Gastronomy is an essential component of French culture, history and society, so much so that it was declared an “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO in 2010. French cuisine is officially amongst humanity’s most cherished cultural treasures.
During the French Revolution, aristocrats fled from France leaving their chefs jobless and with the gem of an idea to open restaurants, many of them in Paris, so that they could earn money – a hugely popular move. The chefs of France set the tone for the rest of the world with their innovative and classic cooking and their legacy is evident to this day, hardly a chef in the world doesn’t refer to Escoffier without a reverent tone.
Peter Jones, The Good Life France’s foodie reporter went to Paris to hobnob with the city’s VIP chefs of the 21st century and came away with stars in his eyes…
Top Chefs in Paris France
Two things I am happy to own up to, one is that I am a confirmed foodie and the second is that I am an unashamed name dropper.
I have been lucky enough to spend time chatting over several glasses of wine with 3 Michelin-starred chef Marco Pierre White who lectured me that the basis of all good food is classic French cuisine and that the godfather of all great chefs, not just French, is Auguste Escoffier.
So, an invite to attend a reception at the Hotel De Ville in the city where Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo presented medals to the great chefs of Paris, was certainly something to cherish. There are 84 Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris and ALL of their chefs were at the Hotel de Ville in January 2016 for the presentation. One by one, they took their place on the stage for the ceremony and then, escorted by a line of waiters bearing glasses filled with Champagne, they marched off again. It was only then I realised who was there – Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire, Yannick Alleno, Frederic Anton, Helene Darroze and many other well-known names brushed past me.
Each chef then presented samples of their craft and a chance to meet up. I switched back to my role of international food writer for The Good Life France and sat down with for a chat with Alain Ducasse (a career total of 19 Stars).
At his restaurant at the Hotel Plaza Athénée he has made the very brave move of taking meat and poultry off the menu saying “I am convinced that the time has come to give an interpretation of haute cuisine to fish, vegetables and cereal. In my opinion, this is not a constraint. It is a world of new flavours. There is an absolute necessity to go towards a better way of eating, in harmony with nature; healthier and more environmentally friendly.”
Chef Ducasse has not gone as far as to declare his restaurant vegetarian – fish, seafood and some meat will still be served – but he has got what he calls “naturalité” (naturalness) and goes on “the planet has increasingly rare resources so we have to consume more ethically, more fairly.” He finishes by reaffirming that the basic dishes would focus on “fish, cereal and vegetables presented in an exceptional way.” I figured I would find out later that night as I was booked to eat at his famous restaurant.
Like a hostess in a London nightclub I flitted round the tables talking to chefs and spent time in a deep and philosophical conversation with the legend that is Pierre Gagnaire. We talked jazz – he is very keen on his music – before we moved on to his life as a chef from his early days in Saint- Étienne, near Lyon, to the world wide empire he commands today.
“Very early on I recognised that I lacked an understanding of cooking’s raw material. I needed to discover this material, look at it, eat and touch it, so that I could build up my personal sensory world and construct my own personal larder.
Over time as I absorbed all this, the results became increasingly harmonious and I was able to take produce into a completely new world, amazing myself by the infinite variety of flavours that were there to be revealed. My aim is to reveal in my cuisine both emotion and also intelligence. We all need poetry, tenderness and also things well done.
Painting fascinates me and I always let myself go wherever it takes me. The painter takes his own personal language and uses that to express things which seemed inexpressible. He offers something to look at and the same time something to share. Personally I like this idea of sharing. I need to put some poetry in my plates. The presentation of a dish teaches me new rules of harmony and through this exercise, I find a form of peace. I always have to position my cuisine visually. In this I am guided by my instinct, which helps me perceive qualities and flaws and from time to time, reveals new flavours to me. The composition of a dish must always be well assembled, easy to understand but also individual. I look both to be moved by the dish and also to give pleasure for others. For me, it is a “human” cuisine which requires humility from both the chef and the person who is to taste the dish.”
This is all a bit too much for a poor boy from England and I grab a quick glass of Champagne, while listening to 3 Star Frederic Anton (who is also a judge on French TV’s version of Master Chef) cracking jokes.
Anne Sophie Pic, one of the few females to achieve 3 Michelin Stars talks about the humble fruit that is rhubarb:
“I love working with rhubarb, the acidity offers almost endless creative opportunities. I want a dessert that is fresh and tasty, vegetable and floral, crisp and soft and that plays on the acidity and bitterness, two flavours that are dear to me”.
I am convinced she is fascinated by my stories of the golden triangle in the north of England where rhubarb is grown. Don’t be too surprised if “Rhubarbe de Wakefield “appears on her menus before too long.
I met many of my culinary heroes and ate so much that I had to sit down and recharge my batteries, after all dinner with Alain Ducasse beckoned…