Veteran French chef Pierre Gagnaire says his philosophy is simple: honesty, kindness and sincerity. Mike Peters reports in Hong Kong.
Pierre Gagnaire has three Michelin stars for his namesake restaurant in Paris, two for Hong Kong's Pierre and a scattering of stars at other partner restaurants around the world.
He will turn 65 next year, "which means I will have been in a kitchen for 50 years".
Saddle of lamb in caul casing, herbs crumble and green curry is aired well with a series of hearty reds. Photos Provided to China Daily
Despite that weight of experience, he says he can't precisely explain how he comes up with dishes like his anchovy broccoli ice cream with crispy fennel - which he's serving alongside saddle of lamb on a special menu for Art Basel Hong Kong this week.
"Why? Why that painting?" he asks, setting down his morning coffee to wave at an artwork on the wall behind him.
It's an explosion of red and green slivers scattered like the detritus of fireworks after New Year celebrations.
"It's an inspiration that comes from the senses," he says.
It's no accident that he's comparing food and art. Gagnaire is in town to present special menus inspired by an exhibition mounted in the restaurant by the UBS Art Collection, a treasure trove amassed by the Swiss bank, during the ongoing Art Basel events. The Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, atop which Pierre restaurant is perched, offering a 25-floor view of the city, is host hotel for the art event.
"Painting fascinates me, and I always let myself go wherever it takes me," he says. "The painter takes his own personal language and uses that to express things which seemed inexpressible."
He writes about painting and his fascination with jazz on his website but doesn't paint himself.
"No, no. I once tried, but it was not a success," he says with a shrug. "I am a chef, obsessed with the visual detail of my plates."
The results are as pretty as any picture, such as the "veil" of red pepper that shrouds shrimp and "dominoes" of red mullet with spices. His specialty dessert, meanwhile, is a tiny lemony castle of meringue swirls.
But he's quick to say that the visual cannot be a dish's defining quality.
"Today, so many people focus on presentation, but in the mouth they may have nothing," he says. "The 'wow' must be in the taste. Beautiful is not enough."
One thing that has made presentation king today is the steady stream of TV chefs and cooking competitions. That's not all bad, says Gagnaire, who has taken his chef's knives to broadcast studios more than once, including as France's representative in a top international contest.
But in the end it's not what he's about. "It takes too much time, too much preparation," he says. "Plus there is the danger of becoming another person, an actor, instead of being yourself."
Gagnaire's comfort in his own skin comes in part from being nurtured in a family restaurant. Famously easygoing in the kitchen, he is never the cartoonish French chef of the movies: No shouting, no throwing inferior butter (or sous chefs) against the wall.
"My kitchen team is the gold of my life," he says. "My philosophy is simple: honesty, kindness, sincerity, and making opportunities to give pleasure. Relating to guests and to my team is a necessity - and a gift for me."
He notes that 30 years ago nobody spoke to chefs, but now chefs' personalities have become an expected facet of their job. That's partly because of those TV shows, he says, and partly because chefs now work the "front of the house" as well as the kitchen, circulating among the guests and putting on events and menus, like his special program for Art Basel.
Gagnaire is a good example of the changing times. Despite what is now five decades in a celebrated career, he didn't open a second restaurant (London) until 12 years ago.
The Hong Kong restaurant, the fourth to bear his name, is like many an independent restaurant where he consults on menus and approach, provides trainings and works with a resident chef who has been with him before. Jean Denis Le Breas has run kitchens in the Pierre group, including in London and St. Bart's, for eight years. He came to Hong Kong in 2013.
When asked why he is a chef, Gagnaire jokes: "I had no choice. My father was in the business, and when I was 5 years old he put a toque on my head and - voila!" But he didn't enjoy it much when he really started kitchen work at the age of 15. "It was too hard, too complicated and impossible for me to do sports. It's a job that gives you no time for a social life.
"But one day I saw that it was giving me the opportunity to do something different, very creative. I realized how important food is for people, and that made it exciting to focus on creating a good plate."
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Pierre Gagnaire, 64, has three Michelin stars for his restaurants in Paris and Hong Kong. He has been in a kitchen for nearly 50 years.
(China Daily 03/17/2015 page24)