It is no coincidence that the word “gastronomy” roots itself in French. All aspects of life connect through food in France, with perusing crowded outdoor markets, queuing for fresh baguettes, and championing the neighborhood fromagerie recognized practically as national pastimes. The French invented the concept of the sophisticated, modern restaurant and continue to lead the charge with the most Michelin-starred restaurants of any country, at an astounding 600 total (according to the 2016 Michelin guide).
It could be said that the many of the world’s best chefs are either French or French-trained. But, each of these chefs would protest that it is not proper French technique that makes a fine meal. It’s imagination.
The great Alain Ducasse did not realize his culinary potential until he was left injured and immobile after a near-fatal plane crash. Unable to physically work in the kitchen, Ducasse wrote recipes from his hospital bed and continued to run his restaurant from afar. Albert Roux, on the other hand, admits to indulging in the occasional Big Mac. How does the man who mentored the famous Gordon Ramsay and produced the Queen’s favorite meals justify such a paradox? He knows that a first-rate meal is the work of the mind, not the taste buds.
Massimo Bottura, the genius behind Osteria Francescana, explained in a New York Times Style Magazine interview that each bite of the same dish could taste different “because of your mind. It is your mind that is evolving.” David Chang of Momofuku fame sums up this idea in his “Universal Theory of Deliciousness” article, which appeared in Wired magazine in July 2016. Distilling his research in philosophy and neurosciences to bite-sized nuggets of wisdom, Chang explains that a delicious meal must evoke another and stir up a bittersweet nostalgia.
It is precisely for this reason that Chef Lionel Lévy earned his star for L’Alcyone at the InterContinental Marseille Hotel Dieu. Each of Lévy’s creations is a visible emotional homage to Marseille, making him an ambassador for his port city and its style of cooking.
His dishes rely on fresh fish, shrimp, and squid flavored with rich combinations of garlic, fennel, saffron, thyme, and citrus peels. Like the food, the decor is designed to defer to the beauty of France, with sumptuous fabrics in chic neutral tones interrupted by pops of purple, evocative of the lavender fields of Provence.
Ducasse would be proud of these details. He is a firm believer that the dining room is meant to highlight the food to create a wholesome experience. Gordon Ramsay’s Le Pressoir d’Argent restaurant inside the InterContinental Bordeaux Le Grand Hotel takes its name from the restaurant’s centrepiece: a rare solid silver lobster press made by Christofle. The press, one of only five in the world, symbolizes the restaurant’s devotion to uniqueness and utmost quality.
It’s one thing to earn a Michelin star and another to maintain these standards of excellence. To do so requires drive, perseverance, and a certain renegade flair. In short, a Michelin-starred chef must always be ready for anything. Ramsay remarks fondly of Le Pressoir d’Argent, nothing that “every day it has a different adventure.”
Under Ramsay’s tutelage Executive Chef Gilad Peled led Le Pressoir d’Argent to its first Michelin star just four months after opening. Most equivalent restaurants take years to achieve this level of excellence. Peled made the grade with such inventions as the sautéed foie gras with lavender, Sichuan pepper, fennel, cherries, and fresh almonds and the confit organic egg with king oyster mushrooms, Noir de Bigorre ham, smoked chestnuts, and onion velouté.
It takes every ounce of energy and skill for a chef to earn a coveted Michelin star, but the star is not the be-all, end-all of fine dining.
At the mythical Café de la Paix, located in the InterContinental Paris Le Grand Hotel, Chef Laurent André offers simple classics including Beef with Béarnaise sauce, Gnocchi à la Parisienne, and Sole Meunière. The historic cafe has served the likes of Émile Zola, Oscar Wilde, and Edward VII, and continues to be a mainstay of classic Parisian glamour. Little has changed about its Napoleon III-era interior, adorned with fresco-painted ceilings, dark wood paneling, and golden columns. In warm weather, diners take their meals outside for a view of the Place de l’Opera, often luxuriating for hours over food and wine. With or without a star, the Michelin Guide still proclaims the café to be “the place to meet in Paris.”
The meal is the medium through which chefs connect with their diners, and even intervene in their lives. Chang wrote in his Wired article, “I was chasing that split second when someone tastes something so delicious that…they blurt out something guttural like they stubbed their toe.”
A transcendent meal will offer the key to the most elusive of French crafts: l’art de vivre. It is as simple as savoring all that life has to offer.