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Avant-garde chefs

 
When siphons became de rigueur in the world's top restaurants, professional cooking seemed in danger of growing as insubstantial as the foam that seems to adorn every plate.

But the annual Omnivore Food Festival, held from February 11-13 in Deauville before an audience of more than 1,000 food professionals and enthusiasts, suggested that the opposite is happening.

The 30 chefs who came from the farthest reaches of France and around the world to demonstrate their avant-garde cooking styles showed that even as techniques become more international, chefs are increasingly attached to their roots.

One of the most striking demonstrations was by Danish chef Rene Redzepi, who draws his inspiration from the earth where his vegetables grow.

Because this sandy soil near the sea contains crushed shells, he coats vegetables in a butter and shellfish emulsion just before serving them. A dish of salsify with pickled Swedish truffles, milk skin, cream and rapeseed oil is garnished with wild herbs from the very field where the milk cows graze.

"It seemed like the logical thing to do," is his explanation for many of his startling combinations.

"Terroir" which literally means the land is not a new idea for the French, who have long celebrated the natural riches of their regions. But, in a new climate of cross-pollination among cooks from around the world, French chefs are no longer afraid to borrow ingredients from elsewhere to better illustrate what is close to home.

A perfect example is Gerald Passedat of "Le Petit Nice" in Marseille, who added hibiscus flowers to a long-cooked lobster consomme to create an eerie blue colour reminiscent of the depths of the Mediterranean. Overlapping strips of carrot and red endive recreated the "shell" on the lobster tail.

"Blue is a colour that people instinctively shy away from in food," he said, "but once people taste the sauce I think they get past that."

No chef got through a demonstration at the Omnivore food fest without using modern appliances such as the Thermomix (which heats and mixes at the same time), the Pacojet (which transforms frozen ingredients into ice cream or powder), or the steam oven. Only rarely, though, did modern technology seem to get in the way of good food.

Portuguese-born Nuno Mendes, who runs the gastropub "Bacchus" in London, was one of the more daring chefs with Asian-influenced dishes such as a Chinese-style dumpling made of shaved yuzu jelly, crab and milk skin, which is a popular ingredient this year).

Still, he credits a solid base in French technique, which he acquired in the United States, for his ability to experiment with ingredients he has come across during his many travels.

"It wouldn't be fair to say 'to hell with French cooking'. Everyone at this event has been influenced by French cuisine in some way, and we can never let that be forgotten.

"At the same time, every city is becoming more of a melting pot. Everybody has soy sauce in the cupboard, but it could be closer to the door or closer to the back of the cabinet."

One of the most innovative chefs at the festival was Seiji Yamamoto from the restaurant "Ryugin" in Tokyo, who used edible "ink" to print patterns on his plates that complemented each dish.

"I try to make the most of the techniques available," he says, "but before I send a plate to the client I always ask myself, 'is this Japanese food?'". If the answer is no, I won't serve it.

Like many Japanese chefs, Yamamoto made a pilgrimage to France early in his career to learn haute cuisine techniques. He now benefits from opening his kitchen to cooks from around the world.

David Chang, the 30-year-old chef of the wildly popular noodle bar "Momofuku" in New York, demonstrated how it's possible to combine two cultures that might at first seem incompatible.

"I try to imagine what would have happened if my Korean ancestors had moved to South Carolina 300 years ago."

The result is dishes that defy categorisation, such as apple salad with pureed kimchi fermented cabbage pickle, which he says scares most Americans unless it is disguised and a crisp slice of bacon. Nearly every dish in his restaurant incorporates some part of the pig, an animal he loves.

He recently began raising his own pigs and tries to convince each of his cooks to slaughter a pig at least once.

"Food should be respected, and people need to know that pigs don't grow on trees."

Chang describes his French culinary training as the arithmetic that allows him to do everything else.

"France has much more of a food culture than New York," he said. "Look at Deauville. It's just a small town, albeit a wealthy one, and you have the boulangeries, the charcuteries and the food market. You don't find that anywhere else. In Europe and Asia there is the history. America doesn't have that."

Sebastien Bras, who works closely with his father Michel Bras at their celebrated restaurant in Laguiole and helped set up its twin in Japan, summed up the new spirit on display at this festival.

"Each of us here is revealing his secret garden. It's about a love of the craft, a love of terroir and each chef's personal experiences. Technique should always take a back seat to pleasure. If the technique dominates, then we are doing something wrong."

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