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25.01.2022 #lifestyle

Julien Sebbag

A Walk in the Forest

25.01.2022 #lifestyle

Julien Sebbag

A Walk in the Forest

25.01.2022 #lifestyle

Julien Sebbag

A Walk in the Forest

25.01.2022 #lifestyle

Julien Sebbag

A Walk in the Forest

“Forest is like a post-apocalyptic bunker where the memory of nature would have been preserved”

Between Forest, a post-apocalyptic restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art, and Créatures on the Galeries Lafayette’s rooftop – among other upcoming projects – Julien Sebbag is today’s most talk-about chef. Mixing good food and party spirit, the chef reveals the secrets to his recipe. While Julien’s universe is so singular, so are his background and desires: to infuse renewal and magic into his cuisine. At only 29 years old, his vision of the profession is endowed with a gourmet esotericism. Between his travels to the four corners of the globe, his friendships and a deep respect for his products, cooking turned out to be the obvious path for him. While he studied to work in the contemporary art industry, he finds himself opening a restaurant alongside one of the greatest Parisian museums. He imagined Forest as an UFO that awakens the senses and put his guests into a culinary transe. The opportunity for us to discover the Julien’s signature as he’s still impregnated with his recent trip to Mexico …

You’re in a rush this lunchtime, yet you seem perfectly relaxed. What’s your secret to staying so zen?

I just came back from a three-week trip to Mexico where I spent one of the most paradisiacal New Year’s Eves of my life… I felt like I was on a trip to Ibiza or Mykonos in the 70s!

Quite a change of scenery! Especially since your year has been quite intense: With your two restaurants to manage, the international festival Taste of Paris at the Grand Palais, the media coverage of your work… How did you experience it ?

Strangely enough, very well, with maturity. I am much more serene than in previous years. I felt like I was able to settle down and to take the time to work on my projects while before that it was a permanent race…

Forest is not an ephemeral restaurant. That must change your approach to the work!

Clearly. For the first time, I have a restaurant spanning four seasons with concepts for each one! It pushes me to imagine new recipes with seasonal products, and work with the outdoor and indoor spaces of the restaurant. Forest requires constant challenges. While pop-ups and summer restaurants allow me not to get bored, seeing the evolution over time is another kind of pleasure. Having my DJ and producer friend Dorion by my side as artistic director is an incredible opportunity to come up with the craziest ideas. Not to mention my executive chef Jessica Soussan, who I trust completely… We’re only getting better!

You have quia a unique background with cuisine because you are self-taught. Can you tell me about it ?

Starting with a business school degree and ending up working as a chef is not necessarily the classic pattern, but when I think about it, nothing happens by chance! At the beginning, I was working in contemporary art, but on the business side. In my third year of school, I flew to London to set up art concepts and there, I fell in love with preparing big tables for my roommates! I spent hours walking around street-foods, markets, discovering cult chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi from the TV show ‘Jerusalem’. Then I fell in love for the second time, with a young Israeli woman, and here I was in my gap year in Tel-Aviv, fascinated by the world and the cuisine of Miznon, and this new culture that felt like a slap in the face. In parallel to this passion for gastronomy, I continued my internships in art galleries. It still seemed impossible for me to make a living from the restaurant business…

And yes there you are!

You have to believe in it! I realize more and more that the immediacy of the work excites me a thousand times more than the rest. At that time, I started to experiment on the spot, then in Paris in the dining room and in the kitchen, without suspecting that one day I would become a chef. I first started catering alone, for two years, by launching my concept at home. I did everything: from the atmosphere to the decoration, but especially the cooking! And it took off, from London to New York via Tel Aviv, I was called everywhere…

How did you build your international network?

Thanks to Instagram! Just for fun, I was posting lots of stories where I was showing my problems, my daily life. At the beginning, I didn’t even have a driver’s license, so I did everything by skateboard or the metro, then with Autolib. Sometimes they took the car away with the products inside when I was shopping. People liked this proximity and my network grew. My current partner, who is part of the Moma Group, known as “creators of strong concepts and powerful brands” was in my network at the time. He came across my content and offered to develop an ephemeral concept. I had the king’s choice because they have several other restaurants like L’Arc, Lapérouse, and in this list, the Bus Palladium, where I used to go every Saturday night. It was obvious for me! “Chez Oim” was born!

What was this first restaurant like?

It was open every Tuesday night. We had thought of a festive concept on the hangover because there traditionally is no school on Wednesdays! It was a bit like saying: “come party with us during the week without risking a headache at work”! We took the kitchen outside, almost on the dance floor, which felt pretty natural. A big table in the middle, with dishes laid out in front of people and DJ sets. We wanted to make cooking more relaxed and instinctive. Today, it seems so different from what I expected, but to get my foot in the door, it was ideal.

Especially since lockdown was a determining factor in your career. Was there a before and after?

Thanks God for social media! I just got out of isolation where I discovered the Instagram Reels to keep me busy, it saved my week! During lockdown, it was the same thing. It’s been life-saving, I’ve picked up all my cooking basics and caught up on all my shortcomings… Before, I felt more like a culinary art director flying around new concepts. This mandatory in-home training has been wonderful. I was so happy that I shared this with my community who was very receptive. Lockdown has transformed my vision of cooking, which is now more artisanal and qualitative. For example: today I serve bread made by an artisan who raises his own leaven. In the past, I used to go to Rungis to get my products, now I’m only sourcing locally.

Who are the chefs who have had a particular influence on you?

Social Food with Shirley Garrier and Mathieu Zouhairi. Thanks to them, I became aware of the impact of culinary photography, the importance of lighting, creating an aesthetic… To make people want to eat through the prism of a video! During lockdown, the chefs saw their popularity soar thanks to the emotion that a recipe can bring.

What’s your take on celebrity status?

I’m living it quite simply. Social media creates a proximity that removes the elitist side of “being a celebrity”. There is a mutual respect!

As you say, chefs have become very popular during lockdown. Are you all connected? Do you support each other?

Yes, I am very close to Alessandra Montagne, the chef at Nosso, Benjamin Cohen at Dalia, and Diego Alary, Matthias Marc at Substance… We talk a lot about our news, we ask each other questions, we give each other advices. The popularity of Top Chef brings a lot of new challenges for chefs…

From a vegetarian restaurant at Créatures to the upcoming Tortuga, which is going to be a gastronomic restaurant, to Forest, how do you imagine the specific universe of each restaurant ?

Each restaurant has its own challenges. For example, when I went up to the rooftop of Galeries Lafayette, I saw the difference with the other floors where the atmosphere is so lively, I saw this huge, peaceful terrace, and I had to create a peaceful bubble. The healthy mood was obvious! And above all, I wanted to attract the Parisians again, because they had deserted the place…

Let’s talk about Forest, which you launched with Dorion, a DJ and producer of Parisian nights… How did it all start between you?

The Moma group is very fond of festive concepts for restaurants. It was obvious for us that nightlife had to be a part of Forest. Obviously our friendship with Dorion changed my vision of the restaurant. I always wanted to make my guests live experiences, and Dorion knows how to create that kind of atmosphere. We met when I asked him to export his “Je t’aime Party” to the roof of Créatures on this summer between the two lockdowns.

How would you describe Forest?

You should know this before I go: Dorion and I met in the forest of Barbizon where we spent a month feeding off the green atmosphere. All the restaurant’s investors went there in suits and ties and our meetings were held on rocks on the grass! It was hilarious. I have always found the word “forest” to be a magical word full of paradoxes, beauty and nostalgia. This fragile ecosystem symbolizes the decline we are causing. So the idea of embodying our restaurant as a space of greenery lost in the middle of urban granite was obvious… I also must mention the song by The Cure which reflects this paradox between life and destruction. Forest is like a post-apocalyptic bunker where the memory of nature would have been preserved…

And yet the Museum of Modern Art is one of the most urban spaces in term of architecture.

All the more reason! Our forest is immersive, it is the metaverse! (laughs). The flowers are projected on the walls thanks to an artistic installation, the smells have been designed by perfume house IFF to reproduce the sensation of moss, the music carefully thought by Dorion who has created a remix of “Plantasia” in more than 7000 versions, like scattered fireflies…

Every detail contributes to the immersion.

This is thanks to the ultra-inventive decoration of Julien Sebban of Uchronia, a close friend: from the volcanic stone lamps to the central table cast in unbreakable resin to the floral projections perfectly orchestrated by the artist Alice Grenier Nebout, Forest was thought as a stage to get the party going. Dorion also invites the creatures of his “Je t’aime Party” in this universe. Vogue dancer Snake Ninja once purified our customers with sage, there were unexpected DJ sets… It’s all between dream and reality. Everything is very natural, like a fluid that passes between the tables. But above all we don’t want to force anything, the energies spread at their own pace.

What is your goal?

To create a unique experience, an explosion of the senses!

How do you bring inspiration to the kitchen?

For me, it’s an oscillating flame. I try things but I always work with fresh products: a Mediterranean spirit that always adapts to what nature offers. I try to achieve a balance between sweet/salty/sour/bitter in each plate. Olive oil and lemon are my basics. Right now I’m making a lot of things around roasted kale with trout roe for the iodine, miso for the sweetness and lemon zest for the bitterness, I’m trying to create a balance between these flavors. It’s almost mathematical…

Any future projects?

I will soon open Micho, a sandwich restaurant with a street-food feel, and Tortuga, which will be a gourmet restaurant.

Finally, what would be your dream table?

Paul McCartney, Lou Reed, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Moses and Scarlett Johansson. I would serve them so much food that they would never get up again!

Interview: Camille Laurens

Photos: Jean Picon

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