I didn’t have one dud meal. And the lessons I took back were the classic ones: know your ingredients; source them locally; impress the palate with simple flavors and not trendy gastro-techniques
BY NABANITA DUTT
If you follow what most chefs are doing with global food, two trends stand out.
At its most idiotic level, this means topping every dish with a foam or scattering a freeze-dried version of some ingredient on the plate (i.e. instead of black olive, create a black olive powder, etc.). At a less visible level, it means a reliance on such relatively modern kitchen techniques as sous vide (a sort of boil-in-the-bag method).
The second major trend is the desire to `import’ every conceivable ingredient. This was started by expat chefs who wanted to use the ingredients they found back home, but it soon became a snob thing. I remember hearing an expat chef at The Imperial’s Italian restaurant (in New Delhi) brag to me, a decade or so ago, how he imported everything “including the salt on your table”.
Both trends are at odds with current fashions in international kitchens. And last fortnight, eating our way through Monaco, we tried to work out what French chefs were focusing on.
The French were the nation most affected by the cooking revolution of a decade or so ago. The molecular gastronomists were challenging traditional French techniques, and the cult of foraging, popularised by such places as Noma, was a slap in the face of French agriculture.
Great ingredients were not carefully nurtured but were found wild on the beach or in the woods, said the foraging chefs.
Some French chefs coped with the technological revolution by using it for their own purpose.
While Pierre Gagnaire’s food for example, is clever and scientifically assisted, others began to throw in foam as a way of keeping up with the Spaniards. But till the molecular trend receded a few years ago, the French always struck me as being on the defensive. Their escape route was via Japan.
French chefs kept bragging about their use of Japanese techniques and ingredients as a way of showing that they were modernizing their traditional cuisine. But frankly, very few of them understood spices (I can’t think of a single notable French chef who can use Indian spices well) or any Asian flavors.
Many people regard Paris as the place to check out current trends in French cuisine but I’m partial to Monte Carlo. Not only is it far smaller than Paris, it probably has more Michelin stars per square mile than most French cities. (Though, of course, Monaco is not France. It is a principality, with its own prince and government that is protected by France.)
Monte Carlo, Monaco’s only major city, has the usual international restaurants (Buddha Bar, Nobu, Cipriani, etc.) but it derives its culinary clout from two of the world’s greatest chefs.
Jöel Robuchon runs an informal restaurant here (two Michelin stars) and in keeping with French fashion, a Japanese restaurant (one star and it really is very good.) The heavyweight of the Riviera (which Monaco is a part of), is, of course, Alain Ducasse, whose Le Louis XV restaurant is often regarded as the world’s best by traditional French critics (i.e. the guys who don’t like `science’ and `foraging’ techniques) and is certainly the nerve centre of the Ducasse empire, which includes other three-star restaurants in London and Paris, as well as another two-star place in Paris (at the Plaza Athenee – it used to have three stars too). Le Louis XV is where Ducasse tries out new dishes and the trends for all of French cuisine are set.
Monte Carlo also has other Michelin-starred restaurants. One of the most famous is Le Vistamar at the Hermitage Hotel, which does slightly formal French food. There’s the more relaxed Blue Bay, which bears the signature of Marcel Ravin, its Caribbean-born chef, and there’s Elsa with the Venetian chef, Paolo Sari, which only serves organic food and wine.
Having tried them all, here are some of the trends I noticed.
Local ingredients are in. Chefs now frown at the idea of importing meat or vegetables. At Ducasse, they made a great show of emphasizing how everything was local. The fresh asparagus came from a short distance away and the guinea fowl was from Landes (not quite the South of France, but not far either).
At Elsa, they went even further. An outstandingly silky carpaccio of pink prawns was sourced from deep in the sea near San Remo (the chef is Italian) but everything else was sourced from within 200 miles.
A first course of fresh vegetables with olive oil and salt came from even nearer: the garden outside the dining room. There was much less red meat on the menus than before. Ducasse did his tasting menu without a single meat dish. Instead, you could sense the influence of Alain Passard in the use of vegetables. Every chef offered a raw vegetable course. And sometimes, they didn’t bother to do much to the vegetables: a purée of peas at the base perhaps, or a slice of black truffle was enough. The vegetables were the stars of the show and every waiter could name the farmer who had grown each vegetable.
If the non-vegetarian ingredients were good, the chefs did not bother to fuss around with them. At Vistamar, chef Joël Garault took the Italian pink shrimp (a trendy ingredient these days!), steamed it and served it whole with fennel and a slice of black truffle.
‘Less is more’ is very much the slogan at French kitchens these days. A great chef is not one who cooks classic dishes but one who thinks of unusual ideas and makes them work. For instance, Ducasse is clearly in love with fruit and citrus flavors these days. But he does not depend on banana foams or freeze-dried kumquats. He finds ways of using these flavors imaginatively.
I had never believed that asparagus and lemon were a natural pairing. But Ducasse took two huge green asparagus, steamed them and served them with confit lemon. It was the simplest of dishes and it worked brilliantly.
For the amuse-bouche, he went a step further. Cubes of fish were marinated in herbs and placed on hot stones. A waiter poured lemon-flavored water on the stones and covered the dish for a few seconds. When he removed the cloche, the fish were perfectly cooked – the water had turned into steam when it touched the stones and done the cooking. The lightly-cooked fish had a delicate citrus tang to them.
No matter how great a chef is, a younger man can always improve on his dish. Ducasse’s signature dessert is his version of the classic Rum Baba. But at Blue Bay, Marcel Ravin took the Ducasse version as a mere starting point, adding tropical fruit and spices before finishing off the dish with rum from his native Martinique. In the Ducasse version (which offers a choice of vintage Caribbean rums), the rum hinted at flavors and possibilities. Ravin took the dish to its logical conclusion.
Chefs plan for allergies. It is not enough to ask people what they are allergic to. You would expect Robuchon and Ducasse to offer gluten-free bread (which they did – and very good it was too) but at Elsa, the chef sent out a plate of six different gluten-free crackers and breads, using gluten-free wheat flour, as well as rice and potato flour.
At the top end of the business, you must customize. At Ducasse, they cut the bread from a loaf at a counter in front of you and then put it in the basket. The butter was scooped out of a golden mountain of the creamiest butter imaginable and put on a plate for each table. Each guest got a little packet of cartoony cards at the end of the meal. The cards corresponded to each dish consumed. And they printed out a separate card for each table with the wines consumed.
Needless to say, all this created a great sense of occasion. There was virtually no molecular gastronomy (maybe the odd foam, perhaps) at any of these places. The emphasis was solely on flavors. Ravin introduced spices from the Caribbean that subtly transformed French dishes. And Ducasse served his mixture of shellfish as a broth made with chickpeas!
I didn’t have one dud meal. And the lessons I took back were the classic ones: know your ingredients; source them carefully and locally; don’t muck around with them; and remember it’s not about science – it’s about simple but subtle flavors.