Maxime Lenoir is not your typical Chef. Fit, fun and brimming with excitement about cooking, he is not stressed out by long hours, incapable of having a hobby, or aiming for a Michelin star. An authentic vocational Chef strictly trained in French cuisine yet inspired by the flavours and spices from all around the world, he never sees work as a burden, for “I truly live to work, and work to live. Cooking means everything to me.”

The charismatic Belgian whiz kid credits cooking with having opened his heart and mind to the magic of the world. “I started travelling at 19, straight after graduating from cooking school,” he says, “and I haven’t stopped since. I have no pretentions as a Chef because I’m curious and I love my job, so it is easy to do things well.”

Maxime spent three years in the Caribbean, with a prolonged stay in St. Barts. He originally came to Spain after being offered the post of Professor at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Madrid, an undoubted honour for any Chef in the world. “I loved the job but felt I was too young to be a teacher.

I am still in my mid-30s and for me, this is still a time of experimentation, invention, and tapping into my creativity.” Le Cordon Bleu, he notes, has very strict requirements in terms of course content and methodology. “Perhaps when I am in my mid-40s, I will return to the school. I certainly learned a lot when I was there, reviewing all the essentials during my preparation for class.”

Maxime loved the hustle and bustle of Madrid, but longed for the warmer climes he had become accustomed to in the Caribbean. He headed to Marbella and spoke with top restaurateurs, agreeing to head the kitchens at romantic Old town restaurant, Zozoï and bring his French-based cuisine, jazzed up with Vietnamese, Thai, Italian and even Moroccan touches, to savvy diners from all over the world.

Some of Maxime’s most popular dishes bear Vietnamese and Thai influences with a dash of Italian. His inspiration? Travel. He explains: “Travel is a passion for me, and I am always keen on honing my technique and learning about new cultures and traditions.”
Sultry Morocco makes its presence felt in a gorgeous gilthead tajine served with citrus (orange, lemon, lime), cooked in fish stock and served with fregola (a Sardinian grain similar to bulgur bearing different appealing shades).

Lovers of French cuisine won’t be disappointed, with delights on the menu like the pork spare ribs with a reduction of caramelised tomato, citric fruits and sugar, or the cassoulet, served with a tender cut of pork and flavoured with star anis and a balsamic reduction. Another firm favourite is the Belgian beef tartare, prepared with a mayonnaise that lends it a silky smoothness.

Zozoï is also famed for its unique pizzas – take the Artist, made with artichoke crème, ruccula, ham, mozzarella and lemon oil. There are a plethora of warm winter dishes: a dazzling scallop and prawn red curry with jasmine rice, as well as cooler, lighter options, including salads. An excellent light entrée is the tomato with crevettes from the North Sea.

Maxime laughingly says that becoming a Chef probably kept him out of trouble in his youth; funnily enough, the first spark for his interest in cooking was a set of gleaming knives belonging to a friend. Maxime, then only 14 years of age and taken by their glamour, asked what they were for. “Cooking,” answered his friend, “I am studying to become a Chef.” Maxime instantly knew that he had to follow suit.

Creating culinary delights is an obsession that keeps the Chef in a mindful state: “Every day, when I wake up, I think, ‘What am I going to cook today? Tomorrow? Next Season?'”. Being part of a team is another aspect of his job that gives Maxime great joy: “You spend so many hours together, it’s like having a second family,” he smiles.

Being as passionate as he is about food, Maxime concedes that “it can sometimes be difficult to find a place to dine where the staff is not only well trained, but also focused on making food with love.

As our interview draws to a close, he shares his Instagram gallery with me (search for CHEFMAXIMELENOIR to see the pics for yourself), and I see that his talent for tasty fare extends to desserts. Photographs of delicate, stunning cakes and macarons fill my world with colour, just for one day. Lucky I know I can always enjoy them with all my senses, at Zozoï.

Words Marisa Cutillas Photography Kevin Horn

Restaurant Zozoï, Plaza Altamirano 1, Marbella. Tel: 952 858 868.