French chef and molecular maestro Pierre Gagnaire returned to Dubai recently, paying a visit to Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire, the Dubai arm of his international restaurant empire. The arrival of this founding father of a supra-modern style of cooking occurred just as the French are getting ready to celebrate their national holiday – Bastille Day – on Saturday July 14. This set us wondering: just how far has French cooking affected the rest of the world? When the French celebrate, should we be celebrating too? Should we be thankful for the French and their food?
Aside from the Gallic techniques and recipes that have infiltrated an accepted global style of fine dining, even the way we classify and judge food has come from French models. Cooking styles are known as ‘cuisines’ (taken from the French verb ‘to cook’), while words such as ‘à la carte’ and ‘buffet’ have fluidly entered our vocabulary to describe how we eat. What’s more, culinary encyclopedia Larousse Gastronomique, the go-to text for most chefs, was originally published in France in 1938.
Beyond this, France’s Michelin star rating, once simply a handbook for motorists looking for a good food pit-stop, and has subsequently gone international. The initial criteria for a three-star venue was one worth a special trip. Now, gourmets make trips around the world to visit restaurants such as El Bulli in Spain, Noma in Denmark and The French Laundry in California.
Chef Pierre Gagnaire, 62, is often credited as a forerunner of a highly technical and innovative cooking style that has since infiltrated the mindset of high-end kitchens around the world. Yet when we ask this gourmet godfather whether he identifies his style more with ‘modern’ or ‘French’ schools of thought, the answer is grounded in his cultural roots. ‘My style is honesty, quality, sincerity,’ he explains. ‘It’s not a concept. It’s a mix of myself, my culture, my story. It’s my life, and I am French.’
Beyond personal experience, Pierre confirms that the impact of French cooking has been monumental. Even the word ‘restaurant’, Pierre points out, comes from the French language. Originally, he explains, it was simply a room where people came to eat, but it is from this simple concept that restaurants as we know them began.
For this reason, there could be no more fitting celebration of French food than Bastille Day. It was as at this stage in history, after the French Revolution, that the story of the French restaurant began. Cooks, who had previously earned a living working in the kitchens of the aristocracy, found themselves out of work, as the upper echelons of French society were swept away.
In true democratic style, they decided to make a living by finding a new outlet for their skills and setting up small businesses, where they cooked for ordinary people – provided they could pay for a meal.
It is from this simple idea that the modern restaurant evolved. ‘Today there are chefs from Spain, Italy, all over the world, but the base was in France, because France had the schools and the tradition,’ explains Pierre. ‘In France, being a chef is a career choice. Now people find it impossible to imagine cooking at home, day after day. Whether at a gourmet restaurant or McDonald’s, now everyone wants to eat out. The approach to food has changed.’
Another indication of France’s influence on this culinary democracy include French bread, which has become an iconic symbol of Gallic food. While the recipe has evolved over the centuries, it originates from a decree that only one style of bread be made. This bread, the ‘pain d’égalité’ (equality bread), combined the coarse flour and the fine, white flour used to make the bread eaten by the very poor and the very rich respectively.
Despite this, nowadays it is Italian food that chef Pierre credits with being ‘democratic’. In fact, more than once, he draws our attention to the influence of Italian cuisine on French cooking. Long before the French Revolution and the formidable French cuisine we know today, Italian noblewoman Catherine de Medici was brought to France in the mid-16th century to wed the future King Henry II of France. With her came a retinue of Florentine chefs, who brought their skills and style of cooking to the French court. The eating experience also changed, with women being allowed at banquets as a rule rather than an occasional exception. Catherine’s demands are also credited with bringing a grandeur and elegance to French dining, with a new emphasis on display, decoration and presentation.
Nevertheless, Pierre explains that he dubs Italian food today as ‘democratic’ because the philosophy is one of simplicity. ‘With French food, the approach is more elegant, more complicated,’ he adds. ‘There are more details, and it is more refined. You have the techniques, the quality of the sauce and the quality of the produce.’
On this note of elegance, are the French to thank for today’s emphasis on presentation? No, Pierre explains vehemently. ‘When I started working in the ’60s, if you looked at pictures of French food, the presentation was a disaster.’ He adds that the importance of presentation came to French cooking from the Japanese, when nouvelle cuisine created a fusion of these two styles in the ’70s. As a young chef, Pierre remembers presentation being all important to him and, at the time, the ‘best way of putting meaning into the dishes’.
Just as French cooking itself has matured and evolved, now Pierre explains, as a mature chef he has grown to understand that taste must always be the primary concern, and the primary channel for injecting ‘creativity and emotion’ into a dish.
The French influence on food is evident in words alone – just look at how it has become a culinary lingua franca.
Bouquet garni A bunch of herbs, tied in a posy with string, placed in soups and stocks to add flavour and removed after cooking.
Consommé A crystal-clear broth with the impurities removed
En papillote A technique of cooking food inside a paper parcel, which swells during cooking to create a dramatic effect when serving.
Farce Not as funny as it sounds – this is simply an old French word for stuffing.
Jus lié This describes a thickened version of a traditional ‘jus’ – a sauce or reduction that’s usually made from the cooking juices of meat.
Mirepoix A mix of vegetables, sautéed in butter to create a base for sauces, soups and stews.
Marmite An unexpected surprise for Brits! In French cooking, this describes a tall earthenware pot, often used for cooking French classics such as cassoulet or pot-au-feu.
Quenelle This traditionally refers to a dish of minced meat or fish, formed into ovals and poached, although today it can refer to any food presented in a long, thin, elegantly shaped oval.
Roux The traditional base for most sauces, made by adding flour to melted butter.
Vacherin A dessert made with meringue, fruit and cream.
A tour de France through Dubai
Try traditional Gallic dishes at these local venues
Bistro Madeleine This unassuming restaurant brings to mind a simple but atmospheric Parisian bistro. The menu is packed with classic French dishes, presenting the accessible and affordable face of French food in Dubai. From Dhs35 (main course). Open daily noon-4pm, 6pm-11.30pm. InterContinental Dubai Festival City (04 701 1111).
Ladurée The macaroons at Ladurée are recognised as being among the best in the world, and rightly so –the company has been producing them since 1862. The tea salon offers a startling array of classic and creative flavours. Try the new summer additions: cherry blossom, or milk chocolate and black forest. Dhs11 each. Open daily 10am-12.30am. The Dubai Mall (04 339 8520).
La Petite Maison Time Out’s favourite French venue (named Best Restaurant overall at our 2012 Awards) specialises in Niçoise cooking, which fuses French and Mediterranean sensibilities. Dishes include roast baby chicken marinated in lemon, and grilled lamb cutlets with smoked aubergine. From Dhs75 (main course). Open Sun-Thu noon-2.30pm, 7pm-11pm; Fri 7pm-11pm. DIFC (04 439 0505).
Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire Pierre’s menu offers an innovative and unique interpretation of French cooking. Expect some familiar references points, cunning games of texture and flavour, and some standout surprises. Dhs450 (four-course set menu). Open Mon-Fri noon-3.30pm, 7pm-11.30pm. InterContinental Dubai Festival City (04 701 1111).
STAY by Yannick Alléno This is one of very few venues in the region to offer a dessert bar (aka a ‘pastry library’, as it’s dubbed here). There’s a fairly encyclopedic array of French patisserie, and you can order a metre’s worth of cakes (served on a thin platter that’s 100cm long). From Dhs45 (desserts). Open Tue-Sun 7pm-11pm. One&Only The Palm, Palm Jumeirah (04 440 1010).
Sucré Salé This simple café offers simple but tasty versions of those classic snacks from Brittany: crêpes and galettes (the latter is the savoury version, made with buckwheat). Popular choices include caramel and apple-filled crêpes, or international favourite Nutella and banana. Dhs22 (caramel and apple crêpe). Open Sun-Thu 8.30am-10pm, Fri-Sat 9.30am-10pm. Saba Tower, Jumeirah Lakes Towers (04-448 4648).