Virginie Basselot

"In my kitchen, I don’t discriminate between women and men"

We were lucky enough to have the real pleasure of meeting Virginie Basselot, head chef at the Saint James in Paris. Gracefully dismissing all of the stereotypes that seem to be so easily attributed to a female in her role, she is quietly but effectively leading a revolution in French gastronomy.
 
No, she is not a standard-bearer. Yes, she does occupy a stereotypically “male role”, but so what? Her discrete yet strong character has been the key to her brilliant success. Awarded a Michelin Guide star and recognised as a 2015 Meilleur Ouvrier de France, she is happy training a new generation of chefs. As a teenager, Virginie wanted to be a fighter pilot. "That’s impossible” a teacher told her, “women don’t work in that field!" So instead she followed in the footsteps of her father, and at the age of 15 began to learn how to cook. "I grew up in that environment and the feeling of teamwork in the kitchen really appealed to me". At 19, she moved to Paris with her sights set on the kitchens run by some of the most successful chefs. As the only woman in the Crillon’s kitchen staff, she worked relentlessly for 18 months, proving wrong those who "had bet she would last no longer than 10 days", she says smiling.
 
V.BasselotHer journey continued at the Grand Véfour, a then three-star restaurant run by Guy Martin. After three years there, she joined the Le Bristol in Paris as their pantry chef under the guidance of Éric Fréchon, assisted by Franck Leroy. The early days were difficult but thanks to her commitment and her talent, she climbed the ladder to become one of the establishment’s top 5 sous-chefs in 2010, which soon after went on to earn its third star.

 
"In the kitchen, the work that women do is constantly being judged. But that really helps you to progress and always give your best."

 
Though today she is very cheerful, she admits that it hasn’t always been easy. Fighting to establish herself in the workplace has been a common theme throughout her years of study. She acknowledges that in the kitchen, "the work that women do is constantly being judged. But that really helps you to progress and always give your best". The raised voices and internal pressures are like water off a duck’s back for this young woman, who remembers vividly the counter-productive effect those things would have on her teams. "I never said anything. I just stayed in my own little bubble so I could give everything to the job, because it is very demanding." She also remembers one particular jealous comment made by one of her colleagues: "it can’t be difficult being a pantry chef if the job can be done by a woman."
 
Good-hearted whilst not naive to the job’s demanding nature, she was chosen from 12 candidates to take control of the kitchen and the teams at the Saint James. She was very much taken with this castle located in the heart of the capital, as it reminded her of Normandy and her childhood. Shortly after her arrival, she created its gastronomic menu’s signature dish: cod cooked in lemon balm butter served with seasonal vegetables on a bed of tapioca pearls. This was in homage to her grandmother, who made her soups with tapioca when she was a child, and a nod to the magnificent lemon balm bush discovered in the palace’s gardens. 
 
"I read something recently that made me smile: women are human just like everyone else."


After two years heading a kitchen staff of 25 chefs, she was awarded her first star. Always striving for excellence, she entered the Meilleur Ouvrier de France competition taking the whole palace staff along with her on the adventure. She never took her eye off the ball. The resident pastry chef gave her a fast-track 6-month evening course to prepare her for the eventuality of having to create a dessert during the competition. Beauticians and receptionists played the role of kitchen assistants to help her get ready for one of the tests which involved preparing a dish without knowing the person who she would be working alongside. The method paid off. She went on to win the title and became the second French woman to bear the title since its creation, one of the highest distinctions.
 
Graciously ignoring all of the stereotypes branded on men and women, she finishes the interview with a mischievous look. “I read something recently that made me smile: women are human just like everyone else”.
 
Interview: Marie Dauphiné (March 2015)


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