« I do have a child, I have a family, and maybe one day, I’ll also become MOF! »
A calling isn’t something that can be explained rationally. Pauline Gachet-Froidurot was not born into a family of restaurateurs, and although her parents, who were farmers in Burgundy, cultivated a habit of eating quality and healthy food, it took a turning point, a decisive event to decide young Pauline’s future career. Today, Pauline is maître d’ at the prestigious restaurant La Chèvre d’Or, married to a chef and mother of a young child, and seems to have found the balance she was looking for, expertly combining her family life and career. She has even entered the selections for the 2022 Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition. But above all, she takes a lucid and resolute look at the place that should not be “granted” to women, because it is rightfully theirs anyway.
How did you discover your calling?
In my family, we hardly ever went out to restaurants. But one day, when I was 8 years old, my grandfather celebrated his retirement at Bernard Loiseau in Saulieu, a three-star establishment not far from our home. That night I discovered a parallel and magical world that truly blew me away. I told my parents: this is what I want to do. I want to work in a great restaurant like this one!
Did they support you in this choice?
They were not very excited at this prospect… Their own work had required so much sacrifice, so it’s not exactly what they had in mind for my future. They told me: “Stick to general studies and when you’re 18, you’ll see if you still want to do this job”. So I finished high school and got back to them: “This is really what I want to do”. I tried to level up as fast as I could and enrolled in a hotel and restaurant management BTS (French advanced vocational training) in Poligny, in the Jura region.
Did you already have a clear idea of what you wanted to do?
My internships confirmed that the dining room was where I wanted to be. As soon as I left school, I went to work at Loiseau des Vignes in Beaune, one of Bernard Loiseau’s restaurants, and then gourmet restaurant Le Relais. At the age of 20, I got to witness up close what I had experienced as a guest when I was 8. I joined as a commis waitress and learned the basics of the trade. I observed a lot, learned to run around with trays, and eventually became a waitress. The foundations were laid. I won’t lie, it was very tough at the time – almost military-like –, but when I saw the happiness in the guests’ eyes, I realised how much what we did mattered to them. I truly loved that feeling.
Pauline Gachet-Froidurot’s background
2012: BTS in hotel and restaurant management at Lycée de Poligny (Jura)
June 2012: commis waitress at one-star restaurant Loiseau des Vignes (Beaune)
March 2013: commis, demi-chef de rang then chef de rang at three-star restaurant Le Relais Bernard Loiseau (Saulieu)
January 2015: chef de rang then head chef de rang at two-star restaurant La Table du Connétable (Chantilly) – beginning of her collaboration with Chef Arnaud Faye
March 2016: first participation in the Georges Baptiste Cup (6th place)
Since August 2016: head chef de rang, assistant maître d’ and then maître d’ at two-star restaurant La Chèvre d’Or (Èze)
April 2018: birth of her daughter Clotilde (1-year professional hiatus)
March 2019: winner of the Georges Baptiste Cup, French candidate for the European Georges Baptiste Cup (2022)
Were you comfortable with the discipline required?
Yes, because I had a strict education, so in a sense I was already used to it. I’ve never been a rebel. On the other hand, I sometimes had a hard time with the fact that I couldn’t give my opinion. I had certain ideas but no room to express them… I was forced to do things in a way I wouldn’t have. I started to feel bad about it and told myself that it was time to move on, to change job, to take on more responsibility so that I could have more freedom in my relationship with guests.
What you learn at school is one thing; the reality in the field is another. I really loved my studies, it was great. The teachers were very good at communicating their passion to us. But before you actually go on an internship, it is difficult to understand what it means to work in an establishment. I think that’s why a lot of young people drop off after a while… They don’t necessarily realise how difficult this job is, how physically demanding it can be.
Is your job compatible with couple and family life?
I met my husband (Louis Gachet, assistant chef at La Chèvre d’Or) during our BTS training, and since the start of our respective careers, we’ve always worked in the same establishments, him in the kitchen and I in the dining room. We didn’t plan for it, saying that we absolutely wanted to work together. But we realised that it was undeniably convenient to experience the same things at the same time. We understand each other, we understand the challenges of certain situations, and this way we can help each other. Whenever one of us is tired or has doubts, the other is there to say: “It’s going to be okay. Don’t worry, and don’t forget why you chose this job”.
As for family life, yes, it is possible. After leaving Bernard Loiseau, we moved to Chantilly. There we met Chef Arnaud Faye, and ultimately joined him at La Chèvre d’Or in 2016. We weren’t parents yet and, like everyone else, we were working countless hours. In 2017, I got pregnant and worked until the end of the season. I was supposed to start again in August 2018, but I didn’t see the point in going back for just three months (the restaurant closes from October to March). I went through a period of doubt. I wondered whether I should continue, whether I was still capable… We didn’t have any family there, so we didn’t have anyone to look after our daughter in the evenings and during weekends. I really thought that, for a few years at least, I had to stop…
But La Chèvre d’Or called me back, saying: “You have experience, you know the establishment, you can make a big contribution here. We would like you to come back, but in a new role”. I said yes. I would no longer work in the dining room but at the reception, managing the team of hostesses. It was a bit hard for me to leave the service aspect behind. My superiors understood this, and the following season, they offered me the chance to return to my previous position as assistant maître d’. It was such wonderful news! But since I was the only one not working in the evenings, I had to endure people’s prejudices… I tried not to listen to them and kept my head down, focusing on my work. Of course, I was working nine hours a day instead of twelve, but I still had a role to play with our guests and the teams. The following year, I became maître d’ and I think I’ve managed to find my place.
Are you seeing a change in attitude in this regard?
Yes, because it is the future! Our trade must evolve and adapt. I’ve heard women say to me: “Oh yes, if you want to become MOF, you’d better not have a child!”. Well, in fact, I do have a child, I have a family, and maybe one day, I’ll also become MOF! I’m the only mother in the team, and the only person who doesn’t work in the evenings… But the crazy thing is that there are also several fathers in the team, and nobody questions their commitment! That’s the issue: the family’s daily life is still perceived to be women’s responsibility. Why should we give up on our job and passion simply because we have a child? In the end, it’s just a question of adjusting working hours. I’m happy to work during the day, but I know that others prefer to come in the evening. Some managers haven’t yet realised how much our trade is changing. We need to place emphasis on work-life balance so staff members can be fulfilled and, by extension, so can our guests! Even if we are passionate, even if we know what to expect since the day we joined, we also want to have a life. It is possible to find the right balance. And yes, things will change. Because it is inevitable.
Where did you get the desire to participate in competitions?
We arrived in Chantilly in January 2015. At that time, Chef Arnaud Faye was competing in the finals of the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition. But he wasn’t the only one from the team, the restaurant manager and head sommelier were also involved. All three were MOF finalists that year. They were training like crazy. We were only starting off in our careers and we said to ourselves: wow, this is incredible! Maybe one day we could be MOFs too. It prompted us to dream big. After that, my manager and the maître d’ suggested that I take part in the Georges Baptiste Cup, as they thought I would learn a lot from this competition. Especially if, later on, I was to compete for the MOF. So I did it in 2016, I reached the finals, but sadly I didn’t make the podium and finished sixth. I said to myself: OK, I lost. But it doesn’t matter, I learned so much, I received so much advice, I met so many great people from the industry. I gained both in general knowledge and gastronomic culture. So I promised myself that I would try again one day. After the birth of my daughter, I thought I couldn’t do this job anymore, but I kept believing I was capable of winning the Baptiste Cup. This meant that, by going back to work, I would gain credibility. I did six months of intensive training on my own, (I was training whenever my daughter was sleeping) and three weeks after I started working again, in March 2019, I made it to the finals and won it all. Not just the Baptiste Cup, I also gained in confidence. I’m always afraid I’m not good enough… I always think I can be replaced by a man who doesn’t have a child… I competed for myself, to enrich my knowledge, but I must admit that I also did it a little to prove a point to others.
What kind of personal touch do you bring to service?
What I didn’t like in service is that it could be a bit stuffy at times. For instance, whenever I had a good feeling with a table and I knew I could pull it off, colleagues would come up to me and say that I shouldn’t talk to the guests for so long. I was often told: “Imagine you’re in a play, you come on stage and play a role”. Well, I’ve never liked that idea! I always try to put myself in the guests’ shoes. I have often felt uncomfortable in gourmet restaurants. And yet, I work at one! I used to feel like an outsider, like I didn’t belong. So that’s what I set out to change. Some guests come in a little stressed: they don’t know the étiquette, they don’t know what cutlery to use… I always tell my teams to be natural! Be respectful and polite, but don’t offer the same experience and the same service to everyone. Adapt to the guest in front of you. Yes, we can make jokes, we can have a laugh if the guests want to. Of course, our primary role is to showcase the chef’s cooking. But if we sense that a table is in its own bubble and doesn’t want long explanations about a dish, we simply say a few words and off we go! By trying to apply the same template in every situation, we could easily end up losing our identity. And that would be a shame because everyone has something to contribute. At the beginning of the season, I love to see the diversity in the teams’ profiles. Some have experience, some are just starting out, there’s always that one very talkative waiter…. And we tell ourselves we need to handle him. But most importantly, we need to find out what kind of table he can match with! There are those who are shy, very reserved, so it’s up to us to tell them: “Go ahead, just try and do you own thing!”. I think everyone can be suitable, with the right support. And that includes introducing them to the table: “This is our new chef de rang. She’s a bit shy, but don’t worry, we’re counting on you!”. In a team, everyone can fit in, according to their skills and desires. And in the end, this diversity is beneficial for everyone.
What are your plans for the future?
My husband and I don’t feel ready to have our own business. Not right now. Because we know that, for the time being, it would come at the expense of our family life. In the near future, he would like to become a chef, and I would like to continue fighting for my job! We are tied in our career decisions because we are a family, but I have no desire to impose and for him to only accept a position if his wife is also hired for instance… I want to earn my place on the same footing as he does, and above all, I don’t want anyone to say: “Oh yes, she’s the boss’s wife, of course she got the job!”. We have been in the industry for 10 years, we have worked at La Chèvre d’Or since 2016, we truly love this place, it is so dear to both our hearts. But it’s true we want more. If an opportunity presents itself, we might leave. We don’t know when, we don’t know where, but it’s a desire in the corner of our minds – and our boss is well aware of it!