Frugal and flavoursome - how top chefs are bringing a touch of cordon bleu to fast food
PUBLISHED: 15:50 31 January 2020 | UPDATED: 09:23 04 February 2020
Watching top chef Régis Crépy at work creating his signature four-minute flam-kuche dish is a real privilege.
And on any given day, ordinary shoppers have the extraordinary privilege of sharing in the magic - as he, son, Alex, and their team create culinary masterpieces for the masses in a shopping centre open to all in Cambridge.
Régis was a stand-out culinary figure on the Suffolk stage for decades, using his considerable skills to great effect and building a strong reputation for his brand - which centred around classic French cuisine.
MORE - Celebrated Suffolk restaurateur 'thrilled' at Trip Advisor accolade for new Cambridge fast-casual venture
He and wife Martine started at the Great House in Lavenham, where the family lived, before branching out to create other dining meccas - Mariners, based aboard an ancient Dutch barge on Ipswich waterfront, and Maison Bleue, a sophisticated seafood restaurant in Bury St Edmunds.
They sold up in 2017, but still live in Lavenham, but Régis remains as enthused about food as he was when he trained to be a chef at the University of Lausanne, along with Martine, and later, Alex.
"Once you have done 35 years of gastronomy you want to change - I wanted to do something that relates to the future," he explains.
So he went into business with Alex, and launched a bold new fast food venture - by introducing an entirely new dish to British diners.
Alex and Régis's joint venture at the Grafton Centre, launched in 2018, was named after Régis and Martine's interior designer daughter. The inspiration was an Alsatian dish, flammekueche, which Régis encountered on his frequent visits to see his son when he was studying. It consists of a very thin bread dough spread with crème fraiche then a topping which is cooked very quickly.
"I went to see him many times and on my way to Lausanne I just drove through Alsace and I thought: 'This is good, but there's something missing - we can do something better," he explains.
Three years ago, he and Alex started discussing the concept, and Amélie restaurants was born.
They set up the flammekueche restaurant in the UK - which they re-christened 'flam-kuche' for the benefit of the anglophones - in the upstairs part of the centre, with a cheeky yellow Citroen Van converted to serve drinks.
It was an instant hit - although they had no idea whether the concept would work, Régis admits.
"I knew the food was good - there's one big thing we didn't know was how people would accept the product - they think it's a pizza, but it's not a pizza."
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Indeed, the Crepys' flam-kuche is much lighter than a pizza. But those who tried it loved it - so much so that the restaurant leapt to Trip Advisor's top spot in its list of places to eat in Cambridge.
"We have been runner-up in England for cheap eat meals below £15. This is incredible. We were one of only four restaurants in Cambridge in the Good Food Guide," says Régis.
All the ingredients are fresh, and prepared in the morning with the care one would expect from a fine dining master.
With that success under their belt and a good team behind it, Alex and Régis are now looking at other sites - possibly in Norwich - to expand the brand. Basingstoke, Watford and Henley on Thames are other cities and larger towns they have considered.
For Alex, the draw has been the thrill of being able to create something with his dad and to bring something new to the British market. As an added bonus, the reception to the product far exceeded their expectations.
Some of those on the team have started from virtual novices, but due to their enthusiasm and commitment have shone, says Régis. The key element for him is that they understand service, politeness and dedication.
He is "extremely happy" with how the business has gone.
"In life you have to do what you believe in. I have always believed in what I did. It has been hugely challenging to promote something that's not known at all in the country."
He has applied the same rigorous disciplines as those which made his fine dining restaurants so successful - even if the aim is to turn around the dish in four minutes from when the order comes in.
So diners in Cambridge can enjoy top quality dining for an average £12.50 spend.
"I'm very dedicated to food, to drink, to service. For me I will never cut corners so a restaurant is to be run professionally. Nothing will leave the kitchen if it's bad," says Régis.
"The basic principles are exactly the same. It's just you have got a simpler product that's served fast - at the Great House there's a lot of prep to do."
As for retirement, that looks to be some way off for Régis.
"I don't want to retire - life would be boring. I'm not ready for retirement," Régis admits. "Every day I come to Cambridge - it takes an hour from Lavenham."