Victor Hugo, one of France’s most decorated authors, has been inspiring subsequent music, musicals and film for over a century, with his honoured works like Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. But one artist, a direct descendent, has carried the poet’s artistic touch into an entirely new field — the culinary arts.
“I don’t want to stain his name by doing something bad, so I try to bring something new to the name of Hugo,” says masterchef and restaurateur Florian Hugo, the great great grandson of the esteemed writer.
“All the generations in my family before me were artists, benefiting French culture,” says Hugo. “There’s always that part of me who wants to bring what I can to French culture, being a small ambassador of French cuisine wherever we are.”
As owner of Maison Hugo, a beloved French brasserie in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and having helped launch 14 restaurants, Hugo has done far more for the world’s cultural enrichment than he humbly admits. Maison Hugo is run in mom-and-pop fashion, as he cooks and his wife runs the business, and it’s known equally throughout the city for its authentic, slightly modernized, French cuisine and its inviting atmosphere that feels like you’re sitting down to a meal in Hugo’s home.
But like any artist, Hugo’s successes as a chef and restaurateur have been hard won, though well worth it for him, and definitely, for all of us.
As a child, Hugo began honing his skills in the kitchen when he refused to eat cafeteria food at school, though he says he never thought of making it a profession. A turning point came when the 13-year-old Hugo visited the three-star Michelin restaurant Troisgros, in Loire, France.
“This is where I realized that there is cooking for necessity of eating, and there is cooking that can become an art — that’s a very different level,” says the master chef. “The flavour association they were using and the techniques were very inspiring. I would say a flame ignited that kept on growing slowly.” With his newfound passion, Hugo would even find himself spending six hours on a meal for a simple gathering of friends and family.
Endless hours in the kitchen — well, 18 hours a day for eight years, to be specific — would be a key ingredient to prepare Hugo to one day fulfill his dream and open his own restaurant.
“Once you step into the profession, you’re throwing your regular schedule away,” he says. “You cannot see your friends; you’re working on holidays; it demands a lot of sacrifices. You build one stone after another, so not to crumble afterwards. I was never in a rush to get to the next step because I wanted to make sure I would never go back to the previous one.”
This artisanal approach — a lifelong journey of mastery — is what distinguishes French cuisine from the rest, he says. Hugo emphasizes he’s not inventing a system, just innovating within it.
“It’s like paper music — there are sets of rules you need to respect,” he says. “In my cuisine, I still make the sauce the same way I learned it. You need to stick to your principle and say, ‘No, I’m not going to take shortcuts because if I take shortcuts, well, the taste gets a shortcut too.’”
Under his most famous mentor, three-Michelin-star chef and restaurateur Alain Ducasse, Hugo learned the secret sauce of how to capture both a patron’s palate and loyalty, explaining why most of his customers are regulars at Maison Hugo.
“There is a creating process which is the same as when you write, paint, sculpt, or sew,” Hugo says, suggesting that the art of the dining experience combines both what you eat and the atmosphere you deliver. “Plating a dish can be as poetic as writing a poem because you get inspired by everything that you go through in life. All of that is absorbed, and then you get inspired to create.”
Gougères au Fromage (Puff Pastry with Cheese)
For 50 Gougères. Preparation 40 minutes
1 cup whole milk (20cl)
¾ cup water (20cl)
½ pound unsalted butter (225g)
1 scant tablespoon salt (12g)
1 scant tablespoon sugar (8g)
1⅔ cups flour, sifted (235g)
3 tablespoons Gruyere cheese (15g)
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese (15g) (reserve 1
tablespoon for the finish)
1 egg beaten with a little milk
Choux pastry (Puff pastry)
• Cut butter in small cubes so it will melt quickly.
• Melt butter in a saucepan with milk, water, salt and sugar.
• When the butter is completely melted, bring to a boil.
• Remove from heat, add the flour, and quickly, vigorously stir with a wooden spatula.
• When the mixture is homogeneous and the dough comes away from the sides of the pan, return to the stove, stirring it in the pan until a slight film forms on the bottom.
• Remove from heat completely and continue stirring with the spatula, letting the steam evaporate to dry the dough, and allowing the pan to cool slightly.
• Add the eggs one by one, mixing well after each addition. Add the cheese.
• Continue vigorously stirring the dough — it’s ready when a ribbon forms when lifting it with the spatula.
• With a plastic piping bag, pipe the dough into 2-inch buttons on a baking tray with parchment paper.
• Preheat the oven to 400°F. Brush egg wash on the buttons, then flatten the apex and any points.
• Sprinkle the remaining Parmesan cheese and a touch of black pepper on top and put the tray in the oven.
• When the puffs begin to turn golden, turn the tray and lower the oven to 350°F to allow the insides to cook without burning the tops.
• Gougères should be crunchy on the outside and soft inside.
• Serve warm on a napkin.
Text by Lindsay Wallace Recipe by Florian Hugo Produced by Many Ngom