The 2009 Roux Scholar, Hrishikesh Desai, is the first to spend his prized three-month stage at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant outside of Europe. Kerstin Kühn joined Michel Roux on his visit to Thomas Keller's iconic French Laundry in California.
One of the industry's most prestigious culinary competitions, the Roux Scholarship has offered its winners the chance to spend three months at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant of their choice for more than 25 years. But no scholar has ever ventured beyond Europe - until now.
Hrishikesh Desai (aka Richi), last year's winner and the 26th Roux Scholar, changed that tradition when he decided to spend his stage at Thomas Keller's iconic restaurant the French Laundry in Napa Valley, California. The decision came as a surprise to Michel Roux, the scholarship's co-founder (with his brother Albert).
"When Richi told me he wanted to go to the USA I was quite shocked," Roux admits. "But he was so excited - his eyes lit up like those of a child - and it was obvious he had thought long and hard about where in the world he could really learn the most."
Indeed Desai's move to the French Laundry seems to have a touch of fate about it. The 30-year-old head chef of the Brasserie Restaurant at Lucknam Park in Wiltshire has been dreaming about working at the restaurant since 2000 when, as a student at the Institute Paul Bocuse in Lyon, he came across a copy of the French Laundry cook book and was immediately mesmerised by Keller's philosophy.
"The way chef Keller is so focused on the quality of his ingredients, the way he keeps such strong relationships with his suppliers and shares a common goal with them to work towards perfection really spoke to me," he recalls. "I thought to myself back then that at one point in my life I wanted to go there." Fast forward to March 2010 and Desai is living that dream.
Located in the pretty little town of Yountville, 60 miles north of San Francisco, the 60-cover French Laundry is housed in a century-old stone building, which was originally a saloon and brothel, and then a French steam laundry, before becoming a restaurant in the 1970s.
Already an acclaimed chef who had spent time in New York and Los Angeles, Keller opened the French Laundry in 1994 and it quickly developed into a fine dining destination recognised beyond the borders of California and indeed the USA. It was named the world's best restaurant in 2003 and 2004, and in 2006 it debuted as the only restaurant holding the top accolade of three stars in Michelin's inaugural guide to San Francisco and the Bay Area.
While Keller's empire of six restaurants and three Bouchon bakeries now stretches across the USA (including the acclaimed three-Michelin-starred Per Se in New York) the French Laundry very much remains his spiritual home. His own house is located next door and Keller also owns two other restaurants in Yountville (the Michelin-starred Bouchon and Ad Hoc) as well as the flagship Bouchon bakery.
Keller's culinary ethos is one of product and execution. It's all about a celebration of the highest quality ingredients and a drive towards perfection. His search for the best produce has seen him launch the three-acre French Laundry garden, located across the road from the restaurant, where he and his team grow anything from baby vegetables to salad leaves and herbs.
Keller's kitchen is based on a collaborative foundation. "The cornerstone of our philosophy is the ability to have an impact. We allow anyone in our restaurant the opportunity to be involved, make suggestions and recommendations," he explains.
"Collaboration is key to our success and ability to evolve." What this means in practice is that at the French Laundry no one person is responsible for writing the menu, defining the service structure or compiling the wine list. "Of course, there are team leaders but it's their ability to really work together with their team and allow each member to have a voice that drives the success of our business."
So teamwork is what it's all about at the French Laundry and, according to Roux, there are few restaurants in the world that are run the way Keller runs his kitchen.
"It's a special place," he says. "Everyone is a piece of the puzzle; there is no room for egos, and respect for each other is essential. What Richi will learn here is how to be humble."
But humility can be a hard lesson to learn when you're the Roux Scholar and the centre of media attention. In addition to Caterer and the Roux Scholarship's videographer, there has also been interest from the national media, with The Financial Times‘ Nick Lander having gone out to Napa Valley to interview Desai.
"It's been interesting for us because we have never had a stagier like Richi who has had so much interest from the media," admits Keller.
"It's helped me give him some advice and guidance on how to deal with that kind of world, which I have been dealing with for the last 15 years. So it's not only about teaching him things inside the kitchen but also teaching him how to interact outside of the kitchen."
Back in the kitchen, Desai says he has been observing the rules of gastronomy. "There is something really amazing about this kitchen and its cleanliness," he enthuses. "Everything is stacked perfectly, everything has its own place, everything is labelled properly. I've picked up a lot of good habits here."
During his three-month tenure, Desai has spent time in the mise en place kitchen and the canapé section, has done some butchery and has observed how sauces and stocks are prepared. He has also spent time in the French Laundry's garden, planting and harvesting, which he says has taught him great respect for the produce he prepares.
"While I have not cooked much I have spent a lot of time on the pass helping to plate up and by doing that I have been able to understand so much about flavours and why ingredients are paired they way they are," Desai adds.
The brigade at the French Laundry, led by Keller and chef de cuisine Tim Hollingsworth, prepares two nine-course tasting menus (one is vegetarian) every day. The menus are written according to what's available each day, giving a whole new meaning to the word seasonal, with each tiny dish in perfect harmony and balance. Each dish comprises the right portion size and there's never too much on a plate for the diner to tire of the flavours.
Above the pass in the French Laundry kitchen is a sign featuring the definition of finesse: Refinement and delicacy of performance, execution or artisanship. "Every plate that goes beyond the pass adheres to that definition," Desai says. "Everything has to be perfect."
Keller concludes that he wants Desai to walk away from his kitchen with an experience that will benefit both his career and life. "Cooking isn't a career or a profession; it's a lifestyle," he explains. "We want to show Richi some of the things we do - whether it's a technique, how we maintain our kitchen or how we interact with each other."
Three months in California have left Desai a Roux Scholarship evangelist. He's learned respect, discipline and humility but above all has gained an appetite for a constant drive towards perfection.
"It's been an incredible experience," he says. "Coming from being head chef at Lucknam Park to going back to being an apprentice and learning the basics again has been amazing - this is how you really learn. I am so very grateful to the Roux brothers for this opportunity. I'm having the best time of my life."
CV: HRISHIKESH DESAI
Born in Pune, the so-called Oxford of India, Desai's early dreams centred on owning his own hotel. After starting a diploma in hotel management, he won a trip to France to study at the Institute Paul Bocuse, where he fell in love with French cooking.
A move to England seven years ago saw him spend 12 months in a two-AA-rosette kitchen before seeking to enhance his career at a higher-calibre establishment. So he moved to the Michelin-starred Lucknam Park as demi chef de partie, coming under the guidance of head chef Hywel Jones, who he describes as the backbone of his career.
Desai won the Roux Scholarship after impressing judges with his dish of brill cherubin with spinach croquettes. According to Roux, Desai beat his fellow finalists "hands down" for he offered the judges a "true explosion of flavours".
Roux adds: "When judges are quiet, it's usually for one of two reasons: either the dish is so bad that you don't want to talk about it or it's a complete knockout. Richi's was the latter."
It's obvious Desai made a huge impression on Roux. "He is a very lovable guy," Roux says with great affection.
After winning the Roux Scholarship last year, Desai was promoted to head chef at Lucknam Park's Brasserie Restaurant.
GOOD PRACTICE GUIDELINES FOR WORK PLACEMENTS
â- Appoint a workplace mentor who will be responsible for the student's overall development
â- Provide students with a full induction into the organisation
â- Appraise the student regularly during placement and provide a final debrief
â- Provide support and advice to enable the student to maximise learning at work
â- Maintain regular contact with both student and mentor to discuss work performance
â- Provide written information on how the educator will communicate with the student and the workplace tutor
â- Fully train visiting tutors (where used)
â- Engage fully in preparation for work placement, including researching the employer's organisation
â- Understand learning outcomes for the placement and actively seek out learning opportunities at work
â- Take responsibility for their own learning and professional relationships during placement
A full version of these guidelines is available from the Council for Hospitality Management Education at www.chme.co.uk
CORNED MARCHO FARMS VEAL TONGUE, SACRAMENTO DELTA ASPARAGUS, FRISÉE AND THOUSAND ISLAND DRESSING
- Corned veal tongue, thinly sliced
- Asparagus spears, cut into 2in pieces on a bias
- Frisée, trimmed of any green and rinsed in ice water
- Thousand island dressing
Corned Veal Tongue
- 1 veal tongue
- 1.5 litres water
- 60ml Champagne vinegar
- 65g brown sugar
- 40g curing salt
- 8g black pepper
- 2g allspice
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2g mustard seeds
- 2g coriander, crushed
- 1g chilli flakes
- 1 bay leaf
Â½ tsp powdered ginger
Method Combine all ingredients except for the tongue over a medium heat until the salt and sugar are dissolved. Cool completely. The brine will accommodate up to 8lb of meat.
Add the tongue and leave it submerged for at least two weeks. After two weeks, cook the tongue in the brine, simmering over a low heat until it is completely tender - about two hours. While it is still warm, peel the skin off the tongue.
- 10 asparagus spears, medium to large
Carefully peel the asparagus, maintaining its round shape.
Tie it in bundles of five with butcher's twine and place into an ice bath.
Blanch in a large pot of salted water, ensuring the water does not stop boiling until the asparagus is tender. Refresh in ice water immediately.
Portion appropriately and heat to order in chicken stock, clarified butter and salt.
Thousand Island Dressing
- 2 large egg yolks
- 250ml neutral oil
- 1tbs lemon juice
- Cornichon, brunoise to taste
- Tomato, brunoise to taste
- Shallots, minced to taste
- Salt to taste
Place the egg yolks in a food processor and process to combine.
With the motor running, begin adding the oil slowly, blending until emulsified and thickened. Add the lemon juice and season with salt to taste. Finally, add the brunoise of vegetables.