Fabien Espana is a child of the region. He was brought up by a family of winegrowers in Irancy, learned early about wine and the work in the vineyards and spent his childhood in the wine cellars. And yet he had this dream of owning his own restaurant one day, instead of becoming a winegrower. And he didn’t lose much time; after he had finished school, he opened his first restaurant in his home village Irancy, serving the classic cuisine of the region.
Seven years later, in 2013, he decided he needed to move out of this traditional corner and made up his mind to look for new horizons. For a season he worked in a restaurant nearby as a sommelier. It was there that he got to know Ryo, a Japanese chef who also worked at this restaurant, and they got along very well. A while after Fabien had left the restaurant he bumped into Ryo again and they discussed life and their dreams. “We were just talking about how funny it would be to start something together, modern and different from what we had done until this point, and all of a sudden the idea was born and we decided to embark on the adventure right away”.
As both had already worked in the region and knew what to do, their project didn’t take long to become reality. Laroche had just recently opened its hotel and had this huge space available on the ground floor of the building that they didn’t plan to use in the near future. The negotiations were easy as both parties got along well, and as Fabien and Ryo were signing the rental contracts, the ideas and concept for their restaurant were already flourishing.
Starting at zero, with not a single fork, glass or any kitchen equipment in the rented space, every single detail had to be thought about by the two friends.
Ryo looked for the products and producers he wanted to work with and also scouted for a kitchen brigade. Because of his Japanese origins he naturally brought in other Japanese chefs he had worked with in the past. Despite the Japanese brigade their common objective was to adopt a modern approach to French cuisine, as the region of Chablis is already over-saturated with traditional restaurants. And Fabien took over all the aspects related to wine and service – talking to wine producers, setting up structures and getting a staff team on board.
Along the way Fabien also helped Ryo discover more about the world of wines so they could understand each other better in terms of developing dishes and the pairings.
“Before we opened we tasted a lot together” Fabien remembers. “Of course we went to a lot of tastings in Chablis, but we also took many trips to the Côte d’Or, drove down to the Rhône Valley and across to the Loire Valley so he could get an idea and understanding of these different styles. Ryo is a really talented taster and gets all the important notes to think of food parings. He doesn’t know all the technical details about every single Premier Cru or Grand Cru, but he can certainly spot quality in a glass and analyze the wines very precisely. His only problem is that he can’t memorize what he tastes – that’s why he has me” he jokes. “Six months after a tasting we had done together, he seriously doesn’t remember what I am talking about, but I guess that‘s why he became a chef and I became a sommelier.”.
In 2014, not even a year after Fabien had closed his other restaurant in Irancy, the dynamic duo finally opened their restaurant “Au Fil du Zinc”, located right in the center of Chablis, in a lofty open space right above the river Serein.
They serve a maximum of 45 guests per service even though the room could easily seat a few more. “We want to be at our best when we host guests –of course need a minimum of guests to survive– but our goal is not to scale things up a lot further. As long as we get by and enjoy what we do that’s fine with us.” Fabien says.
The restaurant was very quickly adopted by the village for its modern, fresh cuisine in a classy and elegant, yet relaxed ambiance. „Chablis is a micro-cosmos and I think we are well positioned.“ Fabien resumes.
„We cook with fresh products, our menu changes every 10 days and we offer reasonable prices that allow to have a good bottle or even two with a menu.“
Today he has 400 different wines in the cellar, of which 150 are from Chablis. Only a selection of all those appears on the wine list. The „Rarities“ section on the list is a pleasure for every Chablis-loving person, and he has limited the choice to one bottle per order, to give a fair chance to everyone to taste those rarities which come from producers who like and trust him and give away some of their rarest wines. Raveneau and Dauvissat micro-cuvées are on this list as well as a few out-of-stock vintages.
As well as local wines he also highlights wines from the rest of Burgundy. His guests normally fall into three groups: the tourists who come to taste Chablis, the traditional locals who want everything but Chablis as they drink it all the time, and the experienced wine geeks who know Fabien well and trust him to surprise them with something out of the box.
Fabien is a very enthusiastic sommelier. He loves to joke around and chit chat for a while, and then will suddenly run off to his wine cellar. „I don’t care a lot about which vintage the people think they like. At the moment, for example we have two current vintages which are very different: 2015, that is ready to drink, abundantly fruity and pleasant and 2014, a vintage that I personally prefer, because it’s fresh, dense, mineral and upright vintage.”
“When I talk to my guests I don’t ask them which vintage they would like but I rather ask them a lot of questions to find out what style of wine they typically enjoy. And upon my perception of their tastes I normally run to my cellar and see what I have for them. Well, at least that’s how it happens with the guests who trust me. Of course there’s always one guest who orders a precise vintage from a precise producer and doesn’t want any advice from my side. And that’s fine for me, too.”
With seven people in the kitchen today everything moves a bit faster than it used to when they started out with three chefs. With a cuisine focussing on freshly sourced produce, and a menu that usually offers two options per course, they aim for an equilibrium of choices for everyone to pick from. „On every menu there’s at least one fish dish, one red meat dish and one poultry dish. The rest is up to Ryo.“
The creation of a new menu normally works smoothly, after three years Ryo and Fabien have become a well-rehearsed team. „There aren’t many things I have trouble finding a wine for“ Fabien says. „Ryo naturally likes to cook with white wine in many cases, which makes for great pairings with Chablis.
Normally the kitchen team develops ideas and we discuss them together. As they are all Japanese I am their French counterpart. We agree on many things, but sometimes it happens that they use a dash too much of vinegar for example, which makes it difficult for me to choose a pairing or when it comes to a certain French interpretation of a sometimes give them hints on how to adapt it better to the French palate.“
Thinking for quite a while, Fabien tries to remember dishes that don’t pair well with Chablis.
Instead he comes up with a memory of a taste he especially loved: „We hosted a tasting for La Chablisienne in the restaurant and they brought a Grand Cru Grenouille 1996 which we paired with braised lamb. The 1996 Grenouille was just so perfectly at its peak, full of the honey notes and slightly dried herbs an old Grenouille can develop – the pairing was magic.“
Once done with his praise he adds the ingredients that don’t work so well for him: a curry dish, sauerkraut, everything that’s too spicy. „I like harmony in pairing more than contrast so we avoid too many spices or other strong tastes and rather keep to the simple and natural taste of the ingredients.“
Fabien and Ryo recently opened another restaurant in Chablis, „Les Trois Bourgeons“. They have partnered up with two of Ryo’s Japanese friends who were looking to open their own restaurant in France, and were happy to support them in the new venture. While Au Fil du Zinc continues its modern, elegant cuisine, the concept of Les Trois Bourgeons is more linked to French Bistronomie, revisiting French Bistro classics in a lighter, modern way with more finesse. Located just a few steps away, both places share a common wine cellar and Fabien picks out a small selection of wines, for the new bistro-style restaurant, that regularly changes.
And then, many stories and gastronomic anecdotes later, Fabien suddenly has a touch of genius about what he strongly advises against.
„Oh, the only thing that really never works, and I really mean never ever, is pairing Chablis with desserts.”
“I have made intense research to find suitable pairings, tasted up and down on all sides of the Serein River, all appellations and Climats and have to say: Chablis does not go with dessert. As soon as there is just the faintest dose of sugar involved, Chablis is a catastrophe.“ So let’s rather all stick with lamb and a Grenouille 1996.
Read this story in CUVÉE Magazine No. 2 | Chablis.Order your copy in our shop