We are a bit nervous. Typically it is excusable for a restaurant to be less than perfect when it opens. It’s less excusable for us ... There is a minimum we need to accomplish so it makes sense and the three-hour experience we’re providing doesn’t become a burden for the diner.
P.P.: The checklist is bigger every day. That’s the problem with our checklist. It never seems to shrink … There are so many things that fall on you while you’re opening a restaurant: the staff shoes, the bins in the toilet, a meeting with this vendor or that department. But aside from what I answered in your first question, there are two big items on our checklist, and I think we’ll get them sorted out this week. First is the service. The service right now is good. The staff know the steps, where they need to be and when they need to be there, but we need to get it looking and feeling more natural. And the other thing is more a technical issue, refining how we transition between each course. Right now the pace is like this [drawing a high-amplitude waveform in the air with his finger], and we need to get it to be a little smoother.
P.P.:[Laughing] If it were a Broadway show we would have canceled the premiere ... But this isn’t a Broadway show.
P.P.: The technology is not central to the project. It seems to be a bit central here, but the technology is only consequence of the original idea. 15 years ago, my motive was to cook the best meal possible. To do that you need to be able to serve food without the constraints of typical restaurant like an a la carte menu ... For example, when I was working in a two-Michelin-star restaurant it would be such a disaster even with only 35 covers [Ed. Note: restaurant lingo for “guests”] because we would do everything a la minute. So a table would order and the chef would say something like, “Cook the asparagus now.” Why didn’t we cook the asparagus just before service and re-warm it to order? It was this tremendous risk, and one time out of two it failed. Here, I can cook my asparagus seven minutes before I serve it because I have total control over time. I know exactly what time it will need to be served. I’m ready ... I can do this with pretty much everything on the menu ... Once that variable becomes a constant, I can bring my cooking to the next level. Having control over every element of the atmosphere – the sound, the lights, the smell – serve only to make each dish more memorable.
P.P.: For starters, finding the right location, one with enough floor space and unobstructed pillars, took us a long time. We started looking in 2009, I didn’t find anything until 2010. From that point on, I think a lot of the architects that we worked with, in spite of what I told them, underestimated the complexity of this project … integrating all of these elements just took a lot of time. And there are some people who might say that I demanded too much. I don’t think I demanded too much… I just think they were applying enough gray matter for a 10-seat restaurant when they should have been applying enough gray matter for something the size of Mr & Mrs Bund.
P.P.: No. Not really. There are a few things we don’t have now but will have in the future, like wind effects. But I would say that we are very, very close to what we put on paper.
P.P.: By nature, it is better to allow the party to group together and bring them to dinner all at the same time. We thought it would be a good idea for the guests to wait in a place that they know and then go to a place that they don’t know. It’s all about the experience and how surroundings affect it … For instance, if I put Dom Perignon in this paper McCafe cup it will taste different than if I put it in one of my hand-blown Schott Zwiesel glasses downstairs. It’s the same product, but how it’s presented makes all of the difference in the world.
P.P.: I have a lot of what you would call “toys” in the kitchen. This is one of the best I’ve worked in. It has some of the most technologically advanced kitchen equipment in Asia. I really like the vacuum extraction machine that we have now. That’s a very interesting tool. It’s great for reductions. It has attached to it something called a rotary evaporator. It functions something like an alembic. So you can get two elements out of it. There is the liquid, which, because of the vacuum feature, can be boiled at a very, very low temperature, like 50°C. Then there is the steam. What you get is incredible freshness together with extreme concentration...
P.P.: Exactly. So it not only boils it, but at the same time there is a little refrigerated spiral that will concentrate all of the steam. So there are two parts that are interesting here: an infusion or reduction of a liquid and a distillate...
When we first got the machine I was so excited to play with it. The kitchen was not open yet, I looked around to see what would be the first thing I would distill, tried it out to see if it works, and then I gave it to Fabien [Fabien Verdier, Ultraviolet's Host and Director]. He drinks it, and he says, "Ohh! Wow! Jack Daniels, bacon, cigar..." In fact what I'd distilled was the old cigarette butts that all of the workers had thrown into the sink! It was so freaking interesting! Clear, like a glass of whiskey...
P.P.: Aiyo! So good! But we need to be careful with this machine. There is some level at which you can distill ethanol, and some concentrations can be harmful. So we don't play around. For now, we only distill natural things, and we wouldn't serve them without all of the proper analysis. Me? I taste everything. One day maybe I will regret it.
P.P.: Yes. The Roca brothers, who are working on a concept very similar to the one we're doing right now, they were really the ones who started promoting this technology. They were the first to introduce fragrances, essences, smokes, and distillates... In the avant garde, and with this model that has been set by el Bulli, there are a few people out there who will open the door by transposing the technology used by the pharmaceutical industry and the food industry. Like when we use spherification in our cooking, for instance, it's something that was originally applied in the food industry. It wasn't invented by [Ferran] Adria.
P.P.: Ask Greg Robinson [Ultraviolet's Head of Research]. That's his contribution to the design. We love it...
P.P.: Well, there are some new dishes, and there are some that we've done at Jade but never released on a menu. The reason is very simple. I haven't created anything new since I started Mr & Mrs Bund. Mr & Mrs Bund has been interpretation, no creation. When I was at Jade, I devoted 75 percent of my time to creating. If I don't have 75 percent of my time to give, I just don't do it... I am doing two new dishes, though, that are parodies of food trends like "naturalism." You know, like creating "sand" and "dirt" and "flowers" on the plate. I'm also parodying this trend of "deconstructed dishes" where everything is eaten separately. I'm trying to see how much you can exaggerate this trend of atomistic dishes and make them look like accidental pieces of art.
P.P.: Oh yeah. It's not the first time I've done something stupid.
P.P.: Not so often, obviously, but let's put it this way: 20 dishes is about what I do in a year. We have a second menu in the works, but that won't be ready for another three months, maybe by September.... But the reason I took some staples from Jade is really simple: I can't afford to be average on the food. I hope that some of my dishes aren't subject to fashion... but I wanted to be sure I wasn't taking too many chances at the beginning.... Of the 20 courses, there are about eight or 10 that have never been released.
P.P.: I doubt that you were distracted from the food. You were distracted from your fellows at the table. So for now, my idea to bind the people at the table in this experience is not there. The focus on the food is there ... At the end of the day, especially if the people at the table don't know each other, this is where Fabien, the host, will have to play that role, breaking the ice constantly, giving explanations of the dishes constantly ... For now we're still very much into rehearsing the technique. Once we master this, though, I think the guests will feel comfortable talking. But, again, I don't think we'll be distracting from the food at all.
Ultraviolet opens its doors May 18. They are taking reservations now, click here to make a booking.