No rats in Paris palace kitchens

29th July 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, July 29, 2007 (AFP) - Two chefs per diner, stringent hygiene and an almost military-style hierarchy and discipline -- such is life in the kitchens of Paris' top-end restaurants, the subject of Hollywood's just-released blockbuster animation "Ratatouille".

PARIS, July 29, 2007 (AFP) - Two chefs per diner, stringent hygiene and an almost military-style hierarchy and discipline -- such is life in the kitchens of Paris' top-end restaurants, the subject of Hollywood's just-released blockbuster animation "Ratatouille".

Take the Crillon, the luxury hotel a stone's throw from the Seine where the cheapest room is 615 euros (839 dollars) a night with suites up to 8,000. Deep in its under-belly down flights of steps, chef Jean-Francois Piege lords over "a brigade" of 72 cooks whipping up gourmet platters for the hotel and its restaurant.

Not far away, at the equally legendary and expensive Le Meurice overlooking the Tuileries gardens, chef Yves Alleno has "a brigade", as it is known, of 74 -- not to mention the squad of 20 dish-washers and a dozen patissiers.

Yet both the exclusive Le Meurice and the Crillon's Les Ambassadeurs restaurants cater for only 35 to 40 diners per meal.

But with the bill at a couple of hundred euros a head -- at least -- and a reputation to maintain, food excellence and novelty come at a price.

In the Crillon's recently-refurbished kitchens -- to the tune of five million euros (6.8 million dollars) -- a handful of apprentice cooks were busily swabbing down the floor ahead of the evening meal during a visit this month by AFP.

As at Le Meurice, the actual kitchen with its ergonomically-built ovens and work-benches, is carefuly separated from the store-rooms -- one for fish, one for meat, and one for vegetables, excluding bacteria-carrying potatos, which are kept in isolation.

"Clean and dirty products must never cross paths," said Piege, the 36-year-old chef built like a rugby-player who barely a year after taking over the kitchen in 2004 won the Crillon a second prized star from the Michelin Guide, the French food bible.

Even vegetable peeling, said Alleno at Le Meurice, takes place in its own special chamber. "We peel everything by hand," added the 38-year-old, who this year realised every chef's dream by winning a third Michelin star for his restaurant, the ultimate prize for a French cook.

"We stick to the rules and there are routine hygiene controls," he said.

While there are no rats in these kitchens, actually getting the food onto the customer's plate is a highly-organised ritual, as portrayed in "Ratatouille".

"It's very military-style, that's why we're called a brigade," said Piege, who like Alleno commands operations with his assistants from a glass office inside the kitchens, or barks orders from the bench where the final touches are set before the plates are whisked up to the tables.

Alleno sees the cooks and the kitchen as more akin to a symphony orchestra, with each playing his own partition. "I beat the time, just like an orchestra," he said.

Under the rules of French cuisine, the cooks are divided into sections, known as a "partie", each one responsible for hot or cold starters, fish, and sauces and meat. Each section is headed by a chief, followed by a deputy chief, junior cooks or "commis", and, last of all, apprentices.

Dressed in white with paper chef's hats, the cooks come armed with a set of five razor-thin knives. Piege, whose staff must also wear kerchiefs around their necks, whips out a knife and shows how sharp it is by shaving off a length of arm hair.

He hates to see his chefs talking in the kitchen, a pillar-less room designed with all the shelves at head level so that the cooks can maintain eye contact across the stoves without spoiling the broth.

"There's no time to talk, there's too much noise. Only myself and my assistant are allowed to speak and everyone must be able to hear our orders," he said. "Cooks must be able to understand what's going on, and to understand each other they need to be able to see what everyone else is doing."

With only a couple of hours in which to dish out gourmet concoctions as soon as the first orders arrive at each service, the work-benches are black to help conc

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