Arotzenia – Antoine Chépy

Could you share with us how you got started in your culinary journey?

I completed my apprenticeship in 2000 after studying aquaculture. In 2002, I started working at the Hôtel du Palais. For about a decade, I worked in gourmet restaurants, ranging from one to three Michelin stars. So, I was a craftsman.

When I was apprenticing, I was told, “Be a good craftsman, get proper training with the best. One day, like all artisans, you’ll have the chance to have your own restaurant and make a living from your craft.” Nowadays, a cook no longer has access to their own tools of the trade. The restaurant is the tool, but investors buy the premises. Then, there are unseen individuals working for them. So, we no longer need artisans, but operators.

Being a chef is not a profession; it’s a social status. It’s one of the few professions without a defined status. The actual profession is that of a culinary artisan.

Regarding what we do here, our sole intention is to be culinary artisans and to nourish.

Could you talk about the concept of L’Auberge Arotzenia being an association?

I needed to fulfill myself, nourish myself, do my work. What legal framework can allow me to do that? So, I wondered: What is an association? It’s a gathering of people with a common goal. If the common goal is to nourish ourselves together within a region, that could be the starting point for an association, with a clear objective. Secondly, it must be non-profit. That’s why the idea of an association emerged. No capitalization of business assets, no profits. We simply want to make a living from what we do. It’s a tool, an experiment with an alternative economic model. I have friends who own restaurants, highly successful and Michelin-starred ones, but they end up with significant debts in the winter. That’s what I call negative accounting and economy. Our accounts are at zero. This means that when we don’t have money, we don’t buy. It means that when we commit to buying meat, vegetables, milk, and fish from a producer, we already have the necessary funds in place.

What is the association’s goal?

There are two. The first is to create a connection between local peasant agriculture, culinary artisans (and I do mean culinary artisans, not operators), and consumers, which is all of us. Eventually, we also wish to involve local communities, like municipalities and departments, because at some point, we’ll collectively need to consider our food in light of the finite nature of our resources. The second goal of the association is to experiment with an alternative economic model in the restaurant industry. For this, we use a powerful tool called analytical accounting. As an association member, you’ll be invited to participate in the general assembly and you can review all the accounts. There’s no philosophy, discourse, or literature in the numbers. It either works or it doesn’t. After two and a half years of activity, it seems to be working.

Do you want to talk about specific specialties or recipes?

When I worked at Michel Bras in Laguiole, a three-starred chef, he had highly coded recipes, very precise work. I appreciated that approach a lot, as at the Hôtel du Palais. But here, I’m more interested in what I see from the local people, what I can observe around me. In this kitchen, there are no set recipes. I’m currently training a young cook without recipes. It’s a risky exercise, but at the same time, I know I won’t pass on a huge amount to him. However, what I will pass on is a foundation, a foundation he’ll carry throughout his life because it’s mimetic. It’s not found in a book.