A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Arnaud Lallement is the 41-year-old chef and proprietor of L'Assiette Champenoise, the significant, much lauded hotel with a restaurant to match in the Tinqueux suburb of Reims. His image is slightly at odds with the usual suave sophistication of the Champagne city.
As one approaches the hotel off the broad Avenue de Paris, his initials AL are blatantly obvious. The initial A and his surname are just to the left of the hotel's entrance and appear again on the envelope in which our dinner menu was handed to us as we checked out.
Yet Lallement himself is very much more casual. When I was introduced to him as we were shown into his ultra-modern kitchen, he was virtually the only chef there who did not sport his name as well as the name of the college he had been trained in on his jacket. He wore a white shirt, a white chef's jacket over a pair of jeans and a pair of brown shoes. He is solid in build but looks almost slim next to Cyril Bourbonnois, his second in command.
At a high table in the corner of the kitchen, directly behind the pass, one particular aspect of Lallement's business acumen was explained to me. Fifteen years ago, having taken over the establishment from his father, who was also a chef but who had died at the age of 51, he proposed something revolutionary to Olivier Krug: that the hotel served Krug champagne by the glass rather than just by the bottle.
The consequences were enormous and immediate. Annual sales of Krug went up tenfold in the first year, from 18 to over 180 bottles, and Lallement found himself with two trusted allies: customers who enjoyed the then-unusual opportunity to taste one of the world's most luxurious champagnes by the glass and the continuous support of a well-known company, LVMH-owned, based close by and represented by someone as keen on what they eat as what they drink.
This coincided with a meteoric rise in the hotel's standing. (Hotel rooms were doubled in size and number, an indoor pool added, and so on.) From winning its first Michelin star in 2001, the spacious modern restaurant won its second in 2009 and the third in 2014. Lallement was named Chef of the Year by the magazine Le Chef in the same year.
Over this period, Lallement's cooking has changed and simplified considerably, in line with that of his peers. His dishes, which five years ago comprised two or three plates designed to convey the complexity of flavours he was looking to represent, have now been reduced to one. The sources of his suppliers has been recognised on his menu as the flavours he is looking to express are clarified. His menu in its layout, brevity and precision reminded me closely of that of Michel Troisgros of Roanne.
Our meal began in a modest fashion with a small dish containing a cube of cabbage and pork on to which a clear consommé was poured. This was Lallement's homage to potée champenoise, the hearty dish traditionally served to pickers during the local grape harvest, a dish that has virtually disappeared, its coup de grace being global warming's effects on temperatures at vintage time.
He then showed his dexterity with black truffles, in each instance matching them with a far less expensive ingredient. My dish consisted of ten potato gnocchi, each extremely light, topped with a slice of black truffle on to which more black truffles were sliced. Jancis experienced, if anything, something more sublime. A round, silver dish on three legs was put in front of her and the top slid back to reveal a fondue of salsify topped again with copious amounts of black truffle strings. This was a wonderful combination of a cheap, difficult-to-prepare vegetable (salsify is possibly the most time-consuming ingredient in any kitchen) given an injection of luxury.
There then followed two courses that relied more on provenance initially, and in particular the fact that Lallement has the good fortune to be based a six-hour drive from the ports of Carantac, Le Guilvinec and Audierne on the Brittany coast.
First of all, came a langoustine royale, a splendid example, its richness cut with lemon, splendid in its isolation but its flavours regally enhanced by being served at room temperature. This was a bold but unquestionably successful approach. This was followed a slice of turbot alongside a richer sauce made from vin jaune, the sherry-like speciality of the Jura.
The following sequence (all servings were thoughtfully small) revealed Lallement the family man. Our main course was a quarter each of a 'pigeon Pithiviers', layers of spinach, foie gras and pigeon breast inside a pastry case (and the pastry here is first class, as is the saucing). This apparently was the dish that Lallement had been working on with his late father just before he died.
I was to meet his wife (pictured above), but not his mother, both of whom have played integral roles in the hotel's success. Lallement appeared as we checked out. He was dressed in exactly the same outfit as the night before.
L'Assiette Champenoise 40 Avenue Paul-Vaillant-Couturier, 51430 Tinqueux, Reims, France; tel +33 3 26 84 64 64