Shortly after I moved to Paris, almost a decade ago, Parisians couldn’t get enough of “secret restaurants” — impromptu supper clubs that popped up across the city and seemed to thrive by word-of-Facebook.
The concept was appealing: Amateur chefs would open up their homes and cook for paying guests. It was a cheap and cheerful way to sample different cuisine styles, whether it was a French grandma’s cooking, a proper North American brunch or hearty Mongolian stews.
It was a fun concept — but not exactly on a par with the gastronomic experience I could indulge in at a high-end restaurant with a professional chef at the helm.
That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to dine at the home of Jean-Yves, a former MasterChef winner who has opened his stylish Parisian apartment to guests willing to indulge in fine cuisine, meet fellow gourmets and experience the magic of social dining.
I came across Jean-Yves through Marriott Moments, which offers an experience via Eatwith that allows people to enjoy a small group meal prepared by local chefs at their homes in locations around the world, including Paris.
Jean-Yves was born in Vietnam but left for France with his family just before Saigon was captured by the North Vietnamese forces in 1975. He trained as an architect and for 20 years worked as an interior designer before turning to his first love: cuisine.
“Architecture is similar to cuisine. There are stages in every project; there are processes and timings to follow. If you miss a step, everything is spoiled,” he explained.
Yet cooking skills are not enough to create a memorable meal. The key ingredient, Jean-Yves reckons, is passion: the love for food and the eagerness to share it with other people. “I don’t want my place to be like a restaurant; I want my guests to have the impression they are among friends,” he said. “I love to explain what they are about to eat, how they can get closer to the food.”
My own journey to culinary discovery with Jean-Yves started on Rue Vertbois, in the northern reaches of the chic Marais neighborhood. Once I stepped past the unmarked door, the chef welcomed me into his gleaming high-tech kitchen, where the feathery macaron dessert he would later serve had begun to take shape.
He led me downstairs to the vaulted dining room, elegantly decorated with chinoiseries, and introduced me to my fellow diners: Yannick and Carole, a well-traveled Parisian couple; Bob, our British photographer; and Jean-Yves’ cousin Valerie, fresh from a trip to Cuba.
It didn’t take long before we all began to share travel memories, joined by Jean-Yves as he took breaks from the kitchen to talk about the inspiration for his Asian-influenced signature dishes.
“Travel was my cookery school,” he said. “I went back to Vietnam. I traveled to Cambodia, Burma, Hong Kong and Bali. [On each trip] I tried to get in touch with a local chef because to me that was the best way to learn. I wanted to adapt Asian food using French haute-cuisine techniques.”
The cold starter was a perfect introduction to his philosophy: delicate rolls of chicken marinated in a zesty lemongrass, galangal and ginger infusion accompanied by subtly bitter endive leaves. We were instructed to alternate between the endive and the rolls to counterbalance and contrast the flavors and close our eyes to better appreciate the effect on our taste buds.
“It’s a crescendo of flavors that will prepare you for the next course,” said Jean-Yves.
The hot starter that followed was composed of four crawfish ravioli enrobed in a savory sabayon perfumed with shiitake mushrooms. Jean-Yves encouraged us to cut the ravioli in half and spoon them up with the dressing to help combine the delicate crawfish meat with the creaminess of the egg-based sauce and the sharp tang of the mushrooms.
The more complex flavors of the second starter prepared us for the main course, where tender breast fillets of organic Périgord duck — cooked at low temperature to remove all traces of blood while preserving a desirable pink hue — were paired off with a rich, velvety sweet potato mousseline sauce lightly perfumed with coconut.
“I wanted to open my place to people who are open-minded like me about travel and are open to discoveries,” Jean-Yves told us.
Indeed, more discoveries were in store for us when he brought the dessert, a feather-light macaron filled with a delectable fruity cream none of us could quite fathom. Despite Jean-Yves’ clues, guessing the correct flavors proved too elusive for everyone (it turned out to be a quirky combination of melon and lychee).
Perhaps it was the shot of Kampot pepper–flavored Vietnamese saké, which packs quite a punch with an alcohol content of 54 percent, but at the end we were all chatting as if we were old friends and not a group of strangers that had happened to meet around Jean-Yves’ table just two hours earlier.
“That’s what guests tell me every time: ‘We’ve had a human experience,'” he said. “When you come here you have to be ready to meet other people … Once I had three couples from the U.S. for dinner, and it turned out they all lived in the same neighborhood in Boston. By the end of the meal they were making plans to stay in touch!”
You can book a dinner at the home of Master Chef Jean-Yves for $117 USD per person through the Marriott Moments experience, “A Gastronomic Dinner at Your MasterChef Table.” Please check the Marriott Moment’s website for up-to-date times and prices.