Monday, May 28, 2007

School for chefs

On Saturday afternoon, by chance, I came upon one of the most fascinating TV programs I've ever seen in the domain of high-class cooking. It was the fifth and final episode of a cooking competition, L'Ecole des Chefs (the school for chefs), that has been going on at a weekly rhythm for the last month. There's a good French-language website about the competition [click here to display this website], which includes typical video extracts.

The general idea is that seven promising young apprentices were selected from several French écoles hôtelières [culinary colleges] and invited to participate in an extraordinary month-long training experience, guided by four distinguished chefs:

Alain Dutournier of the Carré des Feuillants (Paris)
Yannick Alleno of the Hôtel Meurice (Paris)
Alain Llorca of the Moulin de Mougins (Alpes-Maritimes)
Régis Marcon of the Clos des Cîmes (Haute Loire)

In yesterday's episode, there were four finalists, two males and two females. At the start of the final trial, each contestant received an assortment of splendid foodstuffs, to be used in the preparation of two dishes. The first dish was to be based upon Mediterranean rock lobsters (the equivalent of Australian crayfish), and the second on roast lamb cutlets. Each of the four finalists worked in association with one of the four above-mentioned chefs, who acted as a coach, but without actually participating in the manual operations of the food preparation and cooking. All phases of the activities were precisely timed, and we TV spectators were treated to a lengthy presentation of the work of each of the four finalists, followed by the comments of the jury members, another group of four distinguished chefs:

Joël Robuchon
Thierry Marx
Marc Veyrat
Marc Haeberlin

The resulting TV program was highly informative and didactic, since we were invited into the hectic kitchen environment of the dynamic young culinary creators and their experienced coaches. Apart from the immense imagination and practical competence of the apprentice chefs, I was impressed by their ability to work calmly and efficiently under the huge pressure of the competition. Not only did they have to think and act rapidly, but they had to deal with the constant advice and criticism of their respective coaches, while knowing all the time that they were being filmed and, above all, that they would be serving the outcome of their cooking to four of the world's most famous chefs.

In the world of high-class cooking, it is not by chance that the French word for a master of cooking is chef, which simply means "chief". He/she rules over the kitchen in a style that appears to be almost tyrannical at times, crying out orders to his/her subordinates that must be obeyed instantly, exactly as the chef has commanded. The atmosphere is almost military. There is no time for discussion, and no place for disobedience. The only acceptable reply to an order is "Oui, chef!" Meanwhile, the chef has his/her eye on everything that is happening in the kitchen, including the possibility that one of the electric ovens might suddenly break down.

There were all kinds of tiny but fascinating details, such as the way in which these culinary artists use their bare fingers, all the time, to pick up hot pieces of food in pans, to turn them over while they are being cooked. When performed by a great chef, even the way of tipping a saucepan with one hand and using a spoon in the other hand to splash buttery juice rapidly and regularly over the roasting lamb becomes an artistic gesture. The terminology used in rapid discussions between professionals is precise and apparently universal. Plausible names for newly-invented dishes were generally invented spontaneously during a ten-second conversation between the apprentice and the coach, often while they were walking from the kitchen to the jury's dining table. Once there, the apprentice had to describe in a few brief remarks the specificity of his creation, just as if he were conversing with diners in a top-class restaurant, and he had to remember to wish them "Bon appetit!" Several times, the members of the jury complimented the apprentices on the simple fact that they had mastered the technique of serving up their dishes hot, straight out of the oven. This did not prevent the apprentice chefs from devoting a lot of last-minute attention to the purely aesthetic fashion in which the food and sauce were laid out the plates. Funnily, while watching this interesting program, I often had the impression that it was some kind of a sporting event, involving highly-trained young athletes.

The self-assurance of the fourth contestant, whose first name was Hugo, worried me as soon as I saw his initial discussion with his coach, Régis Marcon. The two of them appear to be smiling but determined individuals, used to making up their own minds, and I was afraid that a conflict might erupt in front of the TV cameras. Hugo had decided spontaneously that he would use vanilla to flavor the sauce for the green vegetables accompanying his roast lobster. Well, Marcon disagreed firmly but politely, warning his apprentice that this would give rise to an excessively "heavy-flavored" sauce. Hugo's immediate reaction: "Chef, I'll prepare my vanilla sauce, and then you'll taste it. If you like it, I'll use it. If not, I won't." Later, in real time, we saw Régis Marcon sticking his finger in Hugo's vanilla sauce, tasting it and flashing an expression of amazed delight. Hugo had just invented a new concept of serving up lobster!

Hugo was the winner. The prize: he will spend the next six months touring the planet, working in each of Joël Robuchon's restaurants. There is little doubt that, on Saturday's TV, we witnessed the birth of a future great chef.

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