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The chefs who have become legends

Even if you have no real interest in food, you have probably heard of Noma in Copenhagen.

Perhaps you have heard of El Bulli, the now closed Spanish restaurant where many of today’s great chefs learned their craft.


Of Massimo Bottura who re-invented Italian food. (And who was here in Delhi a couple of weeks ago.) Or of Alain Ducasse, the King of French chefs whose restaurants have more Michelin stars than everyone else’s.


   And of course you know who Heston Blumenthal, Gordon Ramsay and Gaggan Anand are.


   In an age when famous chefs have reached superstar status, it is sometimes possible to think of them in isolation without realising why they are so famous or even how, at some level, most of them are connected to each other in experience and background.


   If you do care about the development of European food over the last century, and want to know the stories behind the names, here is a rough guide to the chefs who have become legends and why their contributions are so important.


   We’ll start with French food because it has long been regarded as the great cuisine. Most chefs (even those at Indian catering colleges) are taught the basics of French food on the grounds that these help with every kind of restaurant cuisine.


   French food has a long and glorious history but the version we know today is largely the creation of a chef called Auguste Escoffier who cooked in France and (perhaps more significantly) in London. Escoffier codified French cuisines, perfected the recipes for the so-called mother sauces that are at the heart of French cooking and invented kitchen practices and techniques that are still practised all over the world.


   While many great chefs followed Escoffier, the most significant changes to French cuisine came in the 1950s, when a chef called Fernand Point laid the foundations for a new style of French cooking which was still rich (lots of butter) but less focused on stodginess and flour-thickened sauces.


   Point is not much remembered outside France these days, but his protégés, men like Paul Bocuse, Pierre Troisgros, Alain Chapel went on to transform French cooking.


   They did not disown Escoffier but the Nouvelle Cuisine they popularised (often caricatured as small portions on very large plates) emphasised texture and freshness. Though nouvelle cuisine spread around the world as far back as the 1970s, it reached its peak a decade later and still continues to turn up in French restaurants around the world.


   Since then French cuisine has marched forward thanks to chefs like Alain Ducasse (who worked with Alain Chapel who worked with Point) who have refined it further. Ducasse emphasised the provenance and freshness of ingredients, arguing that even technique was ultimately less important than the source and quality of the raw materials.


   Almost all the famous chefs who come to India or of whom we hear in the media – Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White, Daniel Humm etc. — are trained in the French tradition. And some, like Mauro Colagreco and Massimo Bottura have actually worked with Ducasse.


"Chefs like Massimo Bottura who worked with Adria found the confidence to stop Frenchifying Italian food and discovered their own voices."

   The next great innovation after nouvelle cuisine came from Spain where a largely self-taught chef called Ferran Adria created a revolution at El Bulli, a restaurant nobody had heard of before. At around the same time, another self-taught chef Heston Blumenthal was also throwing away all the old rules at the Fat Duck in Bray, near London.


   Adria and Blumenthal (who worked independently of each other) became intrigued by unusual flavours, new ingredients and the role of science in the kitchen. Journalists caricatured their food as ‘molecular cuisine’, a term that both men hated. Blumenthal had the more famous dishes and people all over the world were intrigued by the idea of Bacon and Egg Ice-cream or Snail Porridge but both chefs created techniques that revolutionised kitchen practices. Adria started the spherification craze, Blumenthal’s Fat Duck became the first restaurant to use liquid nitrogen. Both are now kitchen standards.


   Soon, journalists wrote the obituary of traditional French cuisine, missing the point that neither Adria or Blumenthal wanted to eclipse French cuisine (which they respected). Adria closed El Bulli after a few years at the top but Blumenthal has continued cooking and writing and The Fat Duck still has three Michelin stars and flourishes.


   Blumenthal has moved away from sticking only to scientific cooking, has gone back in time to recreate British cooking from the Middle Ages (at his two Michelin star Dinner by Heston Blumenthal) and has created the perfect recipes for simple dishes like French Fries (triple cooked chips) or a steak, most of which have nothing to do with so-called molecular gastronomy.


   Both men changed the directions of cooking. Chefs like Massimo Bottura who worked with Adria found the confidence to stop Frenchifying Italian food and discovered their own voices. Gaggan Anand who trained with Adria came to Bangkok and also refused to Frenchify Indian food as Michelin-starred Indian restaurants abroad had done till that point. He started out with molecular techniques but soon created a new style of Indian food that has been widely imitated.


   The most influential of the El Bulli alumni was Rene Redzepi. Though Redzepi had worked with traditional chefs like the Pourcel twins and Thomas Keller, he says that El Bulli changed his life. He realised then that the old rules were dead and that he could cook what he wanted just how he wanted in the post El Bulli era.


   Today, Noma is the most important and influential restaurant in the world because Redzepi has transformed restaurant cooking. There are no signature dishes. Redzepi approaches each menu with a fresh eye: he is serving an all-seafood menu this month. He finds ingredients that intrigue him—the purest scallop you will even taste; a fresh water version of a turbot; the most flavourful sea-urchin (Uni) —and cooks them in a way that brings out their innate flavours.


   Once the season is over and the menu changes, he creates completely different dishes. (Next season is vegetables.) Because his food is so personal and so hard to categorise, his imitators seize on aspects of his style (fermentation or foraging, for instance) and say they are cooking like Noma. But nobody can get it right. (In the same way, Adria’s imitators use foams and claim that they ‘molecular chefs’.)


   Every time you go to a good or great restaurant in the West, you are probably eating dishes that owe something to one or more of these men: Escoffier, Point, Ducasse, Blumenthal, Adria or Redzepi. Of course great chefs will add their own twists and touches but usually, it is not difficult to see what the roots are or what the inspiration is.


   Sadly for us, very few of these great chefs have much interest in India. I doubt if Escoffier or Point ever ate Indian food. The world’s most influential chefs all know who Gaggan is but most have never been to India. The one notable exception is Blumenthal, who not only loves India and Indian food, but has gone so far as to devise Indian recipes.


   The lack of any Indian influences on global cuisine worries me a little. All great chefs swear by Japanese food. Redzepi has launched a range of fabulous Noma products that use Japanese reference points (dashi, kombu etc.) All French chefs regard Japanese cuisine as second only to their own. Chinese soya turns up again and again in modern cooking.


   But for some reason, despite the long journey Western food has taken to reach this stage, it has bypassed India entirely. Perhaps that will change in the years to come with a new generation of chefs.




  • Ved Prakash Arya 30 Apr 2024

    I am a regular reader of your articles. But this article presents a contradictory viewpoint to the Articles headlined 'Indian food abroad.... and My list of India chefs...

  • Gautam Natrajan 30 Apr 2024

    Your point about Indian catering colleges teaching French cuisine made me wonder... What do catering colleges actually teach? How good are they? Do you need to go through one to be a chef? Did top chefs actually learn anything from them?

Posted On: 29 Apr 2024 07:23 PM
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