French chefs turning Japanese

7th October 2005, Comments 0 comments

Five up-and-coming chefs from France arrived in Japan this week to immerse themselves in a foreign culinary universe and to learn at the hands of Japanese masters. Marlowe Hood reports on this delicious role reversal.

Chef Gilles Choukroun

Historically, when French cooks have ventured abroad it was to open a restaurant or preach the gospel of la haute cuisine à la française.

But a younger generation of chefs, many with a Michelin star or two pinned to their lapels, are casting an eye abroad not as evangelists but disciples eager to acquire new techniques and to broaden their culinary vocabularies.

We come to learn, not to teach

"We are not asking to show anything, we are coming to plunge ourselves totally into Japanese cuisine," said Gilles Choukroun, chef and manager of Angl'Opéra restaurant in Paris and head of a fledging association of young chefs called "generation.c", on the eve of his departure.

*quote1*The five pilgrims, coming from all over France, have been invited by the Japanese Culinary Academy in Kyoto. During their visit, each will be ensconced in the kitchen of a top-tier Japanese restaurant for a trial-by-fire crash course lasting 10 days.

David Zuddas of the Auberge de la Charme in the Beaujolais, for example, will apprentice with Eiichi Takahashi, the 14th-generation chef of Hyo Tei restaurant in Kyoto and a demi-god of Japanese imperial court cuisine.

"I want to integrate another sensibility of cooking," Zuddas said, bristling with anticipation, in an telephone interview.

A Yoshima restaurant by famed woodblock print artist Ando Hiroshige

Japan: aller-retour

In some ways, Zuddas is returning a compliment. For several years running, he has received interns in his kitchen from the French branches of Japan's Tsuji cooking school, established in the early 1980s to teach French techniques to young Japanese chefs.

Nor is Alexis Billoux, owner and chef of Le Près au Claire in Dijon a total stranger to things Japanese, though he has never set foot there. "My father hired several Japanese chefs in the 1970s and 1980s, and now they are sending us apprentices from Japan," Billoux explained.

Despite this Asian exposure, Billoux practises a traditional French cuisine, one reason he is looking forward to the trip. "I want to be bowled over, to discover new things," he said by phone.

Choukroun and his co-voyagers, all members of generation.c, will round out their intensive education with workshops on the Japanese tea ceremony, bonsai making, the art of ikebana (Japanese floral arrangement) and -- cutting closer to home -- knife-wielding techniques.

*quote2*"On the last day each of us will demonstrate a new dish we have created during our stay in Japan," Choukroun said.

The wandering chefs of generation.c are not the first French cooks to seek inspiration from Asia.

In the 1970s, Alain Senderens and other pioneers of Nouvelle Cuisine made a pathbreaking trip to China in the waning years of Mao's Cultural Revolution that, Senderens says, left a deep impression.

More recently, chefs such as William Ledeuil of Ze Kitchen Gallerie in Paris have transformed their palates and their menus after extended forays in Southeast Asia.

Chef David Zuddas

But this may be, Choukroun says, "the first time that a group of established French chefs has gone abroad within a formal structure to study a foreign cuisine."

At least two things made the trip possible. In March the Tsuji cooking school hosted a workshop in Lyon in which six Japanese chefs and six French chefs each created and cooked a new dish with live turbot as the starting point.

"The Japanese realized to what extent we had a serious interest in their culture, their aesthetic and their cuisine," Choukroun said.

The second enabling factor was generation.c itself. "I had always been so isolated in my restaurant," explains Eric Guerin, the fourth chef embarking on this adventure.

"Since the creation of generation.c" -- which has shot up from a handful of members at the beginning of the year to nearly 60 today -- "I have much more contact with my fellow chefs."

"I would never even have known this possibility existed," Guerin said of the trip to Japan.

The fifth chef is Christophe Scherpereel of L'Esplanade in Lille.

To learn more about the Generation.c association, see the website.

October 2005

Copyright AFP

Subject: Living in France

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