French chef Iñaki Aizpitarte talks World's 50 Best list

French chef Inaki Aizpitarte

He's been called everything from a rock-star chef to the unofficial leader and poster boy of the neo-bistro movement in France.

Without seeking it, French chef Iñaki Aizpitarte of Le Chateaubriand in Paris became the chef darling of the international food press after landing on The World's 50 Best Restaurants list in 2008 as The One To Watch -- a list he had never even heard of before landing smack dab in the middle of it, he said.

Like his cooking -- which focuses on the flavors of Basque cuisine and has been described in equal measure as brilliant, irreverent, perplexing and abstruse -- Aizpitarte says he puts little stock in international rankings or Michelin stars.

"That's never been my goal," he said in an interview with Relaxnews. "My goal is to work for self fulfillment. It's never been a priority for us."

But since first being spotlighted on the World's 50 Best list, Aizpitarte has shot through the rankings from 40th position to 9th position last year, leapfrogging over some of the biggest culinary heavyweights in France including Michelin-starred chefs like Michel Bras of Bras and Alain Ducasse, one of the most garlanded chefs in the world.

It's a ranking which, in the world of high gastronomy, also attracted a measure of controversy that spoke to a larger pattern emerging from The World's 50 Best list: how could a modest, casual bistro with hand-written menus scrawled on chalkboards and bare, hardwood tables sans starched linens and sommeliers be called one of the top 10 restaurants in the world?

According to Richard Vines, UK and Ireland chair of the awards, restaurants that land on the list must be more than the sum of their food.

"A restaurant can have great food but that's not enough. It's got to have great service and really draw you into the experience," he said in an interview with BigHospitality.co.uk, a sister publication to Restaurant magazine which hosts the event.

Despite the casual attitude towards his international position in the food world, Aizpitarte admits that since landing on the list he's noticed a difference in his clientele. Namely, an uptick in international and English-speaking diners, he said.

And while he enjoyed a full house before, he estimates that bookings have increased by about 15 percent.

But unlike other top-ranking restaurants like Noma -- currently ranked first in the world -- and The Fat Duck, where waiting lists for a table can stretch as long as three months, Aizpitarte has a strict motto where reservations can't be made more than 15 days in advance. Similarly, for their second seating at 10 pm, it's first come, first serve.

It was a deliberate decision on his part, he says, to steer clear of turning the restaurant into an exclusive experience that attracts just tourists, and ensures a good mix in clientele, one that contributes to the lively, boisterous mood typical of a Parisian bistro.

"If you've got a restaurant full of people who've been waiting for two months it's not the same atmosphere," he explained. "It takes organization and preparation to do that."

Moreover, filling up a restaurant full of people with reservations also prevents locals from dining there, he said, most of whom aren't inclined to book so far in advance.

"In any case, 95 percent of my friends don't work that way," he said.

Meanwhile, though Aizpitarte doesn't actively follow the rumor mill, he likened the World's 50 Best list, which will be awarded Monday night from London's Guildhall, to the French election: invariably, he will hear about it and, invariably, he will be curious to see who wins.

The World's 50 Best Restaurants will be announced April 30 from London's Guildhall.

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