The scandal of France’s shrimp-stealing Top Chef

Naoëlle d'Hainaut might have been acclaimed as France's Top Chef for 2013, but a fateful moral slip involving a bowl of shrimp has brought a tidal wave of hatred upon her. Our French Face of the Week won the prize money, but at what cost?

The scandal of France's shrimp-stealing Top Chef
France's culinary Macchiavelli, Naoëlle D’Hainaut, considers stealing her opponent's shrimp, on her way to being crowned France's Top Chef 2013. Photo: 20 Minutes/Dailymotion

Who is Naoëlle d’Hainaut?

She is the pretty, unscrupulous 29-year-old chef who won the French version of the TV talent show Masterchef this year which in France is called Top Chef.

Why is she in the news this week?

Well winning Top Chef was enough to get her into the news but the fact she progressed to the show’s finale only after stealing shrimps from her rival, Yoni, while his back was turned during their cook-off, meant her victory sparked outrage among fans of the show and the public at large.

D’Hainaut’s moment of dishonesty got moral pulses racing all over France, and she immediately became a figure of hate.

After pocketing the €100,000 prize money, thousands clamoured for her Machiavellian triumph to be overturned.

This week the public got a semblance of revenge.

On Monday night, d’Hainaut faced off against last year’s winner Jean Imbert, and in a public phone-in to choose the victor, d’Hainaut was somewhat predictably massacred by a gleefully vengeful French audience, despite earlier apologizing for her behaviour.

What exactly happened?

This video shows d’Hainaut’s defining moment. Amid the show’s dramatic soundtrack, she struggles with the moral conundrum before her. “I see a big bowl of shrimp over at Yoni’s counter…And then I say to myself ‘What are you going to do?’”

In the end d’Hainaut – who is by all accounts quite a promising and accomplished chef anyway – makes a sort of Faustian pact: stealing the shrimp and winning the show, but at the same time losing the love of the public.

Naoëlle de top chef surprise en train de voler par 20Minutes

What has the reaction been like?

Pretty hateful, to be honest. A Facebook page called ‘Anti-Naoëlle Top Chef 2013’ has more than 81,000 likes, and a photo of d’Hainaut reacting to her 77 to 23 percent rejection by the French public, has been shared by more than 500 users.

Users have left comments like: “She’s a filthy, thieving cheat!” and “Detestable, miserable character..”

One user loved the concept and spirit of the campaign, but disapproved of its profile picture – a straightforward photo of D’Hainaut herself.

“Excellent…But could you change your profile picture? It’s really annoying to see her smiling face every time I log on to Facebook.”

Others, including the page’s moderator, seem to be more interested in an orchestrated, strategic lobbying campaign to reverse d’Hainaut’s triumph, though the TV channel M6 have dismissed any such attempts.

“Please – do not watch Monday’s contest. It’s the only means at our disposal to make our message heard…M6 will make money from your text messages…And anyway the winner was already chosen a long time ago…” said a post on May 3rd.

As for the ethical opprobrium, it has been well-articulated and widespread, as one Twitter user reflected.

“I find you enormously lacking in humility. The contest absolutely does not require the kind of base methods you’re employing.”

What else has she done?

Well, before she sent 77 percent of French TV viewers into moral outrage, d'Hainaut was sous-chef at the world-famous Bristol hotel in Paris.

Originally from the Oise department in northern France, she was by her own account a troubled, directionless teenager until a schoolteacher got her interested in cooking.

With her €100,000 in prize money, d’Hainaut has said she intends to set up a restaurant of her own in the south of France.

However after all the outrage she caused it might be a good idea if she opened it under a different name.

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Five of France’s new Michelin foodie hotspots

As Michelin publishes its 2022 guide, here are five of the most exciting new entries into the hallowed 'bible' of French gastronomy.

Five of France's new Michelin foodie hotspots

Here are five must-visit venues of gastronomic delight for food lovers.

READ ALSO New Michelin guide celebrates ‘resilient’ French cuisine

Plénitude – Paris

It’s only been open seven months, but the Paris restaurant – on the first floor of Cheval Blanc Paris – now has three stars, awarded to chef Arnaud Donckele in Cognac on Tuesday. Picking up three stars all at once is almost unheard of – only Yannick Alléno achieved the same feat in 2015 with the Pavillon Ledoyen in the 8th arrondissement.

Broths, vinaigrettes, creams, veloutés, juices are at the heart of the cuisine at Plénitude. A seasonal six-course Symphony Menu costs €395, while the Sail Away Together menu of three savoury dishes and one sweet is €320.

La Villa Madie – Cassis, Bouches-du-Rhône

Another new three-star venue listed in this year’s guide came as something of a surprise, by all accounts. Dimitri and Marielle Droisneau’s restaurant in the south of France overlooks the Mediterranean.

“We took this house nine years ago. We had a baby, we have a second one now. We live in the villa. We work in a paradise,” chef Dimitri said at the ceremony in Cognac.

The cuisine follows the seasons, and uses carefully selected local produce. As such, the menu changes daily according to what’s available. The Menu Anse de Corton – a starter, a fish course, a meat course, and a sweet treat – costs €130, while the six-course Menu Espasado “Cap Canaille” is €180.

Plaza Athénée – Paris

Top Chef series three winner Jean Imbert was one of a number of former contestants on the show to win a star for his restaurant in the palace le Plaza Athénée – with the jury praising his “impressive revival of the greatest classics of French gastronomy”.

Guillaume Pape – a finalist in series 10, also picked up his first star for  L’Ebrum, in Brest; as did series nine finalist Victor Mercier, for FIEF in the ninth arrondissement, honoured for producing “empowering cuisine, made exclusively using French produce”. Mercier was also named Young Chef of the Year.

The self-titled Menu de Jean at Plaza Athénée costs €296

Villa La Coste – Bouches-du-Rhône

Continuing the Top Chef theme, judge Hélène Darroze – who already runs the three-star Hélène Darroze at The Connaught in London – was awarded a star for her restaurant in the south of France, as was fellow-judge Philippe Etchebest for his latest venture in Bordeaux.

Local vegetables and fruit are the stars of the dining show at Villa La Coste, with meat and fish playing an accompanying role. A three-course lunch menu is €75, while a full dinner menu is €155.

Domaine Riberach: La Coopérative – Bélesta, Ariège 

One of six new restaurants to be awarded a Green Star for its seasonal food and it’s determined approach to ‘sustainable gastronomy’. This year’s six Green Star winners join 81 establishments which received the award last year in France.

“Slow food” is the order of the day, with menus created based – as is often the case – on the seasons, the market and chef Julien Montassié’s instinct. The chief rule is that food must be local – “0 km is our motto”, boasts the website.

The six-course Menu Latitude is €85 without wine. A three-course Menu Km0 is €49 – and a children’s two-course menu is €18.