For Nicolas Magie, chef at La Cape in Bordeaux, a dish might start with the memory of a badly made kebab at a Basque street fair.
Reconstructed and vastly improved, it becomes the "kebasque" – slow-cooked suckling pig rolled with sauteed peppers into a cylinder and served in flatbread with a single pomme Pont Neuf (like a giant French fry) and spicy homemade ketchup in a little silver tube.
Magie was one of 26 French and international chefs who took to the stage during the second edition of the Omnivore Food Festival (OFF), held this week in Le Havre. Organised by the restaurant trade magazine Omnivore, the festival aims to provide a platform for up-and-coming talent.
Rock-video-style clips introduced each of the chefs, who strutted their culinary stuff in front of an audience of 300 food professionals. Among the performers were such established names as Ferran Adria, the Spanish chef who has very nearly made spuma (foam) a household word, and France's Marc Veyrat from the Savoy region, the first chef to receive a perfect 20/20 rating in the GaultMillau restaurant guide.
Chef's express their identities
From a single peeled apple pip on a large white plate to sea urchins with emerald green coriander sauce, chilli pepper and mandarin spuma, the dishes on display showed that French chefs are no longer afraid to express their own identities and humour.
Adria, who is known for his wild culinary experiments, is more of a hero to this generation of chefs than Auguste Escoffier, whose interpretation of haute cuisine has long provided the basis for French culinary training.
On stage, he proudly showed a video clip of his latest contraption, which uses pressure to turn water, olive oil and a touch of natural gelatine into golden, caviar-like globules. Ubiquitous among the French, Spanish, Italian and American chefs present were his siphons for creating ethereal foams and his Pacojet, which transforms a frozen block of food into an airy mousse.
"In the history of cooking there have always been techniques and philosophies, and I think it's fantastic that I have so many followers in France," says Adria.
"Of course, some of them are good and some are not, which is always the risk with the avant-garde. I think the level of cooking in France is still very high. Each chef must do what he wants and what he likes, and then it's the client who will determine the success of his restaurant."
Adria's influence showed in the cooking of Mauro Colagreco, an Argentinian chef who has worked in France for seven years and recently took over the Mirazur restaurant in Menton. He prepared an appetiser of whipped cream with shallot and sherry vinegar, with diced Granny Smith apple for crunch and a foam of seaweed infused in mineral water.
Developing their own styles
Fellow participant Anne-Sophie Pic, who is expected next week to become the first woman to receive three Michelin stars since 1933 at her restaurant Maison Pic in Valence, makes liberal use of foams, mousses and emulsions in dishes such as John Dory with turmeric, aubergine mousse and foamy coconut milk.
Young chefs are also drawing on their experiences abroad to develop their own styles. Alexandre Bourdas, chef at Sa.Qua.Na in Honfleur, spent three years in Japan creating a copy of the restaurant Michel Bras, which draws gourmands from around the world to the sparsely populated Auvergne region in central France.
Bourdas likes to take a single ingredient and transform its texture, such as coconut or sugar, which he melts, mixes with salted butter and flavours with curry powder or herbs. Pauillac-based Thierry Marx, a mentor to many of the chefs present at the OFF, firmly believes in borrowing from other food cultures. "We need to have a global vision and stop looking no further than the end of our nose."
Marx invited two Chinese chefs, Tommy and Andre Shan of the restaurant Au Bonheur du Palais in Bordeaux, to join him on stage. They prepared a Sichuan banquet dish, "immortal chicken," while Marx interpreted the eel with a lacquered Chinese touch and a splash of red Bordeaux.
Marx points out that chefs have to be more creative now than when he began his career, as the cost of running a restaurant in France is so high and diners are more careful with their money. "Young chefs don't have the same means as chefs did 20 years ago," he said. "It's much harder to work with inexpensive products than it is to grate truffles."
Even as they look beyond their borders with ingredients such as galangal – a ginger-like root – and Japanese rice wine, French chefs are becoming more conscious of their own environments.
"people want to eat the chef's personality"
The Savoyard Marc Veyrat, famous for never taking off the black hat that symbolizes his peasant roots, recently sold his restaurant in the ski resort of Megeve to open a 25-seat dining room in the Alps where he plans to become entirely self-sufficient, cooking with wild mountain herbs and his own vegetables, fruit and livestock.
Clients will have to walk 500 metres on foot to reach the restaurant. "Each chef should have a strong identity that's rooted in his region," he says. At L'Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel in Arles, the chef grows 126 different vegetables and up to 30 to 40 varieties of each vegetable – he has 37 types of basil, for instance.
If clients pay dearly for the privilege of tasting Veyrat's environmental cooking, Rabanel keeps his prices democratic at 30 to 50 euros a meal. "Vegetables are my world, my life, my passion," says Rabanel, who seven years ago became the first Michelin-starred chef to cook almost solely with organic vegetables, using meat as a garnish. "We have to come back to our roots and the basics. My style reflects who I am and I believe that people want to eat the chef's personality."
Though he punctuated his dishes at the festival with the occasional flourish of foam, Rabanel focused on cooking vegetables in infusions of herbs and wild seeds over very low heat to preserve their nutritional value.
Asked what he thought about the state of French cooking today, he said: "It's extraordinary. We have never eaten so well."