Last month I was in Paris for a brief visit and had an opportunity to visit the temples of haute cuisine in the city of lights. It was glorious to enjoy the cuisine at some of the top tables not only in France but the world. To dine at Guy Savoy as he presided over the kitchen, to revisit Alain Passard and L’Arpege , to run through the kitchens at Pierre Gagnaire as he took me by the hand to his office right through the middle of a film crew shooting in the kitchen, to get an opportunity to visit with Pascal Barbot at L’Astrance in his cozy office above the restaurant are experiences that will stay with me for a while. Whenever I spend time or have conversations with these greats of French cuisine I am struck by how normal, humble and down to earth these masters of cuisine are. I did not get to visit with Alain Ducasse on this trip as his restaurant at Plaza Athenee was opening a few days later but a prior conversation with him will be the subject of an upcoming post. To see Guy Savoy at the door greeting his guests and stopping by tables or Pierre Gagnaire’s warm greeting for guests and Alain Passard going round the dining room is something I wish a lot of upcoming chefs learned to emulate. To have a conversation with Pascal Barbot about the nuances of Indian spices or our mutual appreciation of some serious chilies as a dialogue between two cooks is something unique in a world where I often meet so called celebrity chefs surrounded by entourages or their PR who want to vet every conversation or question and you never get to know the real person behind the facade.Those are conversations that I do not feel compelled to share or post and never do. Pascal Barbot is one of the most admired chefs amongst the young brigade and reservations at his restaurant the most sought after but he is also an utterly charming, intelligent and uncomplicated person just doing what he loves. His food is a reflection of his personality and his joy of creating and sharing his talent with those fortunate enough to experience his cuisine. My recent article about a conversation with him last month:
Interview with Chef Pascal Barbot, Just Looking for Perfection!
L’Astrance, situated on a small street off the banks of the Seine River in view of the Eiffel Tower, has become a landmark of sorts in the culinary Mecca of Paris. Even the towering Eiffel close by cannot cast a shadow on the brilliance of this young chef. Chef Pascal Barbot and his partner Christophe Rohat opened their restaurant in 2000, earning their first Michelin star in three months. Within a short period of seven years the duo astounded the culinary world by earning their third Michelin star for their diminutive restaurant in the Trocadero neighborhood of Paris. The two partners had both worked at L’Arpege for legendary chef Alain Passard before striking out on their own. Their restaurant initially with only 25 seats with 12 more on the mezzanine and no set menu introduced a novel concept as once the diners determine the number of courses the chef and his brigade choose the menu that changes with the seasons. There are some iconic dishes like the jasmine scented eggnog in eggshells, a foie gras layered with mushrooms, hazelnut oil and confit of lemon and a langoustine with a spicy tomato peanut sauce. Rohat is the suave maitre’d and the sommelier for the house while Barbot performs his magic in the compact kitchen. The facade of the restaurant in the upscale residential neighborhood with the glass front curtained inside with tall stacks of hay is understated like the interior with dark walls lit up by the pale yellow seats. The welcome at the door is always warm and when the chef stops by to chat with the diners he really wants to ensure that his work is up to his own standards of perfection.
Barbot says he knew as a young child growing up in Vichy that he wanted to cook for a living though no one from his family worked in the culinary field. Barbot has traveled extensively and spent time all over the South Pacific as head chef to the Admiral of the French Naval Fleet while performing his required military service. His travels introduced him to spices and other new ingredients like mangoes, coconut and chilies which he uses liberally, not the norm in traditional French kitchens. Time spent at Ampersand in Australia where he got his first job as head chef made him appreciate the freedom in the kitchen in the choice of product and cooking style. All these experiences in kitchens in France, London or Australia led him to prefer a lighter style of cooking and contrary to the traditional French kitchen with less stress on butter and heavy sauces. I first met him in San Sebastian Spain at the Gastronomika and then again at other conferences like MAD3 where he spoke about spontaneity in the kitchen and his personal approach to cooking. Barbot’s passion for what he does is apparent in any conversation with this unassuming young chef as is his love for travel. He is unfazed and unchanged by his fame and when we last met at his restaurant a few weeks ago he took me around his small kitchen and across a minuscule courtyard, up a spiral staircase to his office where we sat down to chat. His desk piled with reference books, his children’s drawings on the wall and the windows looking into the apartments across the street point to what is important in his day to day routine. Unusual for such an acclaimed establishment they open only four days a week to allow both partners ample family time. The recurring theme in every conversation with Barbot is the detailed references to cooking and his proficient use of spices and products from around the world in his French cuisine.
Are food memories important for a chef and how do you relate them to your food?
Yes. It’s quite important like when I am in the market buying products or when I am cooking I know what is going to happen on a plate. For example today for lunch I cooked grapefruit with fish, peanuts and chili. I come from a part of France where this kind of cooking is not usual but since I traveled and still travel a lot I know or have an idea about which kind of fish will taste good like this , the peanuts will be crunchy, the bitterness of the grapefruit and the sugars in it will work together. Sometimes when I am cooking with a new product I don’t want to know how people normally use it as I like to discover it on my own
You talk frequently about spontaneity in the kitchen so when you are inspired by a product do you immediately know how you are going to use it?
Not always, sometimes it takes a long time to figure it out. I just wrote a book that took me a long time just like for recipes sometimes it takes two or three years to get it right. I know I am going to make a recipe from the technique, from the souvenir, from the memory of a voyage or when I was young or from a product I found. For example pears right now in autumn are amazing so I know I absolutely want to use them so right now I am forcing myself to cook with pears. Sometimes it takes five minutes to figure it out and other times we need to take time to find a perfect recipe for a product. I might get an idea to use carrot and peanut or sometimes I want to use a new technique that I learned from Japan or Morocco or I remember that as a child I liked to eat cheese and beef together so I try to reinterpret these ideas in my way to create a new dish.
Ideally how many different elements should be on a plate or in a dish?
I don’t think about how many elements I want to put on a plate while I am cooking. All the chefs will say that the product is the most important and of course it is but we can’t keep repeating something that is so obvious over and over again. In France we use leeks, onions, celery etc. with fish and for lunch today I cooked turbot and I was looking for the perfect way to cook this fish. I received the fish yesterday but it was too fresh to cook so I filleted the turbot and put in salt with a pinch of sugar and I left it overnight and this morning it was perfect to cook. To garnish the turbot after cooking a la minute I let it rest and always slice after cooking the product whole. I am always looking for perfection on a plate. I am very simple like Winston Churchill, just looking for perfection.
Aren’t simplicity and perfection the hardest to attain? What is it that you are trying to achieve?
When I cook fish I am always looking for the rainbow on the fish and that it’s juicy (he opened his cook book to show me the plates). This fish is not cooked sous-vide but steamed then sliced with a perfect sharp knife. This morning for example I got and prepared mackerel, John Dory and also cooked pigeon that I had rested for 17 days because it is not good when it is too fresh. I always like to work with condiments as the garnish. Sometimes I will use one ingredient and at other times 20. I attach more importance to the way I cook the main ingredient which in this case is the turbot, pigeon, onion or whatever. For me they are like people – all equal and so all the ingredients are the same and equally important to me. So when I cook onions I will take the same approach as when I cook pigeon or foie gras. The only difference is that it depends on what I want to elevate on my plates. My plates are easy to understand and to know what goes with what.
So your cuisine is more product based and not technique centered?
My cuisine is as simple as possible. In my plates I have some small elements like maybe chili oil with langoustine or peanut satay, by the way I love satay and it is absolutely my most favorite. For me the broth is the most important element like today I used raw garlic juice, raw ginger juice, raw lemon juice with herbs or for mashed potatoes I use salt, pepper and truffle juice. I use the same technique and philosophy with Asian influence and it does not matter if I use three elements or ten I am trying to get the perfect balance. In this dish (pointing to a plated entree) I have prawn stock, a la minute I don’t add salt and pepper as I find it ridiculous to focus on only two ingredients, I prefer to use capers or olive oil, some smoked fish, cardamom or a variety of other elements. If I use ginger and chili I am not going to put pepper. Once I have my perfect stock with ginger, lemon, soy sauce, ginger and chili syrup, herb infusion I can proceed. I like the cuisine in Asia especially in Japan since in Europe you have salty, sweet, bitter and acid and never not pungent like ginger. I like to use some syrup because I want to raise the flavor level and bring some freshness and for acidity some lime or lemon juice. When you add acid in a sauce you suppress the flavors and to balance them I add sugar. You have to find the right balance and then I like to add chili too.
You use a lot of Indian spices too like your black curry are the health benefits a consideration?
In that I use about 25 ingredients but all black ingredients. I went to Kerala in India a long time ago and I learnt there how to toast the spices and cook with them. As you see I don’t like too much cream and butter, I am careful about using these and even when I use cheese on a degustation menu only one plate will be heavier. When I put fat, I put a lot of fat for example if I use burrata cheese I will put a big piece on a plate then the other plates will be lighter. My dishes are very clean and light for example I do a tomato, sorrel and white chocolate dessert. Some of my dishes will have only four ingredients like oysters, beetroot, ox cheeks and Camembert cheese which is very French combination. My plates are very easy to understand and if one condiment has twenty things in the end it is one of maybe four elements on a plate. What is most important is that the perfect plate must be achieved.
When you come up with a recipe are you constantly changing it?
It’s never finished and I keep working on it. I use unusual combinations like black curry and miso paste or it could be Thai or Indian.
What do you want people to know about your style of cooking or your legacy?
Laughing I am too young to think about that and not good enough to tell anyone anything. I think of myself not as a chef but as an apprentice. I am still learning and I have a lot to learn yet. One day I wish I can be a chef. My signature dish when I opened the restaurant was an avocado and crab meat dish. Everywhere in the world you had the avocado half with crab meat so my dish did not need to be explained because the combination was familiar but my approach was my own. I remember as a kid in the school canteen even we got something like this. When I do dishes like this there is no risk and shrimp, mayonnaise and avocado are tastes that everyone recognizes. I just wanted to make a cleaner version.
One ingredient you love?
Chilies, I love chilies and use them a lot, I also grow a lot of chilies, growing up my culture didn’t use a lot of these but since I discovered chilies I love them. I also use a lot of citrus in my dishes. People ask me if my food is Japanese or French or Asian. I don’t care I use the products in my kitchen in France it’s not fusion and I don’t know what to call it. People here call it exotic food or Asiatic food, modern food, fusion food. You can call it what you want since everyone’s concept of exotic is different. It’s not possible to compare Japan and Thailand or Spain and France. I know I have a lot of Asian influence but Asia is huge and for example China and Korea are not the same and Vietnam is totally different. I love to find new ingredients when I travel and like to use them in novel combinations.
I left thinking about our conversation which was very different from those with other chefs as it was easy to see that he lives and breathes in this food centered universe and is happiest when cooking or talking about it. We ended up discussing the differences between Kokum and tamarind as souring agents in Indian cuisine and his preference for using Indian jaggery or “gur” over processed sugar. Like many other chefs these days he grows a lot of different things himself, not as an affectation but because he really enjoys adding them to his creations. It is easy to comprehend why his “Astrance: A Cook’s Book” is seen on shelves in many kitchens and referenced by chefs since it is a very practical and informative collection of recipes and techniques. We parted at the door with the intent of continuing this conversation soon.