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The most brilliant cook may not be the best chef

There are few objective ways of judging chefs. For a long time, it was implicitly assumed that the world’s best chefs were French.

It was Auguste Escoffier who set the standards for the modern kitchen. And in the 20th Century, it was Fernand Point at his restaurant La Pyramide, who inspired a whole generation of influential chefs: Paul Bocuse, Francois Bise, the Troisgros brothers, Alain Chapel and Louis Outhier.


Then came the era of the French superchefs: men like Alain Ducasse, Joel Robuchon, Pierre Gagnaire and others who opened restaurants all over the world and Alain Passard, who chefs rate highly.


   There were non-French chefs who rose to fame --- Fredy Girardet’s restaurant in Crissier, Switzerland was regarded by many foodies as being the finest restaurant in the world ---- but their fame faded in front of the galaxy of French stars.


   All that changed in the 21st Century, largely thanks to the American media. After the New York Times declared that Spain was the new France (at least in food and wine terms) attention shifted to Ferran Adria of El Bulli who took many of the scientific techniques used by the food industry into the restaurant kitchen and transformed gastronomy forever.


   Later, the Danish chef Rene Redzepi moved completely away from haute cuisine’s French moorings and, at Noma, his Copenhagen restaurant, started a movement dedicated to foraging and emphasizing local produce. (The focus on local produce was not new ---- the French had done that for years --- but Redzepi’s local produce tended to be things like wild ferns and live ants.)


   Adria and Redzepi must be the two most influential chefs of the 21st Century, though their legacies can lead to soul-less, joyless food where the emphasis is on gimmicks and the story behind the dish rather than (as it should be) the deliciousness of the food itself.


   One important measure of a chef’s worth is Michelin, though the guide can be parochial and French-centric. Its inspectors don’t understand Indian food, for instance, and remain suspicious of chefs who try and do new things: Adria was already world-famous by the time El Bulli finally got its third star. The great Japanese chef Yoshihiro Narisawa, still doesn’t have a third star presumably because Michelin regards his food as too avant garde.


   Even so, three Michelin stars remain the ultimate honour within the Chefs’ community.


   Then, there is the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list which, in recent years, gets far more publicity than Michelin and is a better measure, if not of the quality of the chef, than of people who are doing new and exciting things in the kitchen.


   Alain Ducasse could not be in the top Five of the 50 Best List despite all the Michelin stars his restaurants have accumulated. But that’s how the list works; it seeks out chefs who are ‘hot’ or ‘exciting’.


   Among chefs and foodies, there is broad agreement on who the most exciting chefs in the world are today. There are the Roca brothers of Spain’s El Celler de Can Roca. Then there is Daniel Humm, the Swiss chef at New York’s Eleven Madison Park who has created his own style of deceptively simple dishes with the ingredients reduced to their essence and served without the usual fripperies of presentation. There is Rene Redzepi, of course, who has just re-opened Noma. There is our very own Gaggan Anand, who has created his own style of cuisine based on Indian food. And there is Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Italy.


   All of them are in the top five of this year’s World’s 50 Best. Bottura is number one (a ranking he has held before) Humm is number four (he was number one last year) the Roca brothers are number two and Gaggan is number five (probably the first Asian to get into the World Top 15, let alone the top Five; brown chefs have to try harder to get noticed).


   While I don’t necessarily agree with the World’s 50 Best ratings (India is woefully under represented in both the global and Asian lists, though Gaggan’s Bangkok restaurant has been number one in Asia for four years in a row now) and believe that unlike Michelin, they are a little too focused on being trendy, I reckon they get it right when it comes to finding chefs who are doing something exciting.


   I was reminded of this last week when we went to Osteria Francescana in Modena. Italian food poses a challenge for chefs which we, in India, will understand. French cuisine is a collection of techniques that allows a chef to explore various ingredients and create new dishes. Italian food, like Indian food, is a collection of recipes and dishes.


   And even the most brilliant cook may not necessarily be the best chef. A man who makes the best Lasagna or the world’s finest risotto is still, at the end of the day, no more than a cook. It is the same with our food. A guy who makes a perfect dosa or a great biryani is not a great chef.  To get to that level, you have to go beyond the traditional recipes and do something new and creative.


"What impressed me the most was how he had the imagination, confidence and brilliance to create a cuisine of his own: one that owed everything to Italian ingredients and yet was nothing like traditional Italian food."

   In the old days, the top Italian chefs, recognised that cooking superlative food was not enough and began to Frenchify their dishes and presentation in the hope of meeting the approval of the Michelin inspectors. Pretty much the same thing happened with top modern Indian chefs (especially in London) till a few broke with the Frenchifying trend and used Indian flavours and ingredients with some originality. (That’s why, for instance, Gaggan is rated so highly globally).


   While there have been many talented Italian chefs who have created great food, I don’t think anyone has ever re-invented the cuisine as brilliantly as Massimo Bottura. When we went for lunch, we had the tasting menu which had nearly all of his classic dishes.  Some of the food was clearly Italian. But a lot of it was a cuisine that sprang from Massimo’s imagination.


   We ate too much for me to recount the whole meal but a few dishes will give you some idea of what makes Massimo so special. Among his most famous creations is The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna. The idea is simple enough: whenever an Italian child is served Lasagna at home, the part that is always fought over is the crunchy bit where the pasta combines with the ragu and the béchamel sauce.


   Bottura based a whole dish on only the crunchy part. This is more difficult than it sounds because to get it right, he had to make a perfect béchamel and a perfect ragu. The pasta sheets had to be top quality and he had to decide how long to cook the dish to get just the right level of crunch.


   Then there was Wagyu or No Wagyu. Most people who understand Wagyu beef and the Japanese style of cooking it are appalled by the bogus “wagyu” steaks and hamburgers being served around the globe. The so-called Wagyu is sourced from non-Japanese cows and put to purposes it was never meant for which destroy the special delicacy of Japanese Wagyu where the fat is the star.


   Bottura was so annoyed by all this bogus Wagyu that he resolved to create a dish that brought us back to the texture that should characterise Wagyu. But Italian beef is not right for this purpose. So he ‘invented’ his own “Wagyu” using pork from the neighbourhood. (Italian pork is outstanding). He took the belly and other parts of the pig to make thin strips of meat which he served in a Japanese-inspired broth.


   Modena, where Bottura has his restaurant, is famous for its Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (what we call Parmesan; which makes the locals very angry). The cheese is one of Italy’s greatest creations and like wine it ages and matures so that each ‘vintage’ (for want of a better term) tastes different.


   Bottura created a dish called Three Ages of Parmigiano using different ‘vintages’ of Parmesan cooked in different ways (a soufflé, a crisp etc.) The latest version of the dish is called Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano with five ‘vintages’, five styles of cooking and five temperatures.


   Then, there is a tribute to Paul Bocuse. Bottura told us that when he took his mother to Bocuse’s restaurant, she insisted on ordering everything. (She was keen on French haute cuisine.) Bocuse’s most famous dish is the truffle soup. This is essentially a consommé with strips of foie gras, vegetables etc.  along with a healthy quantity of black truffle. It is covered with puff pastry (Like our purdah biryani) and finished in the oven.


   When the soup is served and you puncture the pastry topping with your fork, steam rushes out infusing the air with the heady smell of truffle.


   It is a great dish but it relies on the truffle steam for its power. Bottura re-invented it and added his own touches. There was less consommé and foie gras and more of earthy ingredients like local snails. But the greatest innovation came with the crust. One area where the Italians score over the French is in the use of umami which the French still don’t fully understand.


   So Bottura dispensed with the pastry cover and made the top with Parmesan cheese. After you broke the crust, you were encouraged to mix the Parmesan with the soup.


   It had no gimmicks: no truffle steam etc. And it was the perfect updating of Bocuse’s 1970s dish for this century.


   There was more of course, including a dish made from local guinea fowl which explored the ways in which the gamey flavour of the bird balanced between poultry and meat but I’ll save that for another time.


   After the meal, when Bottura sat with us, we discussed his cuisine. It was composed of Italian ingredients and Italian traditions (the Lasagna) pushed through the chef’s imagination so that it was transformed into dishes that nobody had thought of before. It is strange for instance, that in the home of Parmigiano Reggiano, one of the world’s most famous cheeses, nobody had thought of a dish that explored the cheese’s versatility and its ‘vintages’ till Bottura had created the original “Three Ages”.


   I won’t pretend that we had the typical Francescana experience. We sat in the private dining room. Bottura served most of the dishes himself and discussed them as we ate. And we had a long chat afterwards.


   But wandering around the restaurant’s three small dining rooms (Osteria Francescana takes only about 30 covers and has 60 staff members), I could tell how smoothly the restaurant was run. Bottura himself went to every table and posed for photos.


   So yes, I enjoyed talking to him. I enjoyed the food. But what impressed me the most was how he had the imagination, confidence and brilliance to create a cuisine of his own: one that owed everything to Italian ingredients and yet was nothing like traditional Italian food.


   That’s the kind of feat that only the greatest chefs can pull off.




  • 03 Nov 2018

    Top 50 rankings or Michelin stars are simply based on the *western palate* & are quite *Racist* in my opinion, when it comes to anything non-western. We should learn to ignore them just like the NY Times has for decades. There have been fantastic, talented cooks in India for thousands of years & don't really need validation from the western world. Our local street food wallas or our grandmothers are a better *chef* than Humm or Bottura.

Posted On: 27 Oct 2018 03:38 PM
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