The challenging part of whipping up French cuisine in Hyderabad lies in the vegetarian choices, says chef Mathonneau Stéphane
“I was fighting with lobsters in the kitchen,” says chef Mathonneau Stéphane as he arrives for the interview. He has his hands full, planning two special dinners in the city as part of the ongoing Bonjour India – Festival of France. Stéphane has worked in Switzerland and England before getting a taste of India in the last one month. “In the cities I am touring as part of Bonjour India, I wanted to use as many local ingredients as possible,” he says.
Meticulous planning went into selection of dishes for each city. He says he kept in mind the need to appeal to the local palette but didn’t want to create fusion food. “French cuisine is known for its use of cream, butter and more butter,” he laughs. “There’s only a hint of spices. The classic French lentil soup is different from the lentil soup you get in India. The lentils are not overcooked and mashed but are retained whole and served with a touch of cream.”
The challenging aspect of designing the menus for two dinners, at Taj Krishna and Taj Falaknuma Palace, he says, is the vegetarian food.
“In France, vegetable soups are made using chicken stock. Our cuisine is so much about meat that I had to re-invent some of the classic recipes with vegetarian ingredients,” he says.
So while there’s Soft poached sole filet with lemon and orange served with butter sauce, there’s also Wild mushrooms and truffle ravioles with smoked milk.
Limited, artistic servings on a plate characterise French preparations. Stéphane prefers to have very few decorations on the plate: “Our palettes are not designed to appreciate more than three to four flavours at a time. My preparations do not have more than three colours and three flavours on a plate. In a five-course meal, customers get to taste a number of flavours anyway. Overcrowding one dish with too many flavours will defeat the purpose,” he says.
For the last 15 years, Stéphane has been working and updating his skills in traditional and modern French cuisine, working in France and French bistros in London. He also served as a pastry chef in Switzerland.
“I wanted to learn every aspect of French cuisine, from handling meats to doing pastries with precision,” he says.
Being a pastry chef brings in a sense of disciple, he feels. “You can experiment with meats. In pastry, you have to adhere to the recipe. If a dish calls for 100gm of sugar, you cannot do it with 50 or 150gm,” he says. Chocolate mousse with chilli, served with poached strawberries, is one his specialties in the pastry division. “This variation of chocolate mousse has grown in popularity in France in the last five to 10 years. The chilli we use is not as powerful as the chillies in India,” he says.
Something that’s always puzzled him is the penetration of Italian cuisine in India as opposed to French.
Trying to understand the reasons, he says, “It’s perhaps because Italian food is easy to prepare. You go home after a long day at work and can quickly toss in a few tomatoes, basil leaves, garlic and cheese and make delicious pasta. French recipes call require time and planning. But again, only pizzas, pastas and risottos have made inroads here. There’s so much more to Italian cuisine.”
Stéphane feels there’s more acceptance for French cuisine today thanks to well-travelled global citizens.