Alexia Duchêne jokes that she’s arrived in New York as a “nobody,” but to thousands of French gourmands, she is anything but.
In 2019, the then 23-year-old Parisian-born French-British chef was broadcast to the masses as a closely watched semifinalist on France’s “Top Chef,” after a string of impressive stints working at Frenchie in London, plus Studio and Restaurant AOC in Copenhagen. Today at 26, she can lay claim to a critically acclaimed run as the chef at Parisian restaurant Datsha, a successful residency at Alain Ducasse’s Allard, and a recently published cookbook, too.
Her latest challenge: New York, to head the ever-changing kitchen at Fulgurances Laundromat in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Here, she is testing and fine-tuning her exciting style of French cookery at the buzzy chef incubator for a limited time, until March 5.
Now in the first month of her Greenpoint residency, Duchêne talked to Resy on an unusually sunny February afternoon about her menu, the challenges of cooking in a completely new city, and what she’s most excited about.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Resy: Back home in France, you’re a very celebrated and known chef. How would you like to introduce yourself, or your food, to a New York audience that may not be so familiar with you?
Duchêne: It was a big challenge for me coming here and just starting from zero. I want to showcase French food in a very unpretentious way, using French techniques that you don’t really see, and to be playful. That’s what I want to bring to New York.
How did you get into cooking in the first place?
I started cooking when I was very young. I took over the kitchen when I was 13, making dinner by myself for the whole family to help my parents who were working a lot. There was a culinary school right next to my house and I always wanted to go. I said, “You know what, I’ll give it a try. Worst case scenario, I double my year and I go back to the ‘normal’ system.” And I just fell in love with it. It was very hard, but I just kept going.
How would you define your cooking style?
You can definitely see that I’m French in the sense that I put a big emphasis on sauces. It’s very important for me that every dish, even dessert, has something that binds everything together. But it’s not 100% French. I like to cook stuff that’s influenced by all my travels and from the places I’ve worked at, like in Copenhagen and London. It’s not because you’re French that you have to cook French food.
You did a residency at the original Fulgurances in Paris. What was your food like then?
Very different because I was cooking at the wine bar, which was tiny. We didn’t even have a stove! So, it was more like cool, playful food that you’d want to have with friends and over wine. I like playing with associations that you wouldn’t usually pair [together]. I did a veal tartare with some seaweed and a watercress purée — something that, in your mind and when you see on the menu, you’re not sure if it’s going to be comforting. It was much more laid-back.
Is that when you met Hugo Hivernat, one of the founders of Fulgurances?
I met Hugo, Rebecca [Asthalter], and Sophie [Cornibert] a while ago, when I was still a sous chef at Passerini in Paris, about four years ago.
And when did you start talking about doing a residency in New York?
I came to New York in 2019 and Hugo said, “We’re opening in New York. Can I show you the place? Do you want to do a residency at some point?” This was before the pandemic. I was supposed to be the first resident, but COVID happened. I couldn’t go, and so they took another chef to start with. I’m glad I started now, because being the first one is always the hardest. And I have a strong team that really knows what they’re doing.
So, other than the headlining chef, the team at Fulgurances always stays the same?
Yes. It’s challenging in the sense that you have to retrain chefs that already know a lot of things from a lot of different chefs, and be like, “Everything you’ve done, that’s not how we’re going to do it.” Sometimes, I think it’s very hard for them, maybe even more than for myself. But I think it’s great, too, it keeps us on our toes in the sense that we never get too comfortable. Plus, I change the menu all the time.
How often do you change the menu?
I feel like I change something every week. It’s important, especially since I’m not doing a long residency, that it stays super fresh, and that I keep trying new things. Especially if clients come back, I want them to experience something totally different.
What excited you the most about the prospect of cooking in New York?
I mean, New York has always been a dream of mine. It’s always been my favorite city ever since I was a kid. I love the energy of the city, and how it’s totally different from what we do in France. My dream would be to come and live here and do something at some point, so this is a good first step.
Have you found anything challenging or different about cooking in the city, as opposed to working in Paris?
It’s very different in the sense that in Paris, or where I worked at least, you’d have a very spontaneous way of cooking. Here, you need to plan ahead more because you’re ordering and you’re going to get what you ordered and there’s no changing it. I would work with chefs who’d be like, “I got this this morning from the market, so let’s change the menu.” And I feel like in New York, they don’t do it that way. Like, the menus stay for a long time. The places I love — like Estela, Wildair, ATLA — they don’t change their menus that much. I feel like people in New York like coming back to a place and having that one dish they really like, which I totally get. But for me, as a chef, it’s something I would hate, because I need to create and change and evolve.
Oh, and the dietary restrictions. I’ve never seen so many allergies in my life before! “Dairy-free, but butter is OK,” like, what does that mean?! [laughs]. Or, “I’m a vegetarian, but if it’s duck, it’s fine.” When you do a tasting menu, it’s always a bit more challenging. Also, cooking in a small kitchen for a tasting menu is also a challenge.
It’s a small kitchen?
It’s a small stove.
What about some good or exciting things you’ve discovered while cooking in the city?
The organization. People book reservations here. People in France just stroll in. I like it because I’m someone who likes when things are straightforward, so, knowing how many covers we’ll have and what time I’ll be finished is very reassuring for me. And the clients are very nice. People are super lovely, and they’re not shy to say when they love something. They come and see me; we talk. That, for me, is a big change from France. I’m not saying French people aren’t nice; it’s just they just don’t show it that much when they like something. I think it’s important for the team, for me, for everyone in the restaurant to feel like what we’re doing touches people in a way.
What’s the reception been like? Have you gotten a lot of French people in?
I think that every night we have French people, which is insane. We have locals and people from Manhattan who come. It’s always a very different crowd.
What are you looking forward to most during your residency?
Just pushing my boundaries and going into unknown territory, food-wise. That’s what Hugo really told me to do, to try stuff I’ve never tried before. Which is hard because you don’t really want to risk everything on a residency. But I do want to try new techniques, to see how things go, and keep doing better every week. This is only our third week. We’ve played it safe for the first two, but we’re still trying to get to know each other and see what everyone’s level of cooking is, and what they can or can’t handle.
What do you like the most about the New York dining scene?
It’s very eclectic. You have a lot of really good restaurants in Paris, but they’re mostly bistros or French food; you don’t get much diversity. Here, it’s so interesting. I mean, you’ve got Michelin-starred Mexican restaurants, Indian food … everything is so great, and people are proud to have [that diversity].
I’m going to Cote next week, a Korean barbecue place that looks so cool. It’s just the kind of stuff you don’t have in France, and I feel like it’s a shame. I love eating out here; it’s one of the most interesting cities food-wise. The whole atmosphere and the service in New York is incomparable. They make it fun.
Any restaurant you haven’t been to but are excited to try?
We’re going to go to Eleven Madison Park with Hugo, and I’m actually really interested to taste the vegan menu. I feel like we don’t talk enough about vegans as a growing community, and I think it’s very interesting to taste what such a big kitchen could do. If they can’t do it, I mean, who can?
Will you go back to France once you’re finished with the residency?
I will go back to France because I have no choice [laughs]. But I saw that a few restaurants are looking for chefs, so I’m going to apply before leaving and see how it goes. I want to give it a shot; I think it would be a mistake not to try and do something here.
Would you want to open your own place?
I mean, yes, I’m known in Paris and I’m quite busy there, but here, I am a nobody. I think it’s important for me to, before opening something of my own, show what I can do for somebody else. It’d be cocky of me to arrive and pretend to own the place.
Will you be cooking the Valentine’s Day menu at Fulgurances?
I won’t, my mother’s coming! The team is taking over and doing a super cool Valentine’s Day menu. I can’t leave my mother on Valentine’s Day.
What are you doing to do?
I was thinking of going to a Broadway show. And Estela the night before.
Fulgurances Laundromat is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10 p.m. for a six-course $85 tasting menu.