Pierre Gagnaire has several times avowed his love for jazz, but his first masterclass at a British culinary event proved that the improvisational qualities associated with that music form were integral to his cooking.
Gagnaire took to the stage at the 24th Caterer and Hotelkeeper Chef Conference, sponsored by the Department for Work and Pensions, Lea & Perrins and Quorn, at London's Landmark hotel alongside Pascal Sanchez, the head chef from his London restaurant, Sketch, with an array of bowls brimming with ingredients. But no recipes. Instead, he preferred to be inspired off-the-cuff by his produce. "We've brought along a few ingredients we use at Sketch and in Paris, so we'll explore some ideas," he told everyone.
The ingredients Gagnaire had brought with him included foie gras, prawns, smoked haddock, cod tripe, dried seaweed, nettle juice, beetroot jelly, peanuts, Guinness, Jack Daniels, ginger powder, mango, dried olives, tuna, fillet of veal and meringue spears.
What followed was a lesson in creativity; a glimpse into the mind of one of the world's most inventive chefs. Gagnaire's mastery of flavour combinations was evident, if sometimes surprising to lesser mortals. Not for him a self-imposed limit of three flavours on a plate.
For instance, mango (with a squirt of grapefruit juice) was sandwiched between tuna and foie gras - the latter seasoned with pepper, marmalade and dried figs - before being topped off with a splash of nettle juice, a smattering of diced beetroot jelly, a drizzle of olive oil, some chopped lime and a scattering of fried black rice.
Another dish used cod tripe, strips of seafood jelly, some dried olives (cooked in syrup with some chilli paste) and finely chopped peanuts. Yet another matched fillet of veal rolled in a veal mousse against both lemon and garlic and cassis flavoured meringue spears, pain d'épices and nettle juice. And then there were the langoustines dusted in ginger powder and coated in fresh coriander before being pan-fried in butter.
While he was working, Gagnaire also managed to field questions from the audience. Probed on his opinion of whether or not French haute cuisine had surrendered tamely to the Spanish boundary-pushers, he said:
"I have a lot of respect for Ferran Adrià, but I don't know all the Spanish chefs and I think it's silly to put rankings on chefs."
An inquiry as to which British chefs and restaurants Gagnaire admired initially elicited a diplomatic response. " I can't really say who I like most - it depends on the mood," he protested, before relenting to reveal both Heston Blumenthal and the River Café as objects of his admiration.
And with the Observer's Jay Rayner an interested spectator in the audience, one sharp delegate asked the Gagnaire verdict on British food critics. "I love British gastronomy writers - I got nil out of 20 once for Sketch from one of them, so naturally I adore them!" he joked. He added: "Sometimes people write things just for the sake of creating trends and won't admit they like someone's food if they have already taken a stance before eating it. I like honesty. I don't mind if a writer hates my food, but I would like them to be honest."
Jay Rayner keynote and interview
Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner hit out at the quality of service in British restaurants as he kicked off the conference with a keynote speech.
He said that while he believed "truly fantastic" things had happened in terms of restaurant food in this country during his seven years working for the Observer - such as Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal both receiving three Michelin stars, the growth of the gastropub movement and the mass market waking up to the fact that a significant proportion of the public want and expect good food at a reasonable price - service, he said, had not moved on.
"Food has improved markedly over the past seven years, but there's one part of the restaurant business that hasn't changed at all and that's service. I've concluded that things will only get better if you, the chef, make it your problem," he warned delegates. "A kitchen without a dining room is still a food business; a dining room without a kitchen is just a furniture showroom. It's no use to anyone."
Rayner went on to say that he felt that food served in British restaurants was being undermined by poor service. "If I'm asked what's wrong with service in the UK I'm afraid I'm going to tell you it's marked by amateurism, incompetence and at times an outright hostility to the customers they are meant to be serving. It is not, I have to tell you, just me whinging at you - this is what I get from readers week in, week out and I think I would be doing you a disservice if I didn't pass that on."
Rayner took the opportunity to share some of his service pet hates with delegates, starting with the lack of welcome on entering a restaurant. "Walking into a restaurant you get met by ‘name?' or ‘have you got a booking?'
A ‘hello' would be nice."
He continued that he had lost count of the times he had been shown to a table, but then been left with no bread or water. "The number of times I've had to ask for a menu is extraordinary," he added. "And then at the top end of the business, there is a bizarre belief that there are things that must be done. I get irritated beyond belief at the waiters who insist on shoving a napkin on to my lap."
On the subject of wine and whether it should be poured by the waiter or customer, Rayner said that he didn't know anyone who went to a "top-class" restaurant specifically because they liked having their wine poured for them. "You wouldn't mind if waiters in the UK actually knew how to do it, if they could do it or if they were tempted to make sure that everybody at the same table got the same amount. But it just comes across as an attempt to flog more wine. You take a sip, they top it up, you take a sip, they top it up."
He then moved on to one of his final irritants, "the inability to pass on messages", adding that once he has established with a waiter that he would prefer to pour his own wine, they rarely communicate it to the rest of the staff. "I would rather they just left the wine on the table and then passed on the message ‘table seven, difficult bastards, don't pour their wine'."
When asked later in the day during a Q&A session how qualified he felt he was to be a critic and why anyone should listen to what he's got to say, he answered: "There's no reason why anyone should. They should decide whether anything I have to say has any validity based on the fact that I have eaten in 1,000 restaurants during my tenure and it's my job to think about it."
Asked to give an opinion on his fellow critics, he said: "AA Gill really knows his stuff, as does Terry Durack. Fay Maschler services her readers and people act on her reviews."
But he warned that he felt critics do have a cut-off point of 10 years. "Jonathan Meades did it for 15 years. He did it for too long in my opinion and yet he's a fantastically intelligent writer. I've been doing it for seven years so I think I've got a year or two before a move. A decade of Rayner is probably enough."
Andrew Fairlie interview
The Queen is far easier to please than Cherie Blair, according to Scotland's newly anointed two-Michelin-star chef, Andrew Fairlie. The chef-proprietor, whose restaurant is at Perthshire's Gleneagles hotel, cooked two meals at last year's G8 summit at the hotel - one for the monarch, one for the world's leading politicians and their wives - and revealed that he had had to submit twice as many menu options to Mrs Blair as he had to the Queen.
"We sent three menus down to Buckingham Palace and three to Downing Street. Buckingham Palace was no problem, they picked one of the menus straightaway, but Cherie was a wee bit more difficult and we had to come up with three more!"
Fairlie, talking during an on-stage interview in the morning session of the conference, also chatted candidly about his recent battle to overcome a brain tumour. He learnt of the condition in January 2005 when he went for scans after experiencing epileptic fits for the first time.
"I remember thinking two things. One, ‘you have a brain tumour and you're going to die', and, two, ‘you've got a brain tumour and you're going to be disabled for life'. Then I was told that they could operate and that I wasn't going to be in a wheelchair and I was OK."
Fairlie was away from his restaurant for about three months after an operation to remove the growth last spring. "It changed my life for about five minutes. Now, I'm pretty much back in the same routine as I was before." The award of a second Michelin star for his restaurant in January was all the more sweet after such a difficult year, he acknowledged.
He learnt of the accolade by text while holidaying in Thailand. "The guys back home got really drunk in my absence, but trying to find Champagne in the middle of Thailand is not easy - so I had to celebrate when I got back to Scotland."
And what about the now infamous review (published in March) of his restaurant by the Daily Telegraph's critic, Jan Moir. She called the service "misjudged and totteringly pretentious", said one of the dishes was "overwrought and titivated to distraction" and accused the dining room of having "little personality and not much heart."
"A crucifixion," Fairlie said. "It was so bad it was actually quite good. I'm smiling now but on the Saturday morning when it came out I didn't laugh. You have to get it into perspective, though. We genuinely haven't had a bad review until this one since we opened. And we were full that night!"
Jason Atherton masterclass
Jason Atherton, chef-director of the multi-award-winning Maze in London's Grosvenor Square hot-footed it to the Landmark pre-lunchtime service to deliver a masterclass featuring some of his most popular dishes.
While explaining to the audience how preparation was key to a restaurant that has to meet the demands of 90 covers at lunch and 140 at dinner, he demonstrated how to make dishes such as BLT (Mancini tomato set consommé, topped with a cream of Cipolline onions and garnished with tempura onion rings, bacon lardons and a lettuce velouté and served in a cocktail glass) and roasted salmon with braised pork belly and smoked raisin jus (choucroute topped with seared salmon, pork belly and drizzled with a smoked raisin jus). "We send out 1,700 dishes between lunch and dinner," he said, "so we operate with five passes at Maze."
Atherton gave delegates an insight into Maze's parent company, Gordon Ramsay Holdings, and stressed the importance of traceability of ingredients for such a high-profile restaurant. He said that traceability was a huge asset for Maze. He added that for a restaurant attached to Gordon Ramsay the requirement was even greater.
When asked how he sought his inspiration, Atherton explained that he went out of his way to obtain cookery books as soon as they were released. Chefs on the global culinary scene who particularly have his attention at the moment are Sergio Herman, the 35-year-old chef at Oud Sluis in Zeeland, the Netherlands, Andoni Anduriz of Mugaritz just outside San Sebastien, Spain, and David Kinch of Manresa, south of Santa Cruz, USA. He added that the three-Michelin-star cooking of both Thomas Keller (French Laundry and Per Se in the USA) and Ferran Adrià (El Bulli, Spain) had been a massive inspiration to him.
As the first British chef to work a stage at El Bulli, Atherton told delegates about the knowledge he garnered while working with Adrià: "El Bulli was amazing. I went there in 1998 after I was with Pierre Koffmann - he used to go there and Gordon Ramsay had just discovered it. It was quite some education."
Sat Bains and Paul Cunningham
The afternoon session got off to an entertaining start with a masterclass from Sat Bains and Paul Cunningham (chef-proprietors of, respectively, Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham and the Paul in Copenhagen, Denmark). The duo's mix of colourful language, coupled with an interesting contrast of culinary style in the dishes they demonstrated, held the attention of the delegates with ease.
Careful sourcing of ingredients is a high priority for both Bains and Cunningham. Bains, who cooked a carpaccio of pork belly with lagoustines and apple purée, talked about his herb suppler - one "Bridget" - based on the Isle of Skye, who, he said, sent herbs down to his kitchen once a week. "I get what she sends, according to what she's got - and the taste of the produce is absolutely amazing," he said.
Cunnningham's lamb sweetbread and oyster dish used a variety of Baltic produce, mostly from Denmark; huge, creamy oysters from the latter's Limfjord, organic vegetables from the Swedish island of Götland. The veg included chunky white asparagus, purple carrots and two-toned candy beetroot.
Both the chefs used a plancha in their demo, citing its ability to give a very precise control of the cooking process as its major attraction. Bains also talked of the benefits of using sous-vide to enhance flavour and make restaurant service easier to control. "It keeps texture and moisture in food and really concentrates flavour," he said.
Food and wine matching
One of the successes of last year's conference was the series of food and wine/beer matching masterclasses held at the end of the day. They scored by providing education laced with a bit of lubrication - so this year it was a no-brainer for us to replicate the formula.
Showing us their expertise were Brett Graham and Dawn Davies of the Ledbury in London's Notting Hill (head chef and restaurant manager, respectively); Tom Kerridge, the chef-proprietor of the Hand & Flowers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, who had recruited beer expert Rupert Ponsonby of the Beer Academy to help out; and Vineet Bhatia and Thomas Heinmann of Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, also in London. All three restaurants won a Michelin star last January.
Delegates attending the seminar run by Graham and Davies were offered two contrasting dishes for wine matching. A starter of tuna wrapped in basil and iceberg lettuce leaves served on a slick of oyster cream accompanied by shiso and daikon salad and pickled daikon; and a light and delicate jasmine tea chantilly accompanied by chocolate daquois.
The former had a lot of complex flavours to contend with and was teamed by Davies with a 1998 Riesling from Egon Müller (sold for about £35 in the restaurant). The wine's lively freshness and touch of sweetness balanced both the salty and citrus elements present in the starter, and its fruitiness intensified the basil and tuna on the palate.
The combination of tongue-coating cream, delicate jasmine and chocolate was also a challenge in terms of matching. A late-harvest 2001 Pinot Cuvée Ruster Ausbruch (48% Pinot Gris, 52% Pinot Bianco) gave the right amount of sweetness with a touch of acidity to cut through the dairy element of the dessert.
Bhatia presented two dishes to his audience - a traditional chicken masala, which Heimann paired with a Chinon 2003 red from Marc Bredif, while a dish of grilled lobster, pickle-flavoured crab khichdi, aubergine and roasted lentil chaat was complemented with a Riesling from Alsace Domaines Schlumberger, Grand Cru Saering 2004.
Stirring the masala continually during the cooking process, Bhatia said: "You have to have a lot of love and affection when cooking. This dish requires you to stir the pan constantly. If you don't scrape the pan and blend the ingredients properly, you end up with a very coarse, unfinished product."
During his demonstration, Bhatia explained why he had chosen to open a restaurant in Moscow - a 95-seat eaterie boasting a bar, show kitchen and first-floor dining room. Operating in the Russian capital had been "a real eye opener", he said.
Beer and food matching were the order of the day in Kerridge and Ponsonby's masterclass and the session proved that beer is just as versatile as wine in the pairing stakes. A starter of potted Dorset crab had similar, delicate flavours to Korenwolf wheat beer brewed in the Limburg region of southern Holland. William Worthington's White Shield India Pale Ale had sufficient meatiness to stand up to Kerridge's "intense dish" of Denham Vale beef shin, marinated in red wine and a splash of Lea & Perrins for 48 hours before being pan-fried to produce a hit of treacly caramelisation on the outside. Dessert-wise, the burnt sugar a classic crème brûlée was perfectly echoed in a Innis & Gunn Oak Aged Edinburgh Ale.