The sky is still inky black at 5 A.M., as Yves Camdeborde arrives at Paris’s Relais Saint-Germain hotel on a silver Go Sport bicycle. With his shiny black hair and long sideburns, the 43-year-old chef looks a little like Elvis Presley, but he sounds pure Béarnais. "I never learned to drive," he explains. At least I think that’s what he says. Camdeborde talks in heavily accented, rapid-fire French. "I’m afraid of cars," he adds. "People are so aggressive."
Did I get that right? Is it possible that this fast-talking chef is too timid to get behind the wheel of a car? He’s certainly fearless when it comes to his career. Camdeborde launched an entirely new genre of restaurant in 1992 with Paris’s La Régalade, serving haute food at unprecedentedly low bistro prices and inspiring legions of chefs. Then, in 2005, he bought the small 17th-century hotel Relais Saint-Germain and created Le Comptoir, a 20-seat restaurant that’s now one of the city’s toughest reservations.
Le Comptoir is unique. During the day and on weekend nights, it’s a casual brasserie; the kitchen also provides room service for the hotel (which Camdeborde runs with his wife, Claudine) and take-out dishes for the crêperie and food shop Camdeborde opened next door. But on weeknights, Le Comptoir becomes a different sort of restaurant, one that could hold its own against any big-name French chef’s. Everybody in the dining room eats the same five courses from the set prix-fixe menu. The cost for this thrilling meal is 45 euros (about $57)—what you’d expect to pay in Pau, Camdeborde’s hometown, not Paris.