Chef Yves Le Lay Explores the "Core of His Culinary Soul" with New Nordic Islands Cuisine
Saaremaa's Pädaste Manor’s wildly talented, wildly attractive (and single) Chef de Cuisine Yves Le Lay has worked in many iconic Michelin-starred kitchens throughout Denmark, Switzerland and Norway before happily returning to what he considers “to be the core of his culinary soul.”
Le Lay creates his menus with respect to the local heritage, seasons and terrain of Saaremaa, Estonia and then adds his own touch of whimsy. Depending on when you visit, the ever-changing roster of fresh ingredients might include roe deer, moose, juniper, morels, berries, Muhu honey and artisanal cheeses provided by the island’s farmers, hunters and fishermen, as well as wild greens and herbs grown on the manor. Chef Yves then presents his flavorful finds by showcasing their natural beauty with creative yet simple adornments.
There was never a dull moment in the four hour, nine-course table d’hôte meal in Alexander, Pädaste Manor’s grand (yet without an ounce of stuffiness) restaurant—lightweights can show restraint by selecting a seven-, five-, or three-course menu. The variety of indigenous ingredients, flavors, textures, and artistic presentations served to you in this fairy tale manor (which was once the home of a 16th century Danish king) will definitely impress. Even the tableware is unique, since some of the more amusing pieces were designed by students from the Estonian Academy of Art.
And now for the bad news: food this good does not come easy. You’ll have to work for your supper since it requires a flight to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Then you’ll have a scenic two-and-a-half-hour trek to Muhu Island, which includes an enjoyable half-hour ferry ride from Virtsu. Finally you arrive at the idyllic Pädaste Manor, an exclusive, 23-room boutique hotel, surrounded by acres of tranquil forests and waterways, where Chef Yves Le Lay’s food is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But don't just believe us, hear about Le Lay's cuisine in his own words.
JustLuxe: Who or what inspired you to become a chef?
Yves Le Lay: I believe my upbringing by my parents, who were dedicated foodies. Then in the end of my teens, I got into the restaurant business and got hooked instantly by this high-paced, sensory industry and haven’t looked back since!
JL: Do you consider yourself part of the New Nordic Cuisine movement?
YLL: Yes and no. “Nordic Islands’ Cuisine,” which is our framework for our kitchen philosophy, shared similarities to the New Nordic Cuisine, as we source our produce in near proximity. For us this proximity is the islands in the Baltic sea. But [we] wouldn’t define our cuisine as New Nordic. The best description I have heard so far of my cuisine would be contemporary Nordic with French influences.
JL: First thing you cooked?
YLL: I have from an early age taken part in cooking at home, so it’s hard for me to remember. Though my favorite dish growing up was grilled lamb skewers with couscous, chickpeas, and harissa sauce.
JL: If you weren't a chef, what would you be?
YLL: Hard to say; at this point I can’t imagine doing anything else. But who knows? Life is full of surprises!
JL: Most exciting ingredient or cooking trend?
YLL: I have always had a great love for butter, as it compliments both savory and sweet dishes with richness. I am using it to a lesser extent now though, as it often can cloud the pure taste of the produce.
JL: Is there an ingredient or food trend that you hate?
YLL: Cilantro. It’s an herb that really divides people. Some love it. Some hate it. I am the latter; for me it tastes like soap.
JL: What is your proudest culinary moment so far?
YLL: We were recently included in the World's Top 50 Best Restaurants—Global Selection. This doesn’t mean that we are in the top 100, but an indication that we are close and on the right track. It meant a lot for me and the team to know that our colleagues in the industry see us as one of the best restaurants in the world.
JL: Famous people you've cooked for?
YLL: I have had the pleasure of cooking for both celebrities and royalty. But the guests that I take the most pride in cooking for are the food lovers, the curious and adventurous diners, who whether rich or poor, have a true love for good food.
JL: If you were going to get a culinary tattoo what would it be?
YLL: I already have a few. My one arm was recently covered with berries, on the other an octopus!
JL: For your final supper you'd choose?
YLL: A dozen oysters for starters. My childhood favorite of lamb skewers, and couscous for the main course and probably Tarte Tatin with vanilla ice cream for dessert.
JL: If you could spend a month studying the local cuisine in a foreign country, which one would it be?
YLL: I would go to Japan. Two summers ago I spent three weeks there on vacation. But I would love to go back and study traditional Japanese cuisine under one of their many great masters.
JL: What comfort food do you make for yourself after a bad day?
YLL: One of my addictions it a big piece of buffalo mozzarella, drizzled with olive oil, freshly ground black pepper and flake salt.
JL: What did your mom pack in your lunch box?
YLL: Danish smørrebrød, which is an open-faced sandwich with a base of black rye bread. Toppings could include smoked fish, cured meats or simply potatoes with chives.
JL: What is the strangest food you’ve ever eaten?
YLL: In Japan I was served half-raw chicken anus, and in Hungary I was served glazed bull’s penis. Both demanded a deep breath before digging in. But both were interesting and rather delicious.
JL: If someone could only order one thing off your menu it should be?
YLL: Needlefish with glazed carrots and sea buckthorn sauce.
JL: Who do you want to play you in the movie version of your life?
YLL: Charlie Sheen.
JL: What is something most people don’t know about you?
YLL: From the ages nine to 10 I was a ballet dancer at the Royal Danish Ballet.
Interested in trying out one of Chef Yves culinary secrets at home? You're in luck! Check out his advice for cooking fruits and vegetables:
"When cooking apples, artichokes, salsify or other fruits and vegetables that you would normally put in water with lemon to prevent oxidization, you should use vitamin C instead. Lemon usually dominates the taste, but vitamin C has no taste, yet has the same attributes. What you do is buy a small jar of vitamin C and pulverize a tablet in a coffee grinder and dissolve the powder in water."