Yannick Aleno talks sauce

Award-winning chef shares his views on sauces, cooking and books

Yannick Alléno is the multi-Michelin-awarded French chef behind Dubai’s innovative French experience STAY by Yannick Alléno. Last year chef Yannick brought together the sum total of his 25 years of cooking in fine dining kitchens, by publishing Ma Cuisine Française (My French Cuisine). This impressive 1,250 page tome is arguably the cooking equivalent of a memoir. And once a memoir is written, what’s next? Something of a revolution, actually, Yannick revealed, when we met earlier this year.

This was ahead of yet another book launch; this time, something much smaller, but still mighty, since chef Yannick had a pioneering discovery up his sleeve. Launched in Paris in May, Yannick’s 32-page Sauces: reflexions d’un cuisinier (Sauces: reflections of a chef) may look like a mere booklet in comparison to his last opus, but inside it is a forward-thinking – in fact ground-breaking – new way of looking at the humble sauce.

Moving on from this definitive round-up of his recipes, Yannick’s plan seems to have been to bring a new scion of culinary creativity to French cooking, but in a quintessentially French spirit. Ever innovative as a chef, and thoroughly French in his outlook, Yannick explains that at the very heart of French cooking (what separates it from other philosophies, if you will) is its use of sauce. ‘It’s the real DNA of French cooking,’ he says.
‘The definition of sauce? It is an aromatic liquid that makes a marriage between the elements on the plate. Sauce is a verb. Without sauce, there is no story. No sauce, no French cuisine.’ Simple.

In order to understand why Yannick’s new process of creating sauces is pioneering, he starts off with a history lesson (one that pushes the boundaries of our school days knowledge of chemistry and French).
Taking us back to the 1800s, Yannick explains that the history of sauce can be divided into four distinct categories. The 19th century saw the concept of the ‘universal sauce’ (or ‘sauce allemande’). One base sauce was prepared-cooked in a huge pot for a long time, approximately 24 hours’. This base sauce was then used as the starting point for all the other sauces in the kitchen.

From this, the concept of sauce was refined during the era of French chef Auguste Escoffier in the 1900s with the creation of ‘fond nouveau’, closer to what we know today as stock. Crucially, at this stage, the separation of different stock bases began; so one kitchen would be ‘running’ different stocks, such as veal and (separately) chicken, which could then be used separately as the base for relevant chicken- or veal-based sauces. With this step (Yannick tells us as he scribbles away at the white board in the kitchen of STAY) smaller pots were used and consequently cooked for a shorter time (around 12 hours).

The third stage of sauce production, Yannick continues, was the Nouvelle Cuisine movement in the 1970s, which brought with it the trend for jus. Again, the cooking pots became smaller still, hence an even shorter cooking time was required (around three hours). This reduction in cooking time, Yannick explains, helped to retain the flavour without the ingredients being overly damaged or distorted by heat. As a result, the jus wave helped to create a more ‘precise’ flavour, closer to the taste of the original ingredient. ‘You could imagine the taste of a real roast,’ Yannick says by way of example.

Jus is essentially a reduction that is created through the use of heat. Heat leads to the evaporation of water content, which leads to a concentration of the liquid, and consequently the flavour of the sauce. In layman’s terms, heat equals less water, and removing the water from the sauce means more flavour. But this is like the quantum physics of cooking: one issue with this process is that heat will always affect the ingredients in the sauce, and therefore has an affect on its flavour, too. The key word in conversation with Yannick is ‘precise’ and the aim of his experimentation with the sauce-making process is bringing the flavour ‘close to the reality’ of the ingredient it is supposed to represent – so a celeriac sauce should ideally taste as close as possible to celeriac.

Yannick’s fourth stage in the history of sauce brings us right up to date. This stage is Yannick’s own pioneering part in the story. Now, he says, his kitchen cooks sauce ingredient by ingredient. So, for example, carrot, celeriac and chicken are prepared separately, not combined at the start.

Yannick shows us the example of his new-style celeriac sauce. First of all, diced, raw celeriac (with some skin left on to add to the flavour) is vacuum-packed with water and prepared sous vide – slow at low heat– at 84 degrees Fahrenheit for 12 hours. Heat, he explains, breaks the molecular chain in the vegetable (which is desired), but this sous vide process allows the celeriac to be heated to the lowest possible temperature for this process to still occur, but with minimal effect on the flavour of the ingredient.

The next step, is ‘cryoconcentration’. First discovered in 1928, this technique is not itself new, Yannick explains, but his use of it in a culinary context is a ‘new vision’ for restaurants. What Yannick is doing is similar to a jus-like reduction. He continues to remove the water from the sauce in order to achieve a more concentrated flavour. However, in this case, it is an extraction achieved through freezing. During the freezing process, the water content separates itself from the rest of the body of the liquid by rising to the top of the frozen mass. The flavour achieved from this process is even ‘more precise’ than the concentration achieved through heating. ‘In the end, it is the same,’ Yannick says, ‘I am removing the water from the liquid, but this process is not aggressive.’

This liquid is poured into glasses in a process more akin to grape tasting, as Jean-Sébastien Azaïs the sommelier at One&Only The Palm, begins to assess Yannick’s creation. Swirling the glass, smelling its aroma, holding it to the light, Yannick and Jean-Sébastien discuss the celeriac liquid in relation to the characteristics of grape, and Jean-Sébastien reveals that the immediate impression for him is of oxidation, a metallic quality similar to the unique ‘yellow’ grape variety specific to the Jura region of France.

Sampling this translucent, yet golden yellow concoction, the consistency is incredibly thick and syrup-like, the flavour is intense and the mouth retains a rich and buttery sensation for some time. Nothing has been added to this concoction. It is pure celeriac. Since the process retains all the vegetable’s natural minerals, even salt is not needed. This, Yannick says, could be a key development in healthier cooking too. Finally, Yannick finishes off this sauce on the stove, adding only a little butter (‘because I like butter,’ he shrugs), before adding it to a dish of caviar-topped scallops.

Is this new style of sauce a revolution in cooking? ‘With modesty, yes, I think so. French creativity is back,’ says Yannick.

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