© Regine Datin
Nancy Passions Sucrées

Brasserie l'Excelsior

Conversation with Jacques Hildenbrand – Chef and restaurateur

Lorraine native Jacques Hildenbrand travelled the world before returning to his home region, where he’s been the chef at the Excelsior since 2004. He studied at the hotel management school in Gérardmer in 1983, and then worked at the 2-star Auberge de l’Ill in Strasbourg before leaving for his military service in Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon as a cook. He was recruited to oversee the opening of brasseries around the world, including in Beijing, Shanghai and Abu Dhabi.

When he joined the team at the Excelsior 32 years ago, he knew he was becoming a part of an institution. This stunning brasserie has been around for more than 100 years. The typical French brasserie and its breathtaking architectural style is a must-see for tourists and a favourite spot for Nancy locals, whether for business meals or family outings.

NANCY PASSIONS SUCRÉES SPECIALITIES

  • The Tout Nancy

“You can learn the techniques at school, but in this profession, you also need a bit of passion.”

Why did you choose this profession and what was most appealing to you?

It doesn’t come from my family, because they’re all tradespeople or shopkeepers. No one was in the culinary profession, but I was passionate about it. My grandmother cooked a lot, and I got that passion from her. She made very traditional cuisine from Hautes-Vosges. They had their pig that they slaughtered themselves. Everything was used, nothing was wasted. I remember the aromas and flavours of a rich cuisine, filled with passion. You can learn the techniques at school, but in this profession, you also need a bit of passion.

 

How long did it take you to perfect your craft?

I don’t think I’m there yet. You have the basics, you know how to do certain things, but in this job, you keep learning your whole life. At the Sirha trade show in Lyon in January, I met several chefs who had won the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France title, and some of them have the humility to say that learning is a lifelong process. Someone always has advice or a technique to help you improve. That’s what’s so exciting.

 

What has experience taught you?

Experience is what helps you improve in all trades. If you don’t keep moving forward, you get bored.

 

Do you bring your own personal touch?

We all have our own touch, more or less. I’m lucky to have three assistants who each bring their own skills. I give my chefs a lot of freedom to express themselves, always within a defined structure. So when we’re making a plate, we all have to do it the same way, but there is some wiggle room in the way you make a sauce or a dish. As long as you don’t stray too far from the structure, then it isn’t a problem. They can also express themselves when we make a new menu, which changes often. At the Brasserie, we have themed events for each season. Seasonality is very important to me. Eating a strawberry in December isn’t my thing. You have to respect the seasons, and you respect the profession in doing so.

Who do you want to pass on your expertise to? And how do you plan to do it?

I’m lucky to have young assistants who are very eager to learn. I think they’re the generation of tomorrow. They’re younger, and they have something extra that we didn’t have. It’s not their curiosity, maybe it’s technology. Today, they think in a different way, and they’re always one step ahead. We learned the methods, the traditions, the basics of the profession, because without them, we couldn’t do anything. Today, in some TV shows, young people are presented as chefs because they made a beef bourguignon outside, on the roof of a building with a bandana on their head. But that’s not at all what the job is about. You still have to master the basics, the colours. I was lucky to work with Paul Bocuse and call him my mentor. He always said that the kitchen works in threes. 3 colours, 3 flavours. Any more than 3 flavours and you no longer know what you’re eating. Any more than 3 colours and you no longer know what you’re seeing. You have to get back to the fundamentals. You can see it in how customers are changing, especially in Paris. Today, what works well are the bistros and gastropubs: a nice beef bourguignon with a nice mash or a well-made pork cheek confit. Wholesome, flawlessly executed dishes.

 

Do you have any tips or advice for making the recipe?

There’s nothing too difficult about it. You really need to follow the recipe and use good products, because if you use a bergamot that’s too sweet it changes everything. It really comes down to choosing the products. And truly respecting the seasons. A nice strawberry right now, or a nice potato from Noirmoutier: it’s very important to respect the seasons.

Our suggestions