He spent 13 years behind bars after smuggling drugs for Mediterranean gangs. Now Krishna Léger is one of the country’s most exciting chefs. What made him change his ways?
Krishna Léger is confident he is the only person to have smuggled fresh fish into Les Baumettes in Marseille, one of the most notorious prisons in France. With the fish he made bouillabaisse, the famous Marseillais soup. One of his fellow inmates – also from Marseille – said it was the best he had ever tasted.
These days, Léger serves bouillabaisse on the first Sunday of every month at his restaurant, Volver, just outside the pretty medieval town of Uzès, in the southern French département of the Gard.
The setting is a little different from Les Baumettes, with its once high walls and watchtowers (the old prison buildings were demolished this year, to be replaced with new ones): Volver is set in a lemon-coloured stone farmhouse with shutters as blue as the Cévennes mountains visible in the distance, and a terrace shaded by a pergola. In 2021, only two years after it opened, Léger was awarded an “assiette” – the first rung on the Michelin ladder. And though he is discreet about his past, once the service is done, he can sometimes be persuaded to recount how he, an ex-con, conquered the world of French “bistronomy” (“quality ingredients … superb cooking”).
On the afternoon of 27 February 1994, Léger, then a 24-year-old firefighter, flew from Paris to Nîmes. His girlfriend, Karine, and another friend met him at the airport, and the three of them got into Karine’s car.
After a harsh winter, spring was stirring in the Gard. Happy to be together again, the trio stopped at a bar in the town of Remoulins. Dusk fell. When they got up to leave, Léger says that Karine asked him to drive the short distance to his home, because she wore contact lenses and didn’t like driving in the dark.
Messing about in the car, one of the passengers accidentally thumped the steering wheel. The car spun off the road and hit a plane tree, then an oncoming car smashed into its side. Karine died. Léger, his friend and the driver of the other car were seriously injured. The police found him to be just over the alcohol limit.
Léger had fractured his spine and was warned he might not walk again. He did, but only after six months of rehab. A court in Nîmes found him guilty of manslaughter and gave him a six-month suspended prison sentence. Losing his driving licence made it almost impossible to work. Karine’s parents supported him throughout. “They saw what happened as an accident, fate, even though they were devastated by the death of their daughter – as was I.” Still, he adds: “From that moment on, everything fell apart.”
Named Krishna for the Hindu god of compassion by his mother (one of the many soixante-huitards who came to the Gard in the 1960s in search of a freer life), Léger viewed his childhood as a joyful time, even though his parents separated when he was four (the name was a burden for a small French boy, but “Kris” learned to live with it). However, his mother remarried and with her new husband made him feel unwelcome, so, aged 16, he left home and moved to Uzès. He got into fights, and channelled some of his energy into boxing.
At first he worked as a volunteer firefighter. Then he passed his exams and joined the Paris fire service, sloping off at night to take part in clandestine bare-knuckle fights. After a team he was part of rescued seven people from a blaze at the now defunct Laennec hospital in 1991, he was awarded a medal for bravery. Soon he had a second, the National Defence Medal. The five years he spent in the capital were the best he had known.
Sitting in Volver, surrounded by some of the colourful, abstract paintings his father left him, Léger, now 52, smiles easily beneath his cropped hair and five o’clock shadow. But his smile vanishes when he remembers the courtroom in Nîmes.
There, he says, he encountered “only cold judgment, no humanity”. Nobody took into account his track record as a firefighter or his medals, he says. Nobody acknowledged that what had happened had been an accident, or that he was grieving, and there was no consideration of his plea to keep his licence so he could work. “They tear up your life, fling you to the bottom and say, ‘Now deal with it.’”
Léger’s deep sense of injustice at that first brush with the law set him on a different path – one that would take him far from the Gard and even farther from the ideals represented by his namesake. “I revolted, turned my back on society, and, through some acquaintances, I pretty quickly entered into a parallel world of professional crime.”
Léger is tall – 1.84 metres (6ft) – with the physique of a boxer. When he is wearing his white chef’s tunic, you sometimes catch a glimpse of the tattoo, an abstract design of his own creation, that covers the whole of his right arm.
The first job he got after the accident was as a bouncer in a club. The owner had one foot in the underworld and, at Léger’s request, arranged his entrée into it. Before long, he had been sucked into the racket around illegal slot machines and was rubbing shoulders with the various mafias that worked the Côte d’Azur – Corsican, Italian, Grenoblois. He turned out to be good at judging which bars and arcades would bring in the most cash if he placed machines in them. It was the late 90s. He was earning a living, and moved to Nice.
In 1999, after a settling of scores between crime groups on the Riviera that ended in gun violence, the police searched Léger’s home. They found a key that opened a garage containing a cache of arms, some of which had been used in the shooting. Arrested and charged with homicide and possession of firearms (the homicide charge was later dropped), he spent 96 hours in police custody before a court in Nice determined that he should be remanded in jail.
He still remembers his state of mind as he sat alone in a cell beneath the courtroom, awaiting the van that would take him to prison. “I suddenly felt the weight of the choices I’d made. I didn’t regret them, but I did realise that I had played the game and now I would pay the price.”
A court found him guilty of the firearms charge and he spent four months in prisons in Nice and Grasse – his first jail time, which he experienced as an initiation rite, a test he had to pass in order to be fully accepted into the world he had chosen. By then, Léger was in a relationship with a model named Valérie he had met through associates on the Côte d’Azur; she had just given birth to their daughter. His police interrogators tried all kinds of techniques to make him give up his colleagues, he says, even bringing Valérie in and threatening to have the baby, Elyne, taken into care. “I didn’t denounce anyone; none of my associates had any trouble because of me.”
On his release in 2002, he was welcomed into the “family”. What rules this family had, he observed scrupulously, and he found his niche at a new, more serious level of crime. In prison he had met some drug traffickers and, despite never having smoked a joint, he now worked those connections. The first operation he took part in involved smuggling 300kg of hashish from Morocco to Spain, crossing the Strait of Gibraltar at dawn in a rigid inflatable boat.
Léger graduated to smuggling cocaine and acquired a nickname – le Grand, the Tall One. He started making serious money. Not long after France adopted the currency in 2002, he was a euro millionaire. Still in his early 30s, he moved his family to a villa in Marbella and bought a Porsche Cayenne.
It was around then that he began to indulge his passion for food. He had always loved experimenting in the kitchen, he says, but hadn’t always had the resources to dedicate to it. Having known hunger as a teenager, it gave him particular pleasure to cook for friends – finding the ingredients; tweaking classic Spanish recipes such as gazpacho or tortilla – or invite them to restaurants. He loved everything about this new world: the cash, the coke, the women, the bling. “It was my revenge on life.”
Eventually, his luck ran out. It was 2003. He had started travelling to South America to meet the suppliers, and, having crossed the Atlantic in a catamaran with more than a tonne of Venezuelan cocaine in the hold (a record haul for European law enforcement at that time, though peanuts now), was off Cádiz on the Spanish coast. The intended recipients had been arrested, and before Léger and his two associates knew what was happening their vessel had been surrounded by police boats.
At the trial in February 2005, he was sentenced to 14 years – later reduced to 12 and a half – and fined €10m (calculated as a percentage of the street value of the haul; he never could have paid it, he says, and technically it remains on the books). He passed through a string of Spanish prisons before escaping in 2009 from the Ocaña jail near Madrid by paying off a prison employee.
The plan was to retrieve cash that was owed to him, revive his dormant business interests and, as soon as possible, head for South America. His relationship with Valérie hadn’t survived the stretch inside, but they separated amicably. His parting gift to her was a house in Saint-Tropez. And before he left, he wanted to reconnect with his 10-year-old daughter, Elyne. The plan went awry, mainly because his former associates were either dead or in jail, placing his cash out of reach, and he didn’t get away as quickly as he had hoped. In December 2009, in a blur of false papers, motorway hotels and burner phones, he celebrated his 40th birthday.
The following September, after he had been a fugitive for 18 months, the police caught up with him again in a layby near Narbonne, close to the Spanish border, having tapped his phone. He had been driving in a convoy with two other men, transporting nearly 5kg of cocaine from Spain to France. One of the lawyers who defended him at the trial, which took place three years later in Marseille, found him intelligent, courteous and unusually trustworthy. “In fact, that was one reason he was given a heavy sentence,” Thibaut Rouffiac says. “He wouldn’t trade names.”
He got nine years, more than anyone else implicated in the affair, and was shipped off to Les Baumettes. There, he considered another escape, involving the helicopter he had used to transport drugs from Morocco to Spain, but the pilot had been arrested, too – in a Paris hotel room, with a Brazilian sex worker. “End of story,” he says.
In total, Léger was sentenced to 21 years, of which he served 13 and a half.
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In prison, his passion for food remained a constant, and he did what he could with the single electric plate in his cell and the uninspiring wares at the prison shop. He watched cookery programmes on TV and jotted down recipes in exercise books.
At Les Baumettes, he took stock. He was more than 40 years old. His “home” was a filthy, overcrowded, rat-and-cockroach-infested jail where the food was dismal and violence endemic. However, life was bearable for him and his associates, dozens of whom he was thrilled to recognise in the exercise yard, because they were there for organised crime. They had individual cells in one of the less dilapidated buildings, and they ran the place. This meant they could smuggle in any number of desirable items – including fish – from outside, with visitors and prison officers acting as go-betweens.
But it was a poor existence whose rhythm was set by the desultory game of cat and mouse the prisoners played with the guards – passing illicit mobile phones from cell to cell, for example, from false shoe sole to tin can, before routine searches. He pitied the officers. “At least I would get out one day.” And all around him were youngsters – mostly black or of north African heritage – who had grown up in poverty and were serving time for minor crimes. Unlike him, they didn’t seem to have chosen their path. He taught some of them to box, watched others radicalise.
During his time in Les Baumettes, Léger saw what the anthropologist Didier Fassin observed from his own deep dives into the French justice system. The prison population has more than tripled in the last half-century (the increase has been even greater in the UK and the US) and the main “growth sector” has been minor crime: failure to pay child support, driving without a licence, or possessing small quantities of cannabis. Fassin argued that this punitive turn had been counterproductive, making society less rather than more safe – notably due to high rates of recidivism. “The power to punish has become uncoupled from its rational justification,” he wrote in 2015. Prison had become “senseless”.
Léger’s initial response to his penal experiences was simmering resentment, but over the years he managed to put his feelings into words: “The role of prison is, first, to separate dangerous people from society, and second, to work on their reinsertion. But that second part doesn’t exist. In France, at least, it’s a lie.”
When an old friend, Mireille (not her real name), whom he had known growing up in Uzès, paid him a visit, he confided in her that he felt he was wasting his life. In that case, Mireille said, why not change it? “It sounds strange,” Léger says, “but that possibility hadn’t even occurred to me.” When he saw a TV programme about Ferrandi Paris, a cookery school that turns out top chefs, a plan began to form in his mind: to open his own restaurant.
Executing this new plan wasn’t easy. First he had to get his baccalaureate, which he did after being transferred to a prison in Béziers (considered an escape risk, he was transferred relatively often over the years). Then he had to acquire the computing and administrative skills essential for setting up a business, and finally he had to secure a place at Ferrandi – the Harvard of French gastronomy, which at that time received at least half a dozen applications for every place on its coveted adult cooking course. Whenever he requested permission to leave the prison for an interview or administrative task, the authorities either refused his request or responded too late. “I understand they aren’t obliged to make life easy for a professional criminal who is doing 20 years and decides he wants to cook,” says Léger, “but when I wanted to rehabilitate myself, all they did was throw a spanner in the works.”
Luckily, he had loyal supporters, starting with Mireille, who continued to visit him after his move to Béziers, and eventually became his girlfriend. Though educational opportunities are hard to come by in prison, especially for long-haulers, he had teachers who went the extra mile. One of them, Claude-Emmanuelle Pallo, taught him computer skills at Béziers. She recognised someone with great psychological strength who might actually do something with those skills. But she had an ulterior motive for bringing him into her class, which consisted mainly of mouthy young men. “A profile like his commands respect,” she says. “It calms the troops.”
Léger didn’t say much during lessons – he was too busy learning Excel – but when he did, the others listened. The Béziers prison couldn’t have been more different from Les Baumettes. It was new, semi-private, hi-tech and clean. In the prison shop, basic products were more expensive than on the outside. But when the prisoners worked, they were paid less than the minimum wage. “Where is it written that you should make money out of prisoners?” he says. “It’s shameful.”
In 2015, he took up a place at Ferrandi – paid for with Mireille’s help. His persistence with the prison authorities had paid off, too; he had managed to get himself transferred to La Santé prison in Paris, from where he could commute. He was in semi-liberty, meaning he was allowed to travel alone, on condition that he returned to his cell each night. Initially his mentors were told only that he was a prisoner; the other students weren’t allowed to know even that. “Our first reaction was, what has he done?” says one of those mentors, chef Jérémy Touzelet. “There were knives in the kitchen. Did we need to count them? Chain them up?”
The new student’s unusual name meant that Touzelet could easily Google him. He discovered Léger’s past as a drug lord, but also that he hadn’t been convicted of any violent crimes. It was a relief, of sorts, and that relief soon turned to admiration. Of all the students in his intake, Touzelet says, Léger “was the most talented, the hardest working and the most dedicated”. He graduated top of his class, earning a perfect score for his red mullet accompanied by a black olive and thyme tapenade, ratatouille, rouille sauce and crushed herby potatoes – a dish with unmistakable notes of Marseille.
For Léger, that prize was extremely hard-won. The eight months at the school were wonderful in one way – an opportunity to shine doing what he loved – but torture in another.
Apart from the shock of encountering a world that had moved on – travelling on trains whose passengers were glued to their phones (had there been a catastrophe?), learning to order fast food from a computer – he found juggling his double life incredibly tough. At the school, he wore no handcuffs or electronic bracelet. He mingled with the other students, listening to them chat about their blameless lives, then returned to a very different milieu at night. “There were times when I no longer knew who I was,” he says.
His mentors helped discreetly, allowing him to shower at the school, for example, since his schedule left him no opportunity to do so in prison. And there were moments of comedy, as when the class was required to weigh gelatine to within a gram or two – more accuracy than the average kitchen scales provide. “I let slip: ‘We need a dealer’s scales,’” says Touzelet, “then swore inwardly and glanced at Krishna. But he took it well. He understood it was the price he had to pay for being treated naturally.” Nevertheless, it was a liberation in more ways than one when, in 2016, he got parole along with his diploma.
Touzelet recommended him to a colleague who worked as a second to the Parisian chef Guy Savoy. She, in turn, recommended him to Rémy Doridam, who was setting up a bar in Paris specialising in artisanal beers. Impressed, Doridam gave him his first paid role running a kitchen: “There were people who didn’t like beer who came every lunchtime for Kris’s cooking.”
He had dreamed of opening a restaurant in Paris, and calling it Les Baumettes. But Paris was expensive and he found himself drawn back to the Gard, where diners might not recognise the irony in that name. Banned from the part of France south of the Bordeaux-Lyon axis until his parole ended in 2021, he requested a special dispensation to open a bistro in Uzès. It was only granted because Mireille owned the building that would house the business, which duly launched in January 2018 under the name Caractère. Nine months later, he and Mireille split up. In the short existence of their joint project, it had received a glowing write-up from the respected restaurant critic François-Régis Gaudry – who praised Léger’s “inspired pairings”.
He found himself, once again, without a home, a job or a girlfriend. Technically, having no permanent address, he was violating the terms of his parole and in danger of being sent back to prison. This was the reason for his wariness when, in late 2018, he met Céline Simitian, the judge who oversaw his parole in Nîmes. Sympathetic to his plight, she ensured that he remained free, and he started again – from scratch.
He persuaded a bank to give him a loan – no mean feat given his criminal record – and bought the converted farmhouse that houses Volver for a snip at €32,000, the previous owner having gone bankrupt. He sold his scooter to make up the shortfall, salvaged some of his kitchen equipment from Caractère, and chose, as a name, the Spanish word for “return”.
Since he wasn’t yet allowed to own a business in the region, he created a holding company for Volver, with his daughter Elyne – now in her early 20s – as managing director. Less than a year after the restaurant opened its doors, Covid struck. Léger tightened his belt, and once the first lockdown had been lifted, chalked up a stunning summer season. “Elegant and precise,” is how one fan, Yves, describes his cooking. “He often uses quite humble and local ingredients,” says another, Arline: “squash, mackerel, squid, lots of fresh vegetables.” The poached egg with mushrooms, herbs and parmesan cream is a reliable hit. People make detours to taste his limoncello baba.
Léger is now looking to take on a second in the kitchen, so he can devote some time to his next project: a training centre where former prisoners can learn the basics of the restaurant trade. The idea is to offer them decently paid work, dignity and prospects, while at the same time addressing the shortage of staff in the trade post-pandemic.
It is news that delights Simitian. She understands Léger’s anger towards the system she represents. “The problem is obvious,” she says. “When you have to manage a very large number of people, with the means at the disposal of the justice system and rehabilitation services, it’s difficult to tailor those services to individuals.” But she also believes that the system can be a force for good, and that it is people like Léger – who turn their experience into something positive – who make her job worthwhile. She is aware of the paradox in that. “You don’t see people like Krishna every day,” she admits.
The paradox isn’t lost on him either. Looking back over his life, he says that the same skills that made him a good firefighter, and a good crime lord – discipline, attention to detail, a certain fearlessness – make him a good chef, too. And, though he considers the justice system unfit for purpose, he also acknowledges that it is the reason he is talking to me in his own restaurant today. He deserved his punishment, he says, and he paid his debt. Anyone can taste the results.


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