French chefs and their cuisine will always catch the shine internationally. DIANE DE BEER explains the magic:
Michelin-star chef Vincent Lucas is someone who expects diners at his Sainte-Sabine-Born (in Dordogne) restaurant to make a culinary leap and eat what he prepares on the night.
Chef-patron of Etinecelles (sparks), a restaurant that only seats 20 diners, he wants them to take a risk with his “adventures in the land of flavours”.
“That’s where I am King, and I decide for them.” Makes perfect sense to me because I have always thought when visiting a specific restaurant that one should defer to the chef. Especially when visiting Michelin-starred restaurants, it’s a time to experiment and play.
For Lucas it’s a case of challenging diners and not allowing them to become too comfortable. Currently in South Africa as part of So Chef! (A Taste of France in South Africa), this is your chance to meet four talented French chefs who will be travelling the country.
Showing off his skills at an informal lunch at the French Embassy in Pretoria courtesy of the relatively new French Ambassador to South Africa, Aurélien Lechevallier, Lucas talked a little about his food preferences. In South Africa, it starts with local produce.
In preparation for the lunch, he first talked to the resident chefs to find out what they had available. When he heard there was Cape lobster and fresh fish, he could start to play.
As a starter he used bouillon (one of his favourites) as an inspiration. “I love serving a bouillon, but it is very different to the traditional meat or fish-based varieties,” he explains.
Flavours and textures are a big part of his cooking and at home, he uses a wild apple in his garden which is too small to do anything else with. It’s about a fresh explosion and with this type of light, floral based bouillon it combined well with the lobster, onion, hazelnuts for flavour and crunch and mushrooms. Everything is very lightly cooked to keep the it all fresh.
This was followed by the mains; a fish I wasn’t familiar with, sourced from the Cape, called Denti. This was presented with deceptive simplicity with crisp greens including celery, peas and asparagus which was cooked in water used to prepare the fresh maize which pops up the in the dessert. All of this was lightly doused with a beurre blanc.
For many around the table, the highlight was the dessert combining contrasting ingredients such as strawberries in olive oil, lightly sauteéd fresh maize, sweet avo with lime and something he is very fond of, drops of raw meringue. Fresh sage added another texure and taste as we were told to eat the dessert with every ingredient on the plate on the spoon. It’s perhaps the one that most visibly captures his food philosophy which is creating an explosion of contrasting tastes. Sweet, sour and salty is something he’s very comfortable with.
Some of his other favourites include a peach studded with anchovies as an appetizer or a foie gras seared with coconut for dessert. He is also fond of rolling it in biltong powder for an extra meaty kick.
It was the perfect meal on a Friday afternoon and a thrill to get a taste of contemporary French cuisine. None of the stodginess of cuisine or chef that one might stereotypically expect in these circumstances and the ambassador cheekily suggested that the conversation was as charming as the cuisine and perhaps we should just linger at the table until dinner.
But the four chefs are much too busy for that. They are touring the country and Lesotho with So Chef! Offerings still available include eat-alongs which is an immersive food experience where the audience eat along with the participants in a chosen film. (October 16 in Cape Town; October 17 in Johannesburg); disco soupe which is a collective and open cooking session of scrapped or unsold vegetables and fruit to sensitise people to food waste but also to eat healthy and tasty food and to heighten the awareness of the fun of cooking together. (October 19 in Soweto , a brief that fits chef Lucas perfectly as he loves using everything – from the husk to the pulp): workshops to be held at schools through the partnership with the Department of Basic Education and their National Nutrition week; as well as for the general public more specifically at the Alliance Francaise network in South Africa and Lesotho; 4-handed gastronomic dinners to eat at partner restaurants to eat food that a French chef and the restaurant’s chef cook together. (October 18 in Durban at the Sugar Club Restaurant in Umhlanga);
The other three French chefs participating include Joey Atchama, one of the most promising chefs on Reunion islands having won this year’s Best Chef Reunion Island award. His focus is traditional cooking skills and mixing them with rigour and culinary techniques; Frédéric Jaunault who has cooked all over the world, has won the Meilleur Ouvrier de France in the “Fruitier Primeur” category, is French and European champion of sculpture art using fruit and vegetables. He now teaches at the Academy of Fruits and Vegetables and promotes France and its cuisine all over the world; Florion Py completes the quartet with a background of pastry and as head chef working in several 3-star Michelin restaurants. Currently he is teaching at his alma mater Lycée Hyancinthe Friant in the Jura wine-growing region. He is passionate about the history of gastronomy and eager to share his discoveries and his knowledge.
All of this is brought to the South African public and scholars by: The French Institute of South Africa (IFAS), The Alliance Francaise network in Southern Africa; Atout France; The Reunion Island Tourism Board; The Bourgogne-Comté Province; The Lycée Hyancinthe Friant and in partnership with the South African Department of Basic Education.