The chefs from Lycee Hotelier Nicolas Appert are in India to reintroduce classic French luxury styled for contemporary audiences
Supercilious waiters. Intimidating menus and wine lists. Restaurants rustling with silk and tinkling with crystal. To the world, French food was always more than just a genre of cuisine. It's a lifestyle to aspire to: chic, glossy and plush.
Today, the world is a lot more competitive. The best restaurants come from unexpected places. Design triumphs over luxury. Local produce over expensive exotica. Minimalism over ostentation.
Noma, from Copenhagen, is set in a warehouse and prides itself on making foraging popular. El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, specialises in ‘emotional cuisine' using ingredients in ways that trigger childhood memories. Alinea in Chicago, U.S., brings contemporary theatre to the dining table, with test tubes and cylinders.
Yet, France is still an important player in the culinary world.
For starters, most chefs are trained in French techniques before they move on to their specialisations. In India too, culinary schools insist students get a grounding in French cooking. The most popular foodie reference book, for amateur and professionals, is still the Larousse Gastronomique, (encyclopaedia of gastronomy, published as far back as 1938). And Le Cordon Bleu's, considered the ‘guardian of French culinary technique', culinary programmes are, arguably, the best known in the world.
This week was all about French National Day, celebrated on July 14. In Chennai, appropriately enough they're being organised by Jean-François Lesage from The House of Lesage. Sumptuous fashion, after all, is so essentially French. Which is how I find myself nibbling on foie gras at The Vivanta by Taj-Connemara, like a modern day Marie Antoinette. The foie gras is smooth, buttery, hedonistic. It's paired with a chilled white wine that tastes of honey, fields of flowers and summer rain.
The chefs from Lycee Hotelier Nicolas Appert who are in India to showcase their traditional cooking, reintroduce classic French luxury styled for contemporary audiences. The school, a landmark for hospitality and catering technology in set in Nantes, Pays de La Loire. Their contemporary take on tradition results in food that's less ponderous, though it retains that essential style and brazen excessiveness that makes French cooking so distinctive. Pan-fried duck foie gras seasoned with cardamom and served with baked apple, ginger bread and a cider vinegar sauce. Sweet and sour breast of chicken baked with green lemon cashew nuts. Apple sponge cake served with salted butter and caramel sauce.
As the chefs pose in the kitchen for our photographer, Maitre'D Laurent Denele talks of how television shows such as ‘Master Chef' are making cooking more popular than ever before. He says they get more than 1200 applications a year, from which they can take just 200. Students join when they are as young as 15 years old. Though he says, they find out soon enough that the glossy, glamorous kitchens on television are very different from reality. “When we watch these kitchens on TV we laugh. In reality this is a very difficult, demanding job.”
Discussing how ‘food is culture' in France, he says that cooking in the country has gradually changed over the last 30 years, influenced by modern fashion as well as from popular cuisines such as Japanese, Chinese and Indian.
Chef Gilles Feougier agrees. In typical chef fashion, he's cooked in kitchens all over the world, from Africa to Russia before returning home to teach at Lycee Hotelier Nicolas Appert. Discussing how competitive food has become, he says French cooks are now working on finding a balance that will keep both the staunch traditionalists happy without compromising on relevance.
“Competition is a good thing,” he states. “From the Japanese, for example, we learn how to make food that is beautifully constructed, yet simple. Simplicity is the hardest thing to do.”
However, he says, despite chefs borrowing ideas and techniques from all over the world, food will always be rooted in the country it comes from. “I will always cook like a French guy. My taste is French, my cooking is French… Take chicken, pasta and identical spices. Give it to an Indian chef and a French chef. You will get two completely different meals. Culture affects not just how we eat, but also how we cook.”
IN CHENNAI The French Food festival is on till July 17 at Verandah, The Vivanta by Taj-Connemara. Rs. 1,500 plus tax per person. Call 66000000 for reservations.