By Valerie Sartor
Phillipe Ancelet sat down in a booth at his East Lake shop and grumbled good-naturedly: "I'm past my prime". He raised his huge shoulders and gave an abashed shrug. Clearly he wasn't being coy, yet this tall, robust Frenchman beams out energy and enthusiasm from his large brown eyes.
At 52 he still exudes boyish charm and goodwill and has none of the stiff formality normally associated with French entrepreneurs and bureaucrats. Instead, he's as magnetic as his chocolates and pastries, which are, by the way, the very best treats in all of Beijing.
Women should be warned that M. Ancelet's married, with three kids and a doting Filipino wife, or surely they'd bombard him with all kinds of sweet proposals. This busy man has no time for love letters in his mail because it's packed already with endless orders for lunch boxes, party pastries and product invoices.
Certainly he has great appeal – and not just to women and gourmands – Phillipe Ancelet has a winning style. His charm is combined with the charisma of a handsome man and a surprising modesty that rarely appears in 5-star chefs (famed for being prima donnas) with over 38 years of international work experience. Chefs respect him too: he's like expensive, cave-aged Roquefort that attracts and allures using presence alone. Even more significantly, M. Ancelet's generous nature, like a high quality aromatic cheese, wafts through the air and heartens all who are near him.
"I've spent 28 years overseas, starting at age 26. Before that I spent ten years working in Paris. When I came to China I worked at the Kempenski Hotel for 2 ½ years. While working there I met my current business partner, a young hotshot named Benjamin Devos," he said.
"In 2005 we opened our first shop and started building our factory; it's been open a little over two years now. We have three shops, with a fourth opening next month near the Lido in Chaoyang." He sipped his cappuccino with relish and added, "We are a 100 percent French partnership, and of course there are restrictions but I feel more secure this way."
With the thick accent and graceful Gallic hand gestures it's obvious that he is thoroughly French. Perhaps because his second home is on the Gold Coast in Australia, where his family now lives, this cosmopolitan man has a very easy-going character that merges with his passionate French nature.
Philippe Ancelet was raised in a quintessentially Gallic ambiance, with a grandmother serving as personal chef to the famed Rochelle family. "She did not cook for them on Sundays; that was our day. At home on the weekends my entire extended family would come to eat Sunday lunch at our house," he said, smiling hugely.
"Lunch lasted a long, long time, from 12 to 3, because this was the time you had communication with your family members." He went on to explain that, as a teenager, he would watch the deft cooking movements of his grandmother and help her out in the kitchen. "She was so fast and everything she did was so natural, so smooth…she danced through the kitchen. For these meals she'd always do a special sweet for dessert. I got my love for food from her and I learned from her. Later I went on to become an apprentice in Paris. Now, many years later, I am here making French food in Beijing."