Chef Conference: The view from Pierre Gagnaire

27 April 2006
Chef Conference: The view from Pierre Gagnaire

What are the elements of a good dish? The dish should be neat, with an authentic personality. The more visually beautiful the dish, the more tasty and "gourmand" it should be.

This is probably a silly queston, but what's more important when you create a dish - emotion or technique? The emotion, of course.

Improvisation is important for you - does this make it difficult to decide when a dish is ready to go on a menu? No, because when a dish is good, we sell it. But I know that what I produce is not always perfectly imagined or realised. And it always makes me smile if I'm asked how much time I spend researching and creating a dish. I have the feeling that I have been searching and researching for 40 years with, sometimes, a good idea.

Is it possible to acquire a good palate? What is a good palate? Everyone has his own food culture. An English person does not taste a dish in the same way as a French person, and the French person doesn't taste food as a Thai person does, who does not taste it as a Japanese.

Speaking of the Far East: with a restaurant in Tokyo and another just about to open in Hong Kong, you travel there often - have you discovered any new ingredients recently?
Kombu seaweed - but it frightens me because it has a very strong identity both culturally and as an ingredent in Japan and it needs to be respected. As I am answering these questions, I am sitting in my restaurant in Tokyo, and I think that I have finally found a way to cook this magnificent product [kombu is a sweet, brown kelp eaten both raw and cooked in Japan and often used for flavouring broths and sauces].

Tell us about your new project in the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong. The restaurant will be called Pierre but, honestly, the scenario is still being written at the moment. I will resist my instinct to talk… Of course, China will incorporate itself little by little but, as with the kombu, I do not want to be a passive and silly hostage of a marvellous and intelligent civilisation.

You're known for your work with scientist Hervé This. When did you meet, and what's the most important thing you have learnt from him? We met when I arrived in Paris 10 years ago, but we only started our working collaboration about seven years ago. And I would say that the most important thing I've learnt from him is to preserve the enthusiam, the desire and the happiness to work - work and search for the pure taste of knowledge and not only to have as your goal a concrete and financially fruitful result.

Do you think of yourself as a "molecular gastronomy" chef? No. I am only a chef who is trying to understand, to go further whilst staying within my own logic. Because of my friendship, my respect and the privileged relationship that I have with Hervé This, I have to keep on being myself.

Your newest Paris restaurant, Gaya, is a fish restaurant. Why fish, and which is the most versatile fish you have worked with to date? I did not decide; the opportunity to do Gaya presented itself and I jumped on it. And certainly, for versatility, bonite is best. I love this fish, but it is so hard to work [bonite is a Corsican name for the Mediterranean tuna].

When did you fall in love with cooking - and how do you plan to evolve your cuisine? I fell in love with cooking when I realised that this work could create happiness. My cuisine will always evolve on its own, by surprising me - you must know how to keep on being available to ideas and focused to your own feelings.

What was the most important thing that you learnt when your family restaurant, Le Clos Fleury in St Etienne, closed in 1996? I learnt how to kick myself to go further, even when it was painful. I learnt how to cope with solitude and silence.

Do you eat in your own restaurants? I have been eating my dishes for years, but never in the restaurants.

Do you think your food is understood by your diners? I have the feeling that people are happy when they eat my food. I don't think they need long speeches from me on what I meant subconsciously by cooking a dish.

Whose cooking, apart from your own, most interests you ? Sometimes I have great surprises in some very modest places. Also I have respect for people who take risks living their "chef's life" by endangering themselves. For names - you know them better than I do!

How will the EU's Working Time Directive affect French gastronomy? I always take extremely good care of my team's comfort, and law doesn't change these things. What is currently changing is the culinary habits, needs and wishes of consumers. In our profession people tend to work too much, and often badly. The need and the taste for quality should help to deliver better work.

The Chef Conference See Pierre Gagnaire's masterclass at the 2006 Chef Conference, taking place at London's Landmark hotel on 8 May. Culinary inspiration, too, from a host of Michelin-starred chefs: Jason Atherton, Sat Bains, Paul Cunningham, Andrew Fairlie, Brett Graham, Vineet Bhatia and Tom Kerridge. There's a view from the "other side", too, from the Observer's restaurant critic Jay Rayner. For further information and to book your place call 020 8652 8680 or click here.

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