A TOUCHE OF FRANCE: France’s masterpiece of intangible heritage goes global: French master chefs abroad

France’s masterpiece of intangible heritage goes global: French master chefs abroad
by I . Spaak, France

As railway lines spread across Europe during the second half of the 19th century and the vacationing aristocracy flocked to the great hotels, Frenchman Auguste Escoffier was plotting a culinary upheaval. This “king of chefs and chef to kings” codified haute cuisine, adapted recipes to international standards, invented new ones, and revolutionized gastronomy by organizing his kitchens in “brigades,” each person being allotted a specific task in the preparation of a dish. Where once, for example, a single cook took 15 or more minutes to prepare eggs Meyerbeer, an Escoffier brigade slashed the time needed, as the entrée preparer cooked the eggs, the roast chef grilled the kidney, and the sauce cook prepared the truffle sauce. Escoffier brought French gastronomy to the world stage and today’s luminaries like Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Ducasse, and Guy Savoy are following in his footsteps by investing overseas and putting an international face on French cuisine. The attractions of spreading the culinary word is such that French chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud has yet to open a restaurant in France, but is doing very nicely thank you in Palm Beach, Beijing, Vancouver, and London, not to mention Manhattan where his eponymous restaurant Daniel was in 2010 elevated to the culinary pantheon by a three-star rating (the highest possible) in the Michelin Guide. With the excellence of its products, its culinary skills and know-how, its art of preparing and presenting food, gastronomy is part of France’s cultural influence. The culinary genius of France received its official imprimatur in November 2010 when UNESCO added the gastronomic meal of the French to its list of Masterpieces of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Medicographia. 2011;33:468-475 (see French abstract on page 475

When Paul Bocuse arrived in Japan in 1970 to teach French cookery, he was delighted to see that posters announcing his arrival in the Land of the Rising Sun highlighted his regional background. “You could read that I was coming to demonstrate cuisine from Lyon and from France. But Lyon first and foremost.” With an unerring sense of what matters, Bocuse’s Japanese hosts had intuited the meat and potatoes, so to speak, of French cuisine: a subtle art which draws upon local specialties and produce, not to mention skills, to raise it to the level of a national pride.

Soon after the invention of the restaurant, in Paris at the end of the Ancien Régime (Old Regime: from the end of the Renaissance to the French Revolution in the late 18th century), Grimod de la Reynière, Carême, and Brillat-Savarin founded gastron- omy by elaborating a wholly new discourse on the pleasures of the table. By the 1880s and 1890s, with the emergence of the great hotels in Europe and America, many French cooks, including Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935), France’s preeminent chef who was deploying his talents in London, at the Savoy and then the Carlton, codified an international haute cuisine and assimilated products and methods from the cooking traditions of other countries. Writings proliferated asserting the indubitable superiority of France’s gastronomy, which became a byword for the French and their way of life.

George Auguste Escoffier
“King of
Chefs and Chef to Kings,”
France’s most celebrated
chef in the early 20th
century. Photo dated 1920.

© akg-images.

Recent decades have seen a renewal of country cooking and increasing diversification of sources and outlooks, but France’s role as undisputed leader is no longer assured. Alain Ducasse, Joël Robuchon, and other French culinary stars have even been reproached for deserting their kitchens to don the suits of company chairmen, of being haughty, amateurish, of doing little but jet around the world from one of their restaurants to another. Some faultfinders have even dared take a swipe at national treasure Paul Bocuse, or Monsieur Paul as he has long been known, just as yesteryear others showered praise upon Escoffier only later to pan him.

And to cap it all, Restaurant magazine’s 2011 World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards, based on a poll of international chefs, restaurateurs, gourmands, and critics, include but one French eatery in the top ten (at number 9, Le Chateaubriand in Paris). Out ahead are Denmark at number one, three Spanish restaurants, Italy, the UK, the USA, and Brazil. But France does have 8 in the top 50, more than any other country (Italy and US come in second with 6 each; Spain has 5, the UK 4). It’s true that French chefs run three of the five three-star restaurants in the Michelin New York 2011, and number 11 on the list is the Manhattan restaurant Daniel which, although listed under the US, is actually the flagship restaurant of Frenchman Daniel Boulud. Joël Robuchon is at number 14, Pierre Gagnaire 16, Michel Troisgros 44, and Alain Ducasse at 45 is down four from 2010.

Conclave of French chefs. From left to right, seated: Paul Bocuse, Daniel Boulud, and US, but francophile Thomas Keller, at the 2009
“Bocuse d’Or” international cooking competition.

© Owen Franken/Corbis.

A simple dish done to perfection: Joël Robuchon holding a potato,
main ingredient of his famed and unequalled mashed potatoes,
at the Restaurant Jamin in Paris in 1993.

© Owen Franken/Corbis.

France’s self-esteem may have taken a knock, but all is not lost. On 16 November 2010, UNESCO added the gastronomic meal of the French to its list of Masterpieces of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity. « For France cuisine is not simply the product of a long historical tradition, but also one of the most accomplished expressions of the excellence of its products, of the quality of its culinary know-how, of its cultural influence, » noted the French Prime Minister. A heritage, then, that has its followers and whose chefs are still able to rustle up a decent meal while running a restaurant which, in Pierre Gagnaire’s view, “faces tomorrow but is respectful of yesterday.”

In the words of UNESCO: “The gastronomic meal emphasizes togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between human beings and the products of nature. Important elements include the careful selection of dishes from a constantly growing repertoire of recipes; the purchase of good, preferably local products whose flavors go well together; the pairing of food with wine; the setting of a beautiful table; and specific actions during consumption, such as smelling and tasting items at the table. […] The gastronomic meal draws circles of family and friends closer together and, more generally, strengthens social ties.”

Foie gras hamburger in New York

To celebrate the 60th birthday of his best friend, Daniel Boulud spent 24 hours flying to New Zealand, where he stayed for just 36 hours. Grilled langoustines, roast leg of lamb, great wines, an exquisite repast well worth the trip. But how can one imagine that the simplicity of these New Zealand spreads, hearty and delicious though they were, could be a red-letter day among the gastronomic memories of the French culinary maestro? Was this mere whimsy, a desire to return to simpler fare of someone who has been delighting the taste buds of New Yorkers for two decades with dishes of extreme sophistication? Had Boulud decided to renounce teamwork, those myriad acts of numerous creators of a single dish advocated by Auguste Escoffier, high priest of French cuisine at the end of the 19th century? Not a bit of it. For if New York’s swells hasten to Boulud’s three-star Manhattan establishment Daniel, it is precisely because its creator has succeeded in producing a blend of French manners and decorum, country cooking, and appreciation of fine produce that tickles the palates of the most discerning of his adopted countrymen and women. The proof is in the pudding: vanilla slow-cooked rhubarb with yogurt mousse, caramelized phyllo, and acacia honey ice cream. Not to mention the main course: grilled Alaskan king salmon with chanterelle, wilted spinach, spring garlic, and green peppercorn sauce.

A farmer’s son, Boulud was born in 1955 in Saint-Pierre-de- Chandieu in east-central France near Lyon, which is often seen as the French capital of gastronomy. He left home at 14 to take an apprenticeship in catering, spent time working in Georges Blanc’s three-star restaurant at Vonnas, studied in Mougins with Michel Vergé who inculcated in him the spirit of adventure, worked briefly for Michel Guérard, left for Denmark, and then flew to Washington to run the kitchens of the European Commission’s representative in the United States. After which there was no stopping him. New York City, that lodestone for so many, beckoned. He opened the Polo Lounge at The Westbury Hotel, then Le Régence at the Hotel Plaza Athénée, before in 1986 taking up the position of Executive Chef at Le Cirque, a favorite with Jackie Kennedy and the Duchess of York. In 1993, he opened on Manhattan’s Upper Eastside his own restaurant Daniel, which was soon lauded by the critics. He relocated Daniel in 1997 to premises at Park Avenue and 65th Street recently vacated by Le Cirque, and relaunched the original Daniel as the Café Boulud, aimed at a more informal clientele. In 2001 at Manhattan’s “midtown crossroads of fashion and theater,” Boulud opened the db Bistro Moderne for casual dining. Some might balk at 32 dollars a throw for a burger, but then it’s sirloin and braised short ribs plus black truffles and foie gras on a Parmesan bun. And anyway Boulud makes light of such demurral by reminding skeptics that his skills are rooted in the culinary arts of the French tradition. Meanwhile, he is opening restaurants around the world, always observing the same principle: dare to use regional traditions to enrich French-style gastronomy, the internationalized version, with a menu adapted to local tastes, served in a setting with an elegant interior design. At the five-star JW Marriott Marquis in Downtown Miami, for example, with its whitewashed oak floors and paneling, steel gray canvas and leather upholstery, geometric patterned ceiling, and street-level terrace overlooking the Miami River, there is duo of beef, mustard crusted ribeye, braised short rib, sweet garlic pommes puree, asparagus, and fava beans. In Palm Beach, try herb-scented halibut, foraged spring vegetables, fiddlehead ferns, miners lettuce, morels, ramps, arbequina olive oil emulsion. And the Bar Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in Kensington, London, offers black sea bream, sautéed baby gem lettuce, brown shrimp, lemon confit, and sourdough croutons. In Beijing, at the manor house once home to the United States Embassy, near Tiananmen Square, now the Maison Boulud, the décor is of pale sculpted pine wood trim, richly textured velvet upholstery, parquet floors in dark walnut, others in checkerboard black and white, all very 18th century, and the focal point a mural inspired by the fountains of Versailles. On the menu: lobster, kataifi crusted with brussel sprouts marmalade, honshimeji mushrooms, chestnuts, walnuts, and sherry wine. And Boulud opened his most recent establishment, the db Bistrot Moderne, in Singapore in the fall of 2010 in the luxury dining and retail atrium of the Marina Bay Sands Resort.

violet macaroons

by Dominique
Ansel, Executive
Pastry Chef
at Restaurant
Daniel in
New York City.

Daniel Boulud

at Café Boulud
in Manhattan,
New York.

© Thaddeus

Chef Daniel Boulud working in the kitchen at the Lumière Restaurant in Vancouver,
Canada, in 2008.

© Christopher Morris/Corbis.

As the praise rang out and Daniel in Manhattan received a third Michelin Guide star in 2010, Daniel Boulud hit on the concept of a Bar and Lounge, a more laid-back establishment adjoining Daniel. Not cheaper, but more flexible, with no slackening of the rituals of service. Between Madison Avenue and Park Avenue, the casually elegant Bar and Lounge attracts a literary lunchtime crowd from local publishing houses, as well as local residents—Woody Allen and Michael Douglas among others—for dinner, late-night desserts, or cocktails like a white cosmopolitan (vodka, St. Germain elderflower liquor, lime juice, white cranberry juice), a summer in Paris (raspberries, vodka, lychees), and strawberry and pearls (strawberry margarita, Cointreau, strawberry pearls).

Cuisine as a painting

When Paul Bocuse discovered that his Japanese students had memorized his recipes “to within a gram”, he declared “Gentlemen, we’ll improvise.” “That I think was what most shocked them. But they learned that French cuisine is an improvisation and not a science to be followed to the letter. Cooking is like a painting: it is created in the here and now, by an artist drawing on his experience and taste.”

At this time Bocuse was the face of haute cuisine outside France and, together with his peers—Raymond Oliver, Michel Guérard, Alain Senderens, Roger Vergé—he was blowing a breath of fresh air into the traditional French kitchen, with its (over)elaborate and rich recipes handed down year after year. With menus adapted to the culinary habits of the four corners of the planet, Daniel Boulud has learned this lesson. Improvisation and a light touch are his watchwords. Plus discipline and order. At Boulud’s Daniel, in the kitchen and restaurant, the culinary score is interpreted with the same rigor, each playing his or her part as advocated by Auguste Escoffier

Chef Paul Bocuse tasting his own brand of cognac.

© akg-images/ RIA Nowosti.

One of Escoffier’s legendary “kitchen brigades” at the Hôtel Majestic in Nice, in 1910.

Collection Dupondt/akg-images.

“King of chefs and chef to kings,” Escoffier introduced French haute cuisine to the world at the time of the boom in the great hotels that accompanied the new vogue in rail travel. The aristocracy came out from behind the closed doors of their stately homes to dine in high-class establishments, women with men. The personalized service demanded organization, planning, managing, streamlining. To optimize the kitchens, Escoffier set up a system of “brigades” to rationalize the multifarious tasks, with several people preparing different parts of the meal. Escoffier insisted upon spotlessness and hygiene in the kitchens and among the staff, along with silence and speed.

In his 1903 Le Guide Culinaire Escoffier favored light stocks over the rich sauces of tradition, to create garnishes and sauces that complement rather than drown the subtle flavors of dishes. He revamped country recipes according to the canons of haute cuisine, replacing basic fare by costly ingredients. And he devised unusual combinations named for well-known figures who dined at his table.

One such was Peach Melba (peaches and raspberry sauce accompanying vanilla ice cream) at the Savoy in London in the 1890s, in honor of the Australian operatic soprano Nellie Melba (1861-1931), whose triumph in Wagner’s Lohengrin was celebrated at a dinner party given by the Duke of Orléans, her then lover.

Another invention attached to the name Escoffier is crêpes Suzette—caramelized sugar and butter, lemon, and flambéed with Grand Marnier—in honor of French actress Suzanne Reichenberg (1853-1924), who worked under the sobriquet Suzette and who in 1897 when playing a maid at the Comédie Française served crêpes on stage. There is though a different story of its genesis. Two in fact. The first is that in London at the Savoy, Escoffier served the Prince of Wales with crêpes according to a new recipe which he proposed to dedicate to him. The future Edward VII objected that he was unworthy and suggested instead that the crêpes be named in honor of “this young person who is with me.”

The second story moves the Prince of Wales and Suzette to Monte Carlo in the year 1895, where Henri Charpentier claimed in his autobiography to have made a serendipitous discovery: “It was quite by accident as I worked in front of a chafing dish that the cordials caught fire. I thought it was ruined. The Prince and his friends were waiting. How could I begin all over? I tasted it. It was, I thought, the most delicious medley of sweet flavors I had ever tasted… He asked me the name of that which he had eaten with so much relish. I told him it was to be called Crêpes Princesse […] ‘Will you,’ said His Majesty, ‘change Crêpes Princesse to Crêpes Suzette?’ Thus was born and baptized this confection, one taste of which, I really believe, would reform a cannibal into a civilized gentleman.”

Stamp commemorating “Pêche Melba,” Escoffier’s signature
dessert, created in 1892 at the Savoy Hotel in London, to honor
Australian opera singer Nellie Melba (Melba stands for Melbourne,
her real name was Helen Porter Mitchell).

All rights reserved.

Escoffier, with his rigor and dogma, shifted French gastronomy towards science. “Cuisine, without ceasing to be an art, will become scientific and should submit its formulas, often still too empirical, to a method and a precision that will leave nothing to chance.” Through his practice and publications, Escoffier would go on to impose knowledge of French cuisine internationally. He was a visionary who even then rightly predicted that future gourmets would oversee a simplification of menus.

Another one of Escoffier’s signature desserts: crêpes Suzette,
honoring French actress Suzanne Reichenberg in 1897.

Culinary upheavals and the advent of molecular gastronomy

In the 1960s, up-and-coming chefs rebelled against Escoffier’s orthodoxy. Paul Bocuse, Jean and Pierre Troisgros, Michel Guérard, Roger Vergé, Raymond Oliver spurned excessive complications and instead sought shorter cooking times, used fresh products and garden herbs, seasoned with lemon juice and vinegar, served smaller portions, ditched marinades, drew ideas from the heart of the four great regions of France, favored inventiveness, and employed new cooking techniques, notably microwaving.

But come boom come bust. People complained about meager portions. Paul Bocuse was accused of jet-setting around instead of slaving over a hot stove. Above all the French were reproached for having failed to foresee the coming globalization, the interest in Asian style cooking, the Spanish troublemakers and their molecular gastronomy, the Nordic restaurateurs seeking inspiration in local dishes and reinterpreting them with brio.

Some critics railed against what they saw as a failure to move with the times, foot-dragging, nay-saying of the worst sort. It was, in a word, a French rout. Others though were delighted that France’s celebrity chefs had not cravenly jumped on the bandwagon of what they saw as culinary whim-wham. In Le Figaro Magazine in the autumn of 2009, the food critic François Simon admitted he hadn’t crossed the threshold of Pierre Gagnaire’s Paris restaurant in the rue Balzac for three years, for fear of finding the master in thrall to what he dubbed “molecular defractionation.” It was with infectious happiness that he wrote of his delight on tasting a “casserole of slowcooked chanterelles and cepes embellished with thin-sliced ham (plus crustless white bread and barberries drizzled with cooking juice emulsified with amontillado).” And in keeping with this style were the ramekins of foie gras soup with Malabar pepper, green lentil gnocchi, pink onions, a hint of 50- year-old Balsamic vinegar. After which, what better than milk blended with strawberry tree honey plus fresh hazelnuts, wild purslane, a veil of flowers, and a bull’s horn (small capsicum)?

Love me!

In the pantheon of boldness, Pierre Gagnaire stands supreme. Yet he admits that “For a long time I didn’t like this job of cook. I was born into a background of traditional restaurant owners. It was noisy, rough and ready, the food very ordinary. As the oldest of five children, in my region and for my generation, taking over the farm meant taking over the restaurant.

Restaurant Lapérouse, in Paris.

© akg-images/Archives CDA/Guillot.

I’ve tried since to put my heart and soul into it. Finally I understood that food was a means to move people, to love them, to say to them ‘love me!’ Only very recently have I learned to enjoy eating.”

In his 2010 novel The Prague Cemetery, Umberto Eco invests his main character with a base gluttony on a par with his criminal tendencies. And Eco seizes the opportunity to list Parisian restaurants famous in the mid-19th century: Le Grand Véfour, Lapérouse, La Tour d’Argent, Lucas Carton. “France,” says Eco, “is the country that best constructs the myth of cooking, with all its theoreticians since Brillat-Savarin. It’s a rich, refined cuisine.” In contrast, Italy practices an “excellent poor man’s cooking and one eats well even at the last greasy spoon in Romagna.”

Pierre Gagnaire agrees. “Our cuisine is more polished, more spectacular, chauvinist cooking where the chef grandstands!” And he admits that each dish is for him a risk-taking venture, that each new restaurant he opens is a huge challenge—Sketch and its acid shades in London, Pierre in Hong Kong inspired by a Soulages painting, Twist on the 23rd floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Las Vegas, Reflets in Dubai, and the latest, Pierre Gagnaire in Seoul, its decor fired by the groves of the Château de Versailles.

When three-star chef Guy Savoy was quizzed by a journalist on why he’d opened a restaurant in Las Vegas and how he kept up standards in six restaurants two of which are far from Paris, the owner of the eponymous restaurant in the rue Troyon in Paris had a ready answer: “A restaurant, you’re either there all the time or never. Turning up occasionally is pointless and shows you don’t trust your staff. If you want people to take responsibility, there comes a time when they must feel independent. Those that I send overseas have the requisite professional and above all human qualities. In Vegas or Singapore, they can perfectly well cope when ‘left to themselves.’ And above all members of the overseas teams come here for training. When we open we strengthen our presence on the spot with people from here.” Following Japan’s example, the United States, China, and the Gulf States are now welcoming with open arms French restaurants whose owners vie with each other to woo new customers. These investments are costly, but not always profitable. Take Alain Ducasse: his baptism of fire was almost a complete flop. When he arrived in New York in 2000, the press branded him a “sermonizer” and laid into him for having only one sitting, as in great restaurants in France, rather than the two or three sittings of New York’s finest dining places. Ducasse finally won them over and makes sure that diners know which menu items are “as American as apple pie”: Colorado lamb, Maine lobster, Yukon gold potatoes, farm-raised Berkshire pork, Pennsylvania squab, California sea urchin, Alaskan king crab, shredded Nebraskan beef. In the long term, these “bridgehead” restaurants drum up custom for the original one. As Guy Savoy notes, “the restaurants in Singapore and Vegas bring in customers here. Over the last two years we’ve had people from all over, from Uzbekistan to Djakarta! Cuisine has been evolving constantly, but today it is spreading ever further. Yet I cook the same way now as I did 40 years ago when I was doing trout and omelet at my mother’s. And it was just as good then as it is today!” _