Having won two Michelin stars for his French fusion fare, chef-du-jour Akrame Benallal has found a new direction – soulful sharing plates inspired by Azerbaijan in the heart of Paris
At the tail end of Avenue George V, in one of the most exclusive arrondissements of Paris, sits Shirvan: inconspicuous with its chic black frontage, but entirely unmissable due to the warm spicy smells emanating from within. Into this serene setting steps Akrame Benallal, fresh from the lunchtime service at his eponymous restaurant nearby, and he is visibly relaxed among the pale wood panelling and casual atmosphere that welcomes him to his latest venture.
The 35-year-old French chef has already achieved star status, of the Michelin variety. His first fine-dining restaurant, Akrame, opened in 2011 and soon won two stars, with several branches of a stylish meat-focused bistro, Atelier Vivanda, to follow – in Paris, Hong Kong, Manila and Baku. Now, Benallal has taken a new turn with Shirvan Café Métisse, named after a region of Azerbaijan and inspired by the Silk Road, the ancient trade route that represents a shared world of spices, tastes and food culture.
“What I do at Akrame is about the personal experience: you have your own dish and you focus on the emotions you feel,” he says. At Shirvan, however, it’s all about sharing plates and a collective experience, which Benallal was inspired to explore having noticed diners swapping dishes to sample each other’s food. It may not be the Parisian way, but it is proving a hit – and there’s always the option to personalize your portion with spices and seasonings served alongside.
Benallal has become a frequent visitor to the Caucasus – and Azerbaijan in particular – which, for him, has highlighted the local passion for food. “The Silk Road connects so many different elements, and this connection is important to me; being with the people you love, eating delicious food,” he says. This devotion to cuisine comes from Benallal’s mother and heavily influences his cooking philosophy, which Benallal sums up as: “I like to make people happy, so I always give it my best.”
The Baku branch of Atelier Vivanda has already become a firm favourite there. “I first visited Baku last year, when the bistro opened, and I was blown away,” he says. “I felt a connection with the city and its people immediately.” The importance of spice is something that Benallal has only recently appreciated, and quickly incorporated it into his cuisine.
The warmth and freshness of the country’s fare is perhaps most evident in the qutab, Benallal’s favourite dish. “To me, this is perfect: the mix of herbs blend so well together,” he says, smiling. “This is the taste of the mountains of Azerbaijan.” Here, at Shirvan, it’s cooked in a traditional tandir, as are most dishes, which results in incredibly rich and tender morsels. Don’t be surprised if arguments break out around the table over who gets the last piece of the slow-cooked lamb.
Never one to sit still for long, Benallal has ideas to open Shirvan in London, Istanbul and Baku. The concept of sharing food, he says, is a kind of rebellion against social media: “The more time we spend online, the more distance we have between each other, and the more important enjoying food together becomes.” Cheers to that.
Photography by Richard Haughton
Words by Francesca Peak
This story appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Baku magazine.