Chef Maxime Kien: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef

An Interview With Martita Mestey

Martita Mestey
Authority Magazine

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Don’t be judgmental and learn with the best and transform it into what you want to accomplish.

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Chef Maxime Kien, the new Corporate Executive Chef of The Group NYC.

He now leads the culinary operations on behalf of all the Boucherie and Olio E Più restaurants, where he plans to pave the way for inspiring new culinary experiences. Chef Kien joins The Group NYC at a pinnacle expansion period where eight new restaurants will open across America in the upcoming year. Chef Kien will bring his passion and experience to Miami at The Group’s latest concept Le Jardin Boucherie and new landmark concepts in Washington DC and Chicago, opening in the Summer of 2023. Through his creations, his goal is to share with his guests an experience of modern and traditional dining, in which each plate he prepares is a story all its own.

Maxime Kien is a world-renowned chef with more than two decades of experience in fine dining. Growing up in the Côte D’azur region of Southern France, Maxime developed a deep appreciation for the bounty of natural ingredients his homeland has to offer. He perfected his craft in some of the most iconic French Riviera hotels and restaurants, such as the Hotel Negresco in Nice and the Hotel de Paris in Monte-Carlo. Later, Maxime relocated to London to work at the esteemed La Tante Claire and then crossed the pond to Atlanta, USA, to work for Master Chef Joel Antunes at The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead, later joining the nationally acclaimed restaurant “Joel.” When The InterContinental Hotel opened in Buckhead in 2004, Maxime was recruited as chef de cuisine for “Au Pied de Cochon.” Since then, he has worked in several esteemed establishments around the country, such as The Venetian in Las Vegas, the Hyatt Regency in New Orleans, and Three Caesars Entertainment properties.

In 2014 Maxime was inducted into the prestigious Academie Culinaire de France as a recognition for his career, and he is working on his MCF French Master Chef certification. Most recently, Maxime worked for Hilton in Cleveland and Cincinnati. He gathered much attention as the only AAA Five Diamond recipient in Ohio and one out of 68 in the United States. Prior to the pandemic, Maxime was Resort Executive Chef at Nemacolin Woodland Resort, a 5 Star 5 Diamond property in Pennsylvania.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

I grew up in the industry, and my four grandparents were great cooks at home. My great-grandfather was a professional chef in Paris, so I was born into it. I was drawn into it by making family meals with my grandma at a young age. That’s what really got me interested in cooking and making a living out of it.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

Being French, of course, I like French food. Many people think French cuisine is always about cream, butter, and heavy foods, but that depends on which part of France you visit. I come from different places around France, so it’s quite a mix. But being born in the South of France, I like Mediterranean cuisine, which is a bit on the lighter fare. I like the southern aspect of French food, like olive oil, garlic, basil, and grilled fish. That’s what I’m really drawn to and what I really like to do.

As I mentioned, my father was a chef. Before he passed away when I was a little boy, I remember riding on his motorcycle to the restaurant where he was a chef and being seated in the corner of the kitchen to watch him run the show. He would open the restaurant, and I would play with the spiny lobsters and other elements in the kitchen. Being born into it really led to the desire to become a chef.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that has happened to you since you became a chef? What was the lesson or takeaway you took out of that story?

Being a chef has changed a lot since the 60s and 70s when the chef was always right, even if they weren’t right. It’s now more of a trade where you need to open your eyes and learn from everyone, not just from famous chefs but from everyone who has something to teach you. You can learn from everything and everyone everywhere. When I was a sous chef, I had a line cook that could always make the perfect boiled eggs that were easy to peel, and I could never do it as well as he could. One day, I watched the line cook do it, and he had a trick that was so stupid that it was genius. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. These little details open your eyes and make you realize you need to be more open-minded, look at everything, and learn from everyone, whether it’s a famous chef or your grandma. For example, my grandma taught me the perfect way to peel hazelnuts straight out of the oven, saving hours trying to remove the skin.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

I went to culinary school in the South of France and began working in big hotels and resorts. At that time, getting into a kitchen was challenging because there were only so many good restaurants to get your foot in the door with. But you must remember that France is about 50 times smaller than America, so there were lines of people wanting to work in famous places. You had to be able to think about your next move, and you didn’t have the luxury of saying, “Next month, I’m going to quit and go work somewhere else.” It took a long time to get used to the chef you were working for, and when he felt like you were ready to move to the next step, he would put you in contact with others and ask where you wanted to go to work next. The Michelin-star, five-star chefs, are a small, close-knit group; they are in contact with each other. Once you get in with the first one, you get into the groove of repeating that and then moving to the next one, and so on.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

To me, it’s simplicity. When I look at trends on social media, there are foods that I cannot identify because there are too many garnishes and too many sauces. It’s so overcomplicated that it doesn’t even look like anything anymore. You see concepts like mixing Asian and South American food, like sushi and tapas. Things get lost in translation, so while it may taste good, it’s not always appealing. To me, simplicity is critical. For example, a nice piece of real fish with a virgin sauce made with tomatoes, olives, and saffron. It’s simple, but the colors on the plate and the flavors make something even more memorable.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

There are two different kinds of perfect meals. A perfect meal could be like a roasted chicken and ratatouille at home with my family, with my wife and kids on a Sunday after a walk outside. That’s a perfect meal because of the company. Sometimes I get asked what my last ideal meal would be, and I would say it’s the dishes my grandparents used to make when I was a little boy. That kind of dish has stayed embedded in me, like my grandpa making snails from scratch and getting them still alive, washing them, getting out all the dirt, putting them in salt, and simmering them in butter. Or my grandma making soup from scratch. Those are the things that would make my last perfect meal.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

I draw inspiration from so many different places. For example, it can be a smell, walking through the market, seeing some beautiful apples, and then you start to think about them. And next thing you know, you’re thinking back about being in my grandma’s kitchen, and she would make apple pie, and I can visualize and remember the smells and see myself being like six, seven years old and making apple pie. That’s the kind of thing that takes you back. We have a small farmers market in Union Square, where I’ll walk through, and they have beautiful vegetables, and it will only get better as the weather gets better. I’ll get fresh zucchini flowers, fresh tomatoes, shallots, and other produce. I stay local as much as I can and seasonal. You don’t want to see tomatoes on the menu in the middle of winter. Try to stay true to the season and what nature has best to offer, and that’s where the fun lies, at least for a chef.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

Well, there are quite a few. The Group is very ambitious. We have seven restaurants in Manhattan, four brasseries, one Italian restaurant, and two Japanese concepts. But quite a few future openings are coming down the pipeline in territories like Miami, DC, and Chicago. And that’s going to take The Group to the next level from being a New York City-based operation to a nationwide company with 8 new restaurants this year. Being able to set the bar here in New York and bringing the tradition of authentic French food, not like fine dining, that’s a little bit more rustic with traditional dishes. We want to develop everything related to the steak because Boucherie is well-known for being a great place to have a great steak. So, all those things, being able to source beautiful products and have fun in the kitchen, creating great dishes, and ensuring that everyone is happy, is the goal.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

Unfortunately, the shows that you’ve seen on TV about becoming chefs give a terrible depiction of our profession. You have young kids now that go to culinary school, spend a lot of money, and spend a couple of years there. When they come out of there, they think that because they went to culinary school, they can be called chefs but still don’t have any of the basics, like how to debone a whole chicken or how to pluck a chicken properly before roasting it or how to make a sauce from scratch and make a good soup stock. Nobody can tell if your steak is cooked correctly just by touching it. So don’t try to run before you can walk. There’s nothing wrong with going to culinary school, but when you come out, find yourself a chef, whether at a small, local restaurant or a five-star, five-diamond restaurant, and there are so many in Manhattan. Then being able to learn your craft is what’s essential; learning the basics, you know, learning how to clean a piece of fish, etc. Not thinking that it’s easy because you’re going to receive everything already portioned, prepped, and ready to cook that’s not what being a chef is. Being a chef means taking a raw product, fabricating it, and transforming it into a great meal. Don’t think that just because you went to culinary school, you will be a chef within two years. It takes a lot of work and dedication to become a chef, an executive chef, and a corporate chef.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Chef” and why?

These days, everything is so easy with your phone. You can take a video of somebody making fresh pasta to remember the technique and the gesture of how to make it. It’s so easy, with 1000s of recipes and pictures of food on my phone. When I started back in the 90s, we had to do everything by hand, and the chefs could have been better at sharing everything, but now it’s so easy to learn. Try to be like a blank book and make sure you write as much as possible and taste as much as possible. You have many different places where you can have a great meal without spending too much money. Try different cultures and try other foods. We’re lucky to be here in New York, you have everything, and there is an excellent opportunity to discover. There will be chefs who make something one way and another who will make the same thing but in a different way. So, it’s combining these two ways of doing things to make your own; don’t be judgmental and learn with the best and transform it into what you want to accomplish.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

That’s a tough one. We’re known for our steaks. We have a great dish, our Plateau Du Boucher, which comes with a bit of everything. You have some excellent cuts of steak, and it comes with sauces and different garnishes, which gives you a perfect idea of what Boucherie is all about. Our owner wants to be a great ambassador of French cuisine. A great steak with peppercorn sauce, French fries, and a green salad (is the perfect meal to me.)

It’s an excellent opportunity to be part of The Group. I feel lucky to be selected and be able to cook for the whole team and join a great organization. The hospitality group was terrific at taking care of its own during the pandemic, and now it’s time to return to pre-pandemic levels. Everybody’s into developing and ensuring we are for our customers and team members.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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