Young chef hots up northern France with sensual cooking
Eating at Alexandre Gauthier's restaurant should put customers in the mood for making love "otherwise it didn't work," said the young chef whose cuisine is luring foodies from far and wide to the north of France.
The 32-year-old, perhaps better known abroad than at home, offers the unexpected at his Michelin-starred La Grenouillere (The Frogpond), with gently cooked foods designed to arouse customers with their fresh, "wild" flavours.
Though he took over the inn from his father only eight years ago, Gauthier quickly won attention and is listed among the the top 100 restaurants in the world in the British restaurant guide "Restaurant".
"I am in the north of France, but also south of London, Brussels and Amsterdam," he joked.
The establishment itself, in a cosy village in France's northernmost Pas-de-Calais department, plays a role in Gauthier's vision. Open since 1900, it used to be "a bit of a naughty" venue, he said, where customers were more likely to dine with their mistresses than their wives.
His own menu is edgy, with focus on the purity of ingredients and textures. He shuns all spice except pepper.
Typical is his lobster barely smoked over juniper branches. As it's brought to the table, a few branches are set alight to create a sensual, pungent aroma. He also combines diced avocado and raw monkfish -- a fish the French rarely serve raw -- without the traditional lemon but steeped in a seaweed-infused broth, redolent of seaside holidays.
"You've got to be ready not to please everyone, but that's the choice we've made," said the chef who darts about everywhere with spoons tucked into his jeans pocket, ready to taste and mix his dishes.
Gauthier says his aim is to bring out the "absolute, precise" essence of an ingredient, as in one dish where peas are cooked in every fashion from crunchy shoots to foamy broth to melt-in-the-mouth gnocchi.
-- 'Don't use overstatement' --
He does not shy away from playing with ingredients, "using certain produce where you wouldn't expect it, going against the grain". He did this with one of his signature dishes -- pigeon served "bleu", meaning hot but nearly raw, which both horrified and impressed some of the country's top chefs at a workshop for young chefs at Paris' elite Hotel Plaza Athenee in 2005.
Before returning home, Gauthier -- who admires and often cites Michelin-starred Michel Bras, a compatriot also known for his minimalist approach -- worked in other kitchens for only three years, including the Michelin-starred Regis Marcon in south-central France and Lasserre in Paris.
"At the time it seemed short. Today I'm glad as I avoided getting stuck in a mould," he said.
He broke with his father Roland's classical fare -- frogs' legs, crepes suzette and such -- when he took over La Grenouillere in 2003.
"I didn't want to do the same traditional food as my father but I realised quickly that I had to find a style, a certain way of doing things," he said.
His approach earned him a Michelin star -- out of a maximum three -- in 2008 and the title of "creative" chef of the year in 2010 from the French food bible Omnivore, which looks for up-and-coming stars.
To complete his changes at La Grenouillere, Gauthier recently hired French architect Patrick Bouchain to extend and "reinvent" the inn. The result is a modern, open kitchen and new accommodations in six rustic yet luxurious huts at the edge of the garden.
The chef said he applied the same credo to cooking and decor: "Don't use overstatement to make a name for yourself; free yourself from ostentation and excess."
© 2011 AFP