“Ah, those vegetable puffs!” exclaims Mickael Besse, in mock despair. An accomplished French chef with a passion for contemporary, minimalistic, stylish food, Besse landed in Chennai as a consultant for Sathyam. Which is how he met the ubiquitous, and undeniably mighty, ‘veg puff'.
Although Sathyam had emerged from the chrysalis of a stodgy old-fashioned theatre, rife with wobbly chairs and soggy potato chips, into a smart new-age stage for film, its clientele still clung to their puffs with a passion. “So, the first thing I did was work on re-inventing it,” says Besse, discussing hours of kitchen experiments.
Today, the popular puff consists of delicately-spiced vegetables wrapped in warm savoury mille-feuille, so every bite yields a shower of flaky pastry.
The veg puff could be Besse's mascot. It's a great example of how he's lured customers to experiment, despite being in a setting that would ordinarily engender solely comfort food and traditional pairings. After all, a movie seems to go best with popcorn and puffs. Single-origin chocolate laced with cinnamon seems as out of place as Queenie Dhody in Koyambedu market. Yet, Besse's made it work.
“I introduce a new flavour, new style — but one that's not too different,” he says. “Something close to what people like.” Take the doughnuts. “There are doughnuts everywhere — why do people like the ones at Sathyam so much? Because, the shape is different. Because, it has a creamy centre with two fillings — vanilla and chocolate.”
His philosophy extends to Ecstasy, the city's most grown up dessert boutique. “Look at this space,” he says, waving his arms to display the interiors, which are tranquil yet cutting-edge chic. “This is me.”
“I want to use traditional food, but in a new form. I'm a contemporary designer,” he states, as a waiter brings desserts, set like rare jewels, in a tray. There's a Matcha Éclair, with emerald green tea and chocolate cream set against golden choux pastry. Smith, an interplay of the tart Granny Smith apple with sweet pine cream and buttery Brittany shortbread. And, Strawberry Consommé, consisting of fresh strawberry, strawberry fruit paste and crisp mint leaves teamed with delicate basil ice cream.
Besse now runs a ‘Hospitality Development Consultancy' in France, which takes him to restaurants around the world. He also visits Chennai at regular intervals to work on Sathyam's food. As a result, he's constantly uncovering new flavours and ideas. “For me, it's not about where the restaurant is. It's about taking the best of everything from everywhere and trying to integrate it.”
Using great raw material is just the beginning. “You need to really understand the material. It's not just a combination of a lot of flavour that gives you the right taste. It's about blending a few, right ingredients. It's about how much you use. A balance. Look at the flavour. How it will melt in the mouth. Think about what you want to taste first.” The sour taste of a Granny Smith? The fragrance of cinnamon? The crunch of brown sugar?
His fresh, fruity new menu for Ecstasy incorporates these ideas, resulting in a medley of stunning, intricately built and sophisticated desserts. “It's boring to eat a cake and get the same texture throughout. Cake is good — but I also want it to be surprising. This is what I like. This is what I want to translate.”