“I find it very agreeable being halfway: halfway between the friends who are here and those who are elsewhere, halfway between two cultures, between two seasons, halfway between a house and a restaurant, between a public and a private place. It's all the people who come here, people like you, those who work here, who eat here or who supply the restaurant that meet halfway here. We come halfway towards you.”
Could you please introduce yourself?
Nordine Labiadh, born Tunisian, now French. My father worked for forty years in France. I was in Tunisia and looking at France through his gifts, through clothes and colours. I was waiting, and in 2000 I came to live in France. Twenty years have passed quickly. It feels like it was yesterday.
Tell us about your roots…
My roots are Tunisian, because there are borders. But above all they are Mediterranean. For me, my roots are in the whole Mediterranean basin, in freedom.
When did you start to cook?
I have been cooking since I was little! I did the shopping for my mum and accompanied her when she was preparing the meals. When I was twelve, I started making my own omelettes, my own yogurt cake ... I learned to cook by following my mum, by helping her. Afterwards, I cooked for my friends at home, and at work too.
I quit school before the higher exams. I didn't want to take them to avoid giving my mother a heart attack, because I was sure I wouldn't pass. So, I got a licence for heavy goods vehicles and travelled all over Tunisia in a large articulated lorry, with my shirt open (smiles). When I cooked, I cooked for all my friends. If they saw a crowd of trucks, they knew Nordine had made a meal ... There was always enough for sixteen people! This is where my taste for the diversity of products, colours and regions comes from, which I find in your clothing lines.
When did you decide to start cooking professionally?
When I arrived in France, I took the quickest route to integrate. I knew I was good at cooking. Everything I could have learned from chefs, I already knew. I just had to learn technical vocabulary and details. It’s difficult to choose a profession, but in choosing to cook I didn't feel like I was making such a choice. I was a colleague of the clients I served every day. If they were doctors, well it was like a doctor was cooking that day, or an architect. I was the person who cooked for this community.
Can one say that you are self-taught in gastronomy?
I learned on my own, you're right. I adapted my roots, my story. I observed and mixed them with what one eats here, with the seasonal products. I developed my own techniques, my own cooking.
I went to the Ferrandi school anyway, I wanted to see what I was worth compared to my colleagues. I had to dot the “i's”, reassure myself, expel my doubts. I did several further education internships, but I didn’t want to sell myself by saying, “I used to work in this or that chef’s kitchen”. I take responsibility for myself. I train colleagues, but I tell them that they have to learn their role on their own. I give them ways of doing things that are adapted for each of them. We develop individually.
You are welcoming us today in your restaurant, À Mi-Chemin, in the 14th arrondissement of Paris. Tell us the story of its creation.
The restaurant has existed since 1998. My wife Virginie created it. She was the one who called it À Mi-Chemin (Halfway, ed.)! Me, I arrived two years later. She hired me as a kitchen attendant for a season. I tried to make myself useful during those four months, to do whatever there was to be done in the house. When the contract was over, Virginie told me, “The season is over, there is less work. But you can't leave because I need you. We will find things to do.”
Virginie called the restaurant “À Mi-Chemin” as if she had planned our meeting! When I took over the kitchen two years later, I reoriented it towards a “real” halfway ... halfway between Virginie and I, halfway between Brittany and Tunisia, between a man and a woman. We came together, each took a step towards the other and we created that which makes À Mi-Chemin what it is today. Since then, we have not left each other; we have made the journey together, and this journey is a non-ending one.
It's comfortable not to have “arrived”; we are on the road all the time. If we'd already arrived, what would we do? What if we'd not even set off? To be halfway, I find it very agreeable: to be halfway between the friends who are here and those who are elsewhere, halfway between two cultures, between two seasons, halfway between a house and a restaurant, between a public and a private place. Halfway, that means that this place does not belong to us, it belongs to all those who love it.
It's not a name! It's all the people who come here, people like you, those who work here, who eat here or who supply the restaurant that meet halfway here. We come halfway towards you.
Do you have heroes?
The people I admire are the people who are engaged, who stand up to give a hand, who say, “I like it” or “I don't like it”, the people who say what they think. And there is my wife, my darling, Virginie, who is a blend of courage and subtlety… I love that.
I also have a friend named Valérie Solvit. She gave me so much strength. What I needed when arriving from Tunisia was to meet people who love their country. Because I came to settle here, I came to live in France! Hearing people complaining about the country they live in was of no interest to me. And Valérie is someone who loves craftsmanship, who loves trades, who loves people, who loves culture, who loves France. And she exposed everything in me that I was trying to hide. When I met her, I became myself. I admire her love of action, her patriotism and her intelligence. She is someone who means a lot to me.
What is your motto?
It's work, it's action, and it’s being honest. The earth does not stop turning. It is not about working like a slave, but about doing what is right. Every once in a while, I wonder if I don't admire those who do things, even badly, more than those who do nothing. We are not here to do nothing, life is short. One day none of us will be there anymore. Resting is not worthless, but one has to be active in taking decisions, to take responsibility for them.
They say that you have invented a gastronomy of open-mindedness, exchange and tolerance…
Thank you for these words of François-Régis Gaudry. He is truly a prophet for French gastronomy, for its culture, for our freedom. To eat is to be free: choosing what to eat, who makes it and when to eat it is our primary freedom. If someone forces us to eat this and that on a particular day it is the beginning of slavery, we are prisoners.
I didn't want to impose my cuisine, but to come and tell where I was born, with what flavours, what smells. I wanted to invite people to their own place, with the products that grow here, but to give the food a whiff of travel, of my life. To put on too much perfume is to attack people; it's the same in food: too much strangeness is not what people want. But putting a little cardamom into a dish, a light touch, opens the mind. It gives the idea of ??a trip to India. At the same time, we know we're here, because we have to keep our feet on the ground. The dose is very subtle, so that customers are surprised. They eat local and at the same time they travel light; they get a picture of my personality, and at the same time they are themselves.
My rule in the kitchen is a rule of three: the products, the clients and me. You have to feel all three on your plate. If I take up too much space, it's not good, it's ego ... If the product takes up too much space, I no longer exist and neither do the clients. If the client takes up too much space, it's not balanced. As soon as this balance of three exists, the message is successful. Because the clients don't come just to eat, they are not just consumers. They have to smell something on the plate. They have to be prompted; “I should have made this myself” or “this speaks to me, it reminds me of my grandmother”. If the client gets involved, it's good.
What's your routine as a chef?
It starts at 11:30 p.m. (laughs). This is when I check how the weather will be the next day, what will be in the market, how many clients we will have. When I come here in the morning, I open the restaurant, I see my colleagues. We glance at each other, see if everything is going well and we start. I have the feeling of being a sailor who sets his sails, who goes to sea with a project. You have to expect that it won't turn out the way you want it to every day. You have to be ready to tack, nothing is set in stone. Everything I prepared the night before can change by up o 70% ... I have a plan in the evening, but it's not definitive.
You work a lot with seasonal products, but "classics" are also on the menu. Why offer classics?
The classics are to reassure clients. They come with memories, a dream. They've got something planned and I don't want them to be disappointed. It's like coming home to your mum after three or four months studying: you know precisely what meal you want to find waiting for you. I want it here to be like going home to your mum. When customers come back, they find what they set out to find. Something else will surprise them. I feel as if I am a bank of information or memories for people.
Colour seems essential in your dishes…
Yes, colour is essential, especially natural colours. They really speak of the season. If you follow the seasons, you will have fruits and vegetables of different colours. When you take all the fruits and vegetables of the year and put them side-by-side, you see a rainbow, the mosaic of colours of the year. Lights, colours, fruits and seasons punctuate life. We need this rhythm of the year, it's universal, otherwise everything would be flat. Watch the daylight! We get up at 7-8 a.m., the light is pale; at 10 o'clock it increases; at noon the light is higher and in the afternoon it is a little more reddish, a little more yellow, we know that the day is ending. Our body needs this rhythm of colours and nature. You have to let the earth do its thing, then do something with it.
Is the texture of the dish as important as its colour?
Texture is touch. When we eat, we expect crispness, softness, smoothness, small grains that grate the tongue a little ... It's like fabric: I like corduroy but I don't want to wear it all week. So I change, I wear something else, I put on something made of linen. It's the same with colours, don't let one texture stifle another. In the world of fashion, there is relief, there is touch, and that's exactly what happens with textures in a dish: there are colours, there is crunch, there is juice.
What do you think should never be missing from a dish?
Desire. The key to a successful meal is the desire to make this meal. There is no mathematical rule. If a dish is the same from cook to cook, it is from the copier. One has to accept that a dish made by three different people will never taste the same.
I made a cookbook, and people tell me “we made your recipe but we changed it: in place of this or that product we used another”. Well done! That's my goal, for people to take the initiative. They add one product, they remove another. The main thing, the sharing, has taken place. They made the recipe their own. The urge to move forward, to do something, to cook is the most important.
What is your favourite spice?
I think I’ll stick with cardamom. There is its acidity, this neon freshness, between anise and mint, and a little bit of travel. It tastes good when you bite into it whole! You can marry the small, very intense tips with a starter, a main course, a dessert or a drink. Such spices are rare. I went to India and visited spice gardens there. I admired the flower of the clove, which is the most beautiful flower I have seen. But cardamom is my favourite.
If you had to move to another country to start over or continue the story, where would you go?
If I had to start all over again, I would choose France again. I would start on the same road again, the same path, the same journey, the same family, the same love. But I would have liked to live a year or two in a Nordic country. Norway, Sweden, for the pedagogy, the furniture… that would have been beneficial to me, to better expresses myself.
What is your outfit for working in the kitchen?
My outfit is hollington. At work I am as I am here. I choose always to be able to move from one action to another. I'm sitting at the table, if I take a step I'm in the kitchen. I want to be efficient, to work or draw and be able to sit down with my friends or clients the next minute. My clothes for work or for everyday life are the same. I am like a soldier: I can take action anytime. Therefore I chose not to wear the classic cook's uniform, so that I don't have to stop and change clothes when I change roles. I’m the same person all the time. I want to be able to serve my neighbour, my country, my work or my children in the same outfit. I always wear a comfortable and dressy outfit, even behind my stove. I want this flexibility; I don't want to be stuck on one track. Yet I am all for the school uniform. There is a beauty in it, at least the children are united.
What colour do you prefer to wear?
I like bright colours and natural colours. I love red, I love yellow. I love the sea, it reminds me of a yellow buoy that surrounds me. I miss the sea in Paris. I like a bright yellow. I like a beautiful green. I'm starting to get used to white. White, for me, is repose, but I don't really want to be at rest.
How did you hear about hollington?
I got to know Hollington through a friend. He came to my wedding in Tunisia, and he had great shirts and waistcoats full of pockets! He gave me the address and I went there right away in July 2002. I only shop at hollington since then. As with a perfume, I recognize people dressed in hollington almost with closed eyes. We recognize each other in the street, in the station. It is a community of honesty, comfort, openness, openness to others. It’s relaxed. Someone who is dressed in hollington, I have a feeling that without knowing him I can stop and ask him a question, talk to him, that he will agree. There is a spirit of openness, something universal among hollingtonians. It's an image, a colour.
What do you love most about hollington: the fit, the textures, or the colours?
What I love about hollington is that it feels like biting a seasonal fruit every time. The fruit must be ripe, that is, the garment must be comfortable. Then there are the colours and the texture, the fabric. And finally what I call the “wild card”: being able to switch from one action to the next in hollington, from gardening to the presidential table, as happened to me once. I do everything in hollington. I cook for 140 people and I sail with my hollington waistcoat. For me it's a bridge. Each colour that I choose to wear is a message to convey to the other who is in front of me, to the other who is looking at me. So I need a lot of colours.
If we had to design a shirt just for you, what would like be like?
It would need a pocket for a pen. Mostly, a shirt for me would be a yellow shirt with something nautical in it. A shirt in which you can see a port, the port of Saint-Malo, Marseille, Barcelona… A shirt that speaks of a fishing harbour, where there is yellow, blue, a thread with a slight accent perhaps. A shirt that reminds me of the sea. With a waistcoat and a yellow shirt, I can create my own nautical world. But I would like to have a nautical world made for me!
We thank Nordine Labiadh for his warm welcome and the time he kindly gave us. Thanks to Virginie!
If you wish to discover Nordine's cuisine, all the information is on the website of the restaurant A Mi-Chemin. Pendant la période du confinement le restaurant vous propose la vente à emporter.
Photos by Clément Vayssieres @clement.vayssieres