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City of Light

I am going to Paris for just one (important) meeting.

I debate spending only 24 hours there and then, considering that Delhi airport is often fogged out and that flight schedules are frequently disrupted, I decide that 48 hours in Paris may be safer.


Then begin all the problems that foreign travel always involves these days. Paris hotels are ridiculously expensive. My trip coincides with Paris Couture Week so the rates are even more ridiculous than usual. But there are advantages to being a regular guest. The Westin Paris, a lovely old hotel with a great location (next to Le Meurice) offers me what is — by Paris standards — a great deal.


   Naturally, I grab it.


   Then, the Air India flight that I normally take has now ceased to be a daily service so there is no departure on the day I am leaving. I would rather slash my wrists than fly Air France so I consider changing planes in Dubai when I realise that there is now a Vistara option. Naturally I take it and the flight is fine: Not sure about the Singapore Airlines style ‘cosy’ seating in business class but most people seem to like it.


   The older I get, the less patience I have with airports which are usually (especially in the West) so sloppily run that even if you have had a good flight, the arrival experience makes you wish you had never come.


   Some airlines (Air India, for instance) are sensitive to this problem and try to make the arrival experience more bearable for frequent fliers, regulars, Maharaja Club members etc. Vistara, on the other hand, has the worst ground handling worldwide of any major Indian airline. (The airline’s tagline should be. “Vistara: Great in the air! Crap on the ground!)


   Expecting nothing from Vistara (a prediction borne out by subsequent experience), I try and find out which agency Air India uses at Paris Airport. It turns out to be something called France Melton Airport and Transportation. For a 100 euro per head (if you are a couple), they will get someone to receive you and escort you through the airport.


   So, for about Rs 9,000 per head you are saved all the aggravation of Charles De Gaulle airport. (Anyone can book this service. You can mail them at ) It is, I later discover, what all smart travellers do. And I can see why. It is money well spent. It takes minutes to get through immigration and customs.


A Michelin Day


I am in Paris to meet Elisabeth Boucher and Gwendal Poullennec of the Michelin Guide. I have done a whole piece on Michelin in Brunch (and in the main Hindustan Times) which will appear on Saturday so I won’t write very much here except to say that I was startled by their dynamism and wisdom.


   Gwendal joined Michelin after he finished business school and though he has no background in hospitality, he has taken the venerable old restaurant guide and transformed it. Michelin is now in 45 countries, awards Green stars for sustainability and is about to launch a rating system for hotels.


   It has always been the only guide I respect even though for years I complained about the Guide’s assessments of non-European cuisines. Under Gwendal that has changed. He made his reputation by opening up Japan and then Hong Kong for Michelin and the Guide is now taken extremely seriously in East and South East Asia where its opinions are valued and respected.


   In recent years it has finally begun to give Indian food the respect it deserves. Gaggan Anand got two stars, the highest in Bangkok which made the world sit up and take note. Gaggan was ineligible this time because his restaurant was not open for the whole year but there are now three two-star restaurants worldwide run by chefs of Indian origin. Gaa by Garima Arora in Bangkok, Thevar by Mano Thevar in Singapore and most famously, of course, Tresind Studio by Himanshu Saini in Dubai. And there are many more with single stars.


It’s Time for Lunch


We end up going for lunch to Granite, a one Michelin star restaurant that I had not heard of. It is run by a young chef Tom Meyer and though the atmosphere is relaxed and casual, the food is complex and delicious.


   They know Elisabeth and Gwendal of course but service is friendly rather than deferential. Gwendal is the public face of the Michelin Guide in France because he is the man who hands out the stars on stage. (Elisabeth does the same thing in many other countries: She handled the announcement in Spain recently and I first met her when she announced the Dubai stars last year). But as Gwendal always points out, he is not the man who decides on the star ratings.


 "Emmanuelle took me to the Le Meurice kitchen before we ate so that I could meet the chef. The first surprise was the youthfulness of the kitchen team."

   The stars are given by a team of inspectors (all well-trained, full-time employees of Michelin across the world) who remain determinedly anonymous. Gwendal says that while he is often recognised, nobody knows what the inspectors look like. Often, he has been at a restaurant and noticed an inspector eating a quiet meal at a nearby table. While the chef and the serving staff greet Gwendal warmly, they have no idea that the men who will actually rate the restaurant are sitting only a few tables away.


   The Michelin Guide is now a big international operation because of its many global outposts. (There are offices in 15 countries.) But it follows a strict Church and State policy, Gwendal and Elisabeth do not rate restaurants. They will never interfere in the work of the inspectors who can do their jobs unconcerned by commercial considerations and unburdened of the need to make the Guide pay for itself.


   Gwendal takes those burdens on his shoulders and though the Guide shares a warm relationship with its tire company parent, it is independent and self-sufficient.


The Ducasse Experience


I have time for just one dinner in Paris and wonder how to make it memorable. In the end, I don’t have to try too hard. The brilliant and elegant Emmanuelle Perrier, the backbone of the Ducasse empire, is kind enough to invite me to dinner.


   Alain Ducasse has many restaurants in Paris but Emmanuelle chooses one that is nearly as sparkling and glamorous as herself. We go to the flagship Ducasse restaurant at the Le Meurice which is great for me because it is across the road from my hotel.


   Chefs with more than one grand restaurant have different attitudes to the menus. The great Swedish Chef Bjorn Frantzen who has three stars for his restaurants in Singapore and Stockholm once told me that he conceives of every recipe for each dish at every one of his gastronomic restaurants down to the last detail including even the brand of each product to be used. (It can’t be any old vinegar; it has to be the one Bjorn used while creating the dish). So, guests get the Frantzen experience even if they eat in Singapore while Bjorn is in Stockholm.


   Ducasse has a completely different attitude. He selects the chefs, not the dishes. Once he is convinced that the chef is supremely gifted and understands the group’s philosophy, he encourages him to put his own personality on the menu. (This is why so many great chefs have emerged from Ducasse’s kitchens: Massimo Bottura, Mauro Colagreco, Clare Smyth etc)


   Sometimes chefs will include some of Ducasse’s signature dishes (say, the Rum Baba) but each menu will be different because each chef is different. Often chefs will turn to Ducasse for guidance and he will always give it.


   Emmanuelle took me to the Le Meurice kitchen before we ate so that I could meet the chef. The first surprise was the youthfulness of the kitchen team. Chef Amaury Bouhours is only 35 or so and the rest of the team is not much older. This is a next generation Ducasse kitchen with chefs who share their mentor’s view that French cuisine has the ability to adapt and learn from cuisines from all over the world. Amaury serves amuse-bouches to go with the champagne we drink in the kitchen and the influences are apparent: Japanese, Chinese and Korean. He, himself, is a great traveller. He once flew to Delhi with his wife, hired a car and then drove around Rajasthan for a month, eating at little restaurants everywhere they went.


   The meal is spectacular; everything you would expect of a great restaurant. But it is also light and fresh. The room is filled with overdressed beautiful people, some of whom are probably quite famous (the Couture Week crowd) but the service is the same for every table. There is no VIP culture here


My Pretty Woman Moment


Two things to do before I leave for the airport the next day. I have a coffee with Titika Rapanaki-Bigot whose name is forever associated with Westin Paris from even before it became the Westin. She has been here since it was the Paris Intercontinental. All good hotels have one senior employee who becomes the public face of the property and the person regular guests turn to. At the Westin, Titika is that person: All regulars feel we are her guests. And it completely personalises the hotel experience.


   And a final lunch at Benoit, a century-old bistro that serves traditional dishes (I had the snails and the cassoulet) with a dash of excellence: Ducasse brought the restaurant in 2005 and it now has a Michelin star.


   The food is wonderful but I have my own Pretty Woman moment, when, as I am extracting a snail from its shell, the shell escapes from my grasp and flies across the room.


   It is a Michelin starred restaurant so they pretend not to have noticed. They pick the shell up discreetly and act like nothing has happened.


   Ah Paris! Lovely, charming and discreet!



Posted On: 30 Jan 2024 09:30 AM
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