Thursday, April 03, 2008

Celebrity Chefs

Mr. Gordon Ramsey, who, I understand, was a pretty good chef in a previous life, has opened his restaurant in Paris. Well, not really Paris. It's in the banlieue of Versailles which has lost a lot of its appeal since the Sun King died.
He (Ramsey, not the Sun King) is incensed that the notoriously testy food critic of Le Figaro has excoriated his efforts already.
“But he hasn't even tasted the food” cries Ramsey, for once composing a sentence that doesn't have to be filled with asterisks.
He misses the point. France has many indifferent chefs, many good one and some very famous ones.
What it does not have is 'Celebrity Chefs.' The French have this quaint old fashioned idea that a chef's place is in the kitchen – cooking by proxy is not their idea of how a restaurant should be run.
When I go to eat at one of our local establishments, Hotel de Paris (it's not in Paris but never mind) I can rest assured that not only will my meal be prepared personally by M. Didier Jarnot, le patron, but that it will be dished up by some member of his family.
In my village, at the one eating place which does a three course lunch for a hefty 12 euros, you will quite likely be seated by the chef himself. That's assuming you can get in, as the place is full to the brim at midday.
There is a daily TV programme where a chef is invited in to show how he prepares his favourite dish. They come from restaurants all over France and, having demonstrated their ability (and some of the recipes are wonderful) they disappear back into the kitchen from whence they came, never to be heard of again – unless you go to their place.
Many years ago in Paris, I used to eat at a little restaurant tucked away in a side street off the Champs Elysses.
Chez Joseph made few concessions to the tourist trade and Joseph would recount fondly of his one claim to fame.
During the war, he was give the dubious accolade of being sufficiently good to have his establishment reserved solely for Wehrmacht officers.
At Christmas 1944, when food was desperately short, he threw a dinner party for his friends. Held in the basement of the restaurant, the festive board was graced by the presence of several chickens, smuggled in from the shores of Lac Leman where one of his resistance friends, Freddie Lowenbach, ran a clandestine poultry farm.
“The birds were excellent,” he recalled, “ But what made them even tastier was that, over our heads, the Wehrmacht officers were celebrating with sausage and sauerkraut.” And, he added, “I was never any good at making sauerkraut.”
When he retired, instead of selling his business, he just closed it down.
“It was my cooking that made it. No one else could do it,” he said.


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