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Pierre Gagnaire Defends French Cuisine

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Funny how the director is English...you wouldn't think he'd have a predjudice for all things French...

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Funny how the director is English...you wouldn't think he'd have a predjudice for all things French...

i don't think a francophobe would have got to his position. he's clearly gone native.

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What evidence do you have that he's "gone native"?

I seem to remember the French outcry when it was announced that Derek Brown, an Engllishman, would be taking the reins of their precious Guide Rouge, do you not?

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Funny how the director is English...you wouldn't think he'd have a predjudice for all  things French...

Actually, that would have been, and was, my first suspicion when I heard he was named director. I'd assume a strong francophilic streak was necessary for consideration for the job. I will also admit that it may be sign that Michelin wants to break out of its insular mode, but I'd then note that looking towards the UK is not the best way to do that. While the frogs and rosbifs still go at each others throats, there's always been a large element of mutual love and fine dining in the UK has traditionally meant French restaurant, if not French chef. Just look at how many Americans credit their introduction to French food and wine, or their knowledge of the same, to books written by British authors.

The Spanish, on the whole, have paid far less attention to France and French food. I'm not saying they've paid no attention. Almost all of the first generation(s) of nueva cocina have close friends among the three star French chefs and the influences are clear. What's also clear is that they don't have the same rigidity of thinking. What's most fortunate and fortuitous and perhaps largely responsible for the present state of professional cooking in Spain, is that the Spanish seem to share a patience, discipline and exactitude in the kitchen that's been missing from American chefs and kitchens and particularly absent in many graduates of American culinary schools where the title of "chef" is assumed upon graduation rather than after years of experience.

Whatever my prejudice against American trained chefs may have been, it's easy to point at Thomas Keller, for example, and others to find American excellence and there's a new generation that's dedicated to thinking about what they're doing and willing to do it the hard way if the results are better. They're cooking to their own standards and raising the bar here. I think cuisine is an international sport these days and the talent will show all over the globe. The focus is on Catalunya and the Pais Vasco right now, but no one with any understanding is counting out Bras, Veyrat, Gagnaire or Ducasse for what they have to say (in the kitchen and on the table, if not in print).

Of great significance to me, in considering where to travel is the regional food available in Spain at a time when food in France has become quite homogenized and continues to remove itself from its own agricultural background. Perversely, it seems, I am headed to Paris with a good andouillette as my goal and yet have booked up the Spanish part of my trip at starred restaurants. Perhaps I'm just confident that the rustic food will still be there next year in Spain, but may disappear in Paris overnight. Perhaps, its just a case of the shoemaker's family going unshod and a general perverse streak in my nature. There's just no accounting for personal taste, is there? The tide will turn again. The French will be better off understanding the message being carried by those who eat in Spain, than they will in arguing against what we're finding, especially when many of them were responsible for directing attention to the new wave in Spain in the first place.

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You can take a breath now, Bux!

:laugh:

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No, seriously, I enjoyed the post, though. It's hard for me to believe that another gastronomic cuisine can rival the top French establishments, so I guess I'll have to make a side-trip to El Bulli and check it all out myself!

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Am I missing something here?
Some users may be vulnerable to charges they have a vested interest, or that their personal tastes lead them to prefer dining in Spain, but I, Robert Brown and possibly paulbrussel, arrived in Spain with prejudices for French food, but now find Spain exciting and satisfying.

Well, on the moment you were writing this, I was enjoying Barcelona food :biggrin:.

Nevertheless, I do fully agree with you, as I have said before, that Spain is sort of ignored by Michelin.

Just to give an impression of my own [very personal!] ratings for the meals I had in the last couple of days [but I will update later on the meals, if you want]:

Comerç 24: 14-14.5/20

Alkimia: 16-16.5/20

Abac*: 16/20

Can Fabes***: 19/20

Espaisucre: 14/20

Gaig*: 16/20

Hisop: 16-16.5/20

Cata 1.81: 13/20.

Nevertheless, I spoke to several of the chefs, and of course the NYT was mentioned, but also the French and Spanish, the traditional Spanish and innovative cuisine. Perhaps to your surprise, most of them are not at all Adrià-followers, but more French orientated. And I did take the NYT article after the chefs talks much more easy. Nowadays there is a big difference in French and Spanish creative restaurants; but the French and Spanish traditional cooking can't be ignored at all. If even the chefs say that French cuisine means much to them.

The one that was the most Adrià (who I admire greatly!), disappointed me the most.

That a restaurant like Alkimia, which for me was one of the most interesting together with Hisop, is not mentioned by Michelin at all, is ridiculous! [Considering that my personal ratings can be compared in general from 16.5 onwards to two Michelin stars...]


Edited by paulbrussel (log)

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Bux has it right in several ways, most so in bringing up the patience, discipline and exactitude of Spanish chefs. I have been much taken with another ingredient of nearly every fine Spanish chef I have been exposed to, which is integrity. I can't recall in what is now the several to many restaurants I have visited in Spain any, unlike in France and even in Italy, that have stinted, taken shortcuts or have tried to shortchange me. I hope that the pleasure and honesty I felt in my recent visit to San Sebastian comes out in what I wrote. I believe that the great French chefs still control the very top of the creative cooking pyramid, but it is a top that is getting smaller by the year. Once you drift away from this, then I believe it is better to be eating in Spain.

One exchange I did not mention in my report of Restaurante Arzak was Juan Mari Arzak telling me that his cooking is Basque- based or inspired. I wish I had had the time to have him elaborate on this, as I perceived his and his daughter's dishes to be rooted in Basque products, but perhaps as much in French techniques. It is certainly a good idea to study up on Basque cuisine before visiting the Basque country. Nonetheless what comes through the most is the quality of the raw ingredients I encountered everywhere during my stay. They may have been the most consistently great I have had in years and as fine as what I come across in France or Italy. I mention the delicious herbs, but there is lamb as good as from Sisteron, the Limousin, or Cuneo; squab, squid, octopus, sole, mackerel and halibut in states as good as they are possible to be. And on and on it goes. To me produce is the great leveler and why it is much harder to get a great meal outside Spain, France and Italy. As to whether France will achieve its former place in the gastronomic firmament is far from being clear and hardly a sure thing. There seem to be too many economic and institutional impediments. The Spaniards, however, seem to have done something no one thought possible even a dozen years ago.

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Bux has it right in several ways, most so in bringing up the patience, discipline and exactitude of Spanish chefs. I have been much taken with another ingredient of nearly every fine Spanish chef I have been exposed to, which is integrity.

Thanks, and in turn, I think you nailed it with "integrity." Although I think it's an integrity that's far more than just not short changing the diner. What I've sensed is a real focus on the food rather than the media. Maybe I'm wrong and Spain is still more alien to me than France, but I sense they're very committed not just to their food, but to food. Something Carmen Ruscalleda, chef of the two Michelin star Restaurante Sant Pau, said in a magazine article sticks in my mind. It was about the openess of her fellow chef's kitchens and how uninterested chefs were of hiding their secrets from their staff. She described an atmosphere of teaching and passing on of knowledge. For all the individual creativity that is being expressed, I got the sense they all belonged to some craft guild.

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No, seriously, I enjoyed the post, though. It's hard for me to believe that another gastronomic cuisine can rival the top French establishments, so I guess I'll have to make a side-trip to El Bulli and check it all out myself!

I really don't think one can sense what's happening by a visit to El Bulli. I think you need to see more.

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Upon reviewing my comments in this thread, I think I need to say that I'm not accusing French chefs of lacking integrity. It's just that there seems to be a a new dedication to the craft in Spain.

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The thought that has been running through my mind reading all of this, is that it's Gagnaire who has stepped up to respond to all of this. Surely not Bocuse. Not Alain Ducasse, or even Passard, let alone the heirs of Troisgros and Haeberlin. Not Michel Bras or Marc Veyrat, two chefs whose sense of place define their cuisine to a certain extent. But Gagnaire, the one high profile chef who practices, in spirit, that which comes closest to the nueva, the vanguard of Spanish cooking. If I were into conspiracy theories, I'd guess that he was shoved into the position to 'defend' French cuisine. I don't necessarily believe that, but I think that this aspect alone is very interesting...

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In the original article, Lubow says Marc Veyrat told him "that the most creative cooks in Europe were no longer French; they were Spanish." Joël Robuchon is quoted as saying "[Adria] is the best cook on the planet," although he later qualified that in terms of technique. Gagnaire is not quoted, but Lubow makes a point of eating at Pierre Gagnaire's restaurant in Paris (with whit Stillman, writer-director of the film Barcelona) on his way to Spain. Lubow says that Gagnaire "is the most out-there Michelin three star chef in France." Perhaps that sets him up as a, if not the, logical choice of defender of the faith.

I thought I also recalled a defense from Ducasse somewhere and thought it was referrenced on eGullet, but I can't find the reference.

Robert Brown's very interesting article on Donastia is suggested reading for anyone following this thread. It provides a personal look at probably the top five restaurants in the area and further insight to what he's posted here in praise of Spain as a dining Mecca. "For two tough customers, my wife and me, who had come to believe that truly unforgettable gastronomic forays were behind us, San Sebastian was a minor miracle, but a miracle nonetheless. We had more fine meals (only one was a disappointment) strung together than at any time in nearly 15 years." It's all the more convincing because he doesn't hide the faults he found. If anyone believes he now has a bias towards dining in Spain, this article at least explains how that came about.

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Putting the state of French "haute cuisine" in terms of a highfalutin Pillsbury Bake-Off such as Lubow or Gagnaire do misses seeing the forest through the trees. That French chefdom has been reduced to, or decimated into to a handful of interesting or innovative chefs is not the reason for Spain's ascendancy. Indeed, if it were true what Lubow wrote---"you can still eat very well in France, as you did 20 years ago. The problem is that almost everywhere you eat in France, it could still be 20 years ago. Nothing has changed"--- French chefs would have little to worry about. The problem is precisely that France is NOT where it was then, for if it were, I wouldn't be traveling to Northern Spain three times a year, but instead eating wherever would be the contemporary replacements for the departed Alain Chapel, Jean Troisgros, and Jacques Pic and a youthful Roger Verge, Paul Bocuse and Michel Guerard. (Gagnaire rightfully refers to 20 years ago as being a special time for French gastronomy, and I bet he wishes for the days when he could be the spontaneous, care-free wild man he was before moving to Paris).

When my wife and I breathlessly downloaded and printed out Lubow's story on Adria, we summed up the Bake-Off part of the story by agreeing that it had become increasingly more difficult to get an honest meal in France, which may be the principal reason almost nobody cares what is happening in her culinary high-end . There, I suspect, looms the reason why increasingly more gastronomically curious are forsaking France and testing the waters of Spanish (and maybe even Italian) chefs. No one seems to speculate aloud anymore who will be the next three-star chef, and the whole layer of interesting chefs and restaurants below the three-star level is o longer burned into the brains of those who like to eat well. The ink that used to flow from the once edgy and provocative Gault-Millau magazines and guides is finished, and the gastronomic press (particularly the New York Times) is turning its attention more to other places and other kinds of restaurants.

Gagnaire and others can cry foul or jawbone a situation in a way that does not square with what is happening in the real world. Talking this way will not make any tangible differences. It looks to me like the horse has left the barn and only deep-seated changes in French economic life will make France as compelling a gastronomic nation as it was a mere 20 years ago.

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I have been writing about food for 30-odd years - even a little more! - and all this time I never thought I'd see the day when I would follow, and participate in, a serious discussion on Spain's alleged culinary superiority over France. Wow! "Live to see", as the Spanish proverb goes...

I'm naturally delighted, being Spanish, about this unthinkable situation, for which we have to be very thankful to Ferran Adrià above all people. But it would be best to keep things in perspective - to know where we're coming from and what the big picture really tells us.

Three decades ago Spain was considered, not merely as an also-ran in the European food sweepstakes, but actually as the pits, as a culinary nightmare. The country was just coming out of deep centuries-long poverty (in 1960, Spain was probably poorer, compared with Germany, than the Ukraine or Bulgaria are today, compared with that same Germany), and had long endured a reputation as a place where food was dull, rustic, limited, and heavy, very heavy. The 1952 French book, 'Le monde à table', has a chapter on Spain (written by a Spaniard) which starts: "Spices, herbs, and heavy fried dishes with olive oil are the first things evoked by Spanish cuisine."

When, in the early 1970s, Michelin re-started its annual hotel and restaurant guide to Spain, which had been discontinued since the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War, it didn't include any stars for food quality. Asked about this anomaly, a Michelin spokesman said: "This guide is intented for an international audience, which expects certain culinary performances in starred restaurants, and we didn't feel they could find them in Spanish restaurants if we were to award stars to them."

Some Spanish food writers responded with outrage, and around 1974 Michelin started, very gingerly, to award its first one-star ratings to restaurants in Spain.

For many years, European critics were transfixed with 'nouvelle cuisine', and they also discovered Italy, China, Japan and even Morocco ("Moroccan cuisine is the best Mediterranean cuisine," Raymond Oliver of Le Grand Véfour fame told a Spanish audience in 1976) before they even began noticing that anything at all was happening in Spain. There was much less space devoted to Spain in French and European culinary publications than there was to Britain or Germany.

Yet, a lot was happening, and curiously much of it was owed to France. Not to its obtuse critics, but to a number of cooks who served as role models and sometimes as actual sponsors of young, aspiring chefs from that forlorn southwestern corner of Europe - Spain.

When Oliver spoke in Madrid in 1976, he was joined by Paul Bocuse in the first of many international food 'summits' in this country, and in attendance were many, often very young chefs who were avidly absorbing every word spoken by Uncle Paul. They included one Juan Mari Arzak and one Pedro Subijana, who (as I've mentioned in an other thread) were already running their own restaurants in San Sebastián - so obviously we're not talking about a recent explosion, but to a solid, three-decade long evolution.

Michel Guérard inspired the Basque chefs; Joël Robuchon forged a close relationship with Ferran Adrià; Michel Bras has been giving demonstrations in Spain for years, and he (not Adrià, not Arzak) may be the main motivator and example for the younger generation of Spanish cooks. So the technical influence of the best French chefs has been a decisive one for all these years.

Spain and France are next-door neighbors, and as such they share a complex, centuries-long history. Spain was the leading political power in continental Europe until it was overtaken by France in the 17th and 18th centuries and later sank to the brink of underdevelopment. So you can feel the superiority complexes in France and the inferiority complexes in Spain the minute their relationship is mentioned. It's such a difficult legacy of wars and alliances that nowadays there is a foundation, Diálogo, whose sole purpose is to improve Spanish-French relations and foster a climate of better understanding between the two countries.

Last week, after the ruckus created by the Lubow article, Diálogo had the good idea to organize a roundtable discussion, bringing Ferran Adriá down from Roses and Michel Guérard down from Eugénie-les-Bains to Madrid to discuss this 'Spain as the new France' thing. It was a very good-natured meeting, of course, and neither Ferran nor Michel would even dream of saying "we're better than you guys". But Adrià, who's an honest man with no taste for pretense, made a clear-cut statement: "We've learned from them. Were it not for chefs like Guérard or Bocuse, we would be nothing."

And that's indeed the feeling we who love good food in Spain share. We have nothing but admiration for France and for the way its own regeneration around 1970 helped the rest of the world redefine the very concept of fine food. If France seems to be going through a period of relative stagnation, it may very well be due to social, political, fiscal and legal conditions that are particularly unfavorable. But the genius of French cuisine, the sheer weight of French culinary tradition and professionalism, cannot be denied. No one in Europe would ever dream of doing so.

That said, we've worked very hard in Spain for more than 30 years, and we may be just a tad less academic and ceremonial in our approach to food than the French are, so we certainly don't dislike all this sudden attention!


Edited by vserna (log)

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The country was just coming out of deep centuries-long poverty (in 1960, Spain was probably poorer, compared with Germany, than the Ukraine or Bulgaria are today, compared with that same Germany), and had long endured a reputation as a place where food was dull, rustic, limited, and heavy, very heavy. The 1952 French book, 'Le monde à table', has a chapter on Spain (written by a Spaniard) which starts: "Spices, herbs, and heavy fried dishes with olive oil are the first things evoked by Spanish cuisine."

I clearly remember the first trip we took to Spain, 1964 and yes, it was very poor. Roads other than the main "red" one on the map was it. If you wandered off that red road you were in donkey lanes. Small hotels were 50 cents a night and hardly any had bathrooms in the room, but for that price you had a washstand and a bidet. And the food was not only heavy but drowning in bad oil. We didn't go back to Spain for a long, long time. :sad:

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Ah, fashion fascists. Next, we'll read that Bordeaux reds are inferior...

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Inferior to what?

"Bordeaux reds" is a rather meaningless expression, don't you think? What are you referring to? Château Haut-Brion or Bordeaux Supérieur? Because, let's face it, most Bordeaux reds these days are inferior to many red wines from all over the world. And that includes even a large number of reds from poor backward Spain.

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Back to the subject...

I spoke with a friend who works chez Gagnaire here in Paris, who told me that Gagnaire was really surprised and a little upset that he was the only one speaking up, and that his confreres remained silent.

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In fewer than 2 years, I already made a return to this beloved restaurant. What “new things” can be said about my experience? I’m likely to repeat some of my past writings but hopefully, they it be minimal. My last meal at Gagnaire Balzac was exceptional in which the master Pierre Gagnaire (PG) himself was leading the kitchen. However, I felt a bit rush during that lunch due to my afternoon engagement and therefore, this time (in the height of January Winter) I came for dinner instead. PG and the restaurant director Parmentier were not available this time, but not too worry since Executive Chef Michel Nave was in charge of the kitchen and I usually liked the hospitality of the junior staffs / mid-level managers more.

 

It has been ages that I never ordered the tasting menu at Gagnaire Balzac. Ever since I tried the a la carte dishes here, I became addicted to them. However, this time I opted the degustation menu again. Most the dishes were executed at high level - either very good or outstanding. A few that I want to mention are:

 

-The vegetarian dish appetizer. The kitchen cooked the soup underneath the pie. The “Japanese” hot dashi was delicious + umami. Some of the veggies: cooked sweet yet savory & juicy turnips (appear golden) as well as sweet and nutty parsnips. In addition (in different plates), there were tarte quince jelly in harmony with salty gorgonzola and pear ice cream; the pie crust with shredded celeriac added crunchy texture. Confused or not clear? Just see the pictures yourself

 

-One of my main courses. Having travelled and dined (mainly) in Europe for more than a decade, I could not recall to have seen or tasted the ‘humble’ French traditional veal stew at multiple Michelin star restaurants. Gagnaire’s culinary has always been innovative yet he never forgets the past tradition. The blanquette of veal consisted of tender and tasty veal chunks, enriched by velvety and refined sauce having deep flavor. To make it even "better", the cooking team added slightly sweet radish & mildly bitter and spicy taste from romaine. It was a comforting and elegant veal stew. The side dish was white polenta galette with sweet small bulb onions on top

 

-The sweet part. There was an occasion when the PG’s glorious Le Grand dessert generating many “extreme flavors” – too bitter, too sour, too sweet etc. I was glad for the mini grand dessert this time; things were balanced / harmonious. The ‘mont-blanc’ was not overly sweet with an addition of earthy mushrooms; cassate with moistened Menton lemon and blood oranges produced pleasant acidic flavors; extra virgin olive oil + passion fruit cream contributed a gentle bitter taste and so on. (there were 2 more small desserts)

 

I don’t think I should flood you with more dish’s descriptions; you can check out yourself from the link below. In short, the brilliant Michel Nave and his brigade did fantastic cooking and delivered arguably my best meal (yet) at Gagnaire Balzac. I knew my dinner would be great but exceeding my previous one when PG was around in the kitchen … unbelievable! Michel has been working together with Pierre for 30 years or so, no wonder he truly understood the essence and execution of PG’s cuisine. After all, Chef Nave normally is around in the kitchen more than his boss.

 

The last part I want to mention was the restaurant’s hospitality. The service was immaculate. The assistant manager took care of my orders and once the menu is settled, a young, friendly and patient female maître d’ was responsible for my table most of the time. Staffs were knowledgeable, but when things were not so clear – they would always find ways to get the answer. The basic of re-fill the water, good pacing of the food, escorting guests to the toilet or upon returning to their tables – all of these were executed effortlessly. The only “issue” might be that I don’t usually see these staffs anymore 1-3 years later when coming to this place again.

 

I’m not sure how long it has been … there was a unique feature about the service here that I noticed in my last 2 visits. Fine dining meals usually last several hours. In both cases, probably my meals were longer than my maître d’hotels’ shift … about 5-10 min before these staffs’re supposed to finish working, they would actually come to my table expressing gratitude for dining here, the chance to serve me etc. then apologizing for not being able to stay until the end that they had to excuse themselves. Then, they would introduce other staffs who would mainly be in charge of my table. Normally, we would not notice about the change of staffs but, I thought this simple and kind gesture of showing sincere respects to the guests should be noticed and applauded.

 

Ambroisie, Arpege and Gagnaire Balzac are among my top 3 best restaurants in Europe (if not in the world). The more often I eat there, the more difficult for me to decide which one is my favorite in particular PG vs Bernard Pacaud (strange huh? I love the cuisine of the chefs whose cooking was often perceived as ‘polar opposites’) – the dishes were consistently excellent and both places often exceed themselves in delivering memorable meals. A “4-star” dinner experience – c’est parfait!  

 

Meal photos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/7124357@N03/albums/72157680057457088

 

More detailed review: https://zhangyuqisfoodjourneys.blogspot.com/2019/05/pierre-gagnaire-paris-6th-visit.html

 

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