Every Monday, Clay Oven Irvine executive chef/owner Geeta Bansal
shares an interview that she's done with some of the heavyweights of
European cooking. Today, she regales us with a chat with Alain Senderens. Enjoy!
Rebel With A Starry Cause! Alain Senderens
By Geeta Bansal, Executive Chef-Owner Clay Oven Irvine
It was a thrill to meet Chef Alain Senderens at a conference in Spain last year. I have been fortunate to dine at Lucas Carton, his restaurant in Paris, but never met him at the restaurant. Last year over the course of several days I met him and his elegant wife in a more social setting and got to know him a little. Praveen (with his love for wines) attended his lecture on food and wine pairings at the food congress while I spent time at a session with Michel Troisgros of Maison Troisgros, in Roanne, France.
To me, Senderens is a hero. In a food culture where chefs spend their lifetimes chasing the stars (of the Michelin kind), he chose his diners over the fairy dust. In 2005, after 30 years of having held the 3-star status, he chose to return his three Michelin stars so that he could reduce the costs for his diners (by almost 40%) by doing away with extras like the large brigade in the kitchen and the dining room necessary to maintain the trois etoile status. He is a true star amongst chefs who cook and who opted to put his diners above all else. A large number of chefs while chasing the Michelin stars forget why they exist: it is at the pleasure of and for the pleasure of diners. I will always cherish meeting him and talking to him.
Incidentally this where I must clarify for the sake of our OC foodies that stars do not add up over time, despite what has been written in glowing write-ups in many OC publications over the last few years. In that case, Alain Senderens' three stars would have, over thirty years, amounted to some 90 stars. Paul Bocuse would, as a result of having three stars for decades, be the most starred chef on the planet. And by that reasoning one star does not become 10 in ten years or 15 in fifteen years. It can become two or three, of course, by reason of being awarded subsequent stars. The restaurant is awarded the star and the specific chef who runs the kitchen at that time is then considered a Michelin-starred chef. Stars can also be taken away, sometimes with tragic consequences, as in the case of Chef Bernard Loiseau (the inspiration for Pixar's Ratatouille), who tragically took his own life when faced with the prospect of losing his stars.
I have recently been asked numerous times as to why I choose to write about my interactions with only Michelin-starred chefs (which is not entirely correct since many of my subjects are serious talents sans stars). The reason I stay in touch or follow the careers of people is foremost because of their passion for cooking and pleasing others, their generosity of spirit, their ability to share techniques and knowledge with a wide spectrum of people. I knew many of these individuals when they had sometimes just started out in this profession, and as they advanced recognition and stars followed, and despite their celebrity they did not change in any way. They are humble, real, and down to earth with egos held in check. The diners are the true stars for a chef and as long as your cuisine can evoke a positive experience in your diner you are achieving your goal as a chef and the other stars are a pleasant bonus during your journey when and if they happen.
My first visit to Lucas Carton was like being in a church where you were terrified of breaking the silence (you held on to your silverware for mon dieu if you dropped something!) and absolute decorum had to be maintained during the entire meal (this was in the mid-'90s). My husband had wanted to dine there for a while since he has always thought highly of Chef Senderens for his wine pairings and the fact that even in the early days, his food had surprising combinations of flavors and spices. The meal was amazing but the atmosphere a bit too staid (no photo flashes in dining rooms at that time). Even for me, the star anise in a French restaurant in those days was a real surprise, but then this very cerebral chef was on a different journey from his contemporaries even at that time. The most famous dish on the menu and a must do was his "Canard Apicius." It was his version of an old Roman recipe from the 1st century A.D. created by a famous chef of those times named Marcus Gavius Apicius. The dish showcased his mastery at blending sweet and sour flavors. The other part of the Canard Apicius story I will get to shortly.
The story goes that the very strict dress code resulted in the son of one of his very wealthy patrons being denied admission to the dining room. The young man told Senderens how he was not in keeping with the times and his generation would not patronize such establishments in the near future. Running a three Michelin star restaurant was already a challenge for the chef at that time and he decided to make it more economical for his diners by getting rid of the exorbitant overheads, the four staff members per diner, the flowers, the fancy crystal, the strict dress code, the 45-plus kitchen staff and the stuffy decor. Some critics have said that he took that step because he was on the verge of losing his third star anyway. He closed Lucas Carton and came back instead with Senderens, a trimmed-down, more-relaxed restaurant, sans what he called the tra-la-la. At present it has two stars and the chef has not returned them yet!
Senderens has been bestowed with Chevalier de la Legion d´Honneur, Medaille Vermeil Paris, was the president of both La Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Cuisine Francaise and Conseil National des Arts Culinaires. In the history of cuisine he will be always known as the chef who gave back his stars (I think also for his Canard Apicius, with Banyuls from the Roussillon region, which is still sometimes on the daily menu at Senderens, the restaurant) He started out at the Tour de Argent, Paris, then opened L´ Archestrate which received its first Michelin star in 1970, its second in 1974, and achieved third star in 1978. In 1985 he opened Lucas Carton, which went on to earn him three stars again.
Many chefs have since followed his lead in reinventing the dining scene and modified their approach. Chef Senderens has challenged a very old system of rating food and maybe opened the way for restaurants like L'Astrance, Paris (Chef Pascal Barbot) to attain three stars with a small space, few seats, and a chef's daily menu. Le Chateubriand, Paris (Chef Inaki Aizpitarte) and Septime, Paris (Chef Bertrand Grebaut) are other such chef driven restaurants. The focus is back on great, inspired cuisine with the fancy china, crystal and poker faced staff no longer de rigueur. In 2005 when he gave back his stars, Senderens said that the grand hotels have a lot of money to spare since most of their revenues come from the room sales, so they can have fancy restaurants open for the sake of earning the three stars and adding to the status of the properties, to the detriment of chef run restaurants competing for the same.
He recently opened the vegetarian restaurant Maimonide Of Brooklyn in partnership with Cyril Aouizerate and Jerome Banctel in New York City. He has been known to say that most people will become vegetarians in the near future and we will not be eating a lot of meat after ten years. I am almost tempted to believe that since he has always been ahead of his time. He started as an early proponent of Nouvelle French cuisine, and now once again since his starry episode has led to the creation of a kind of revolution in the restaurant industry. In the early eighties he was already using the sous-vide method of cooking, especially for fish which for chefs trained in the Escoffier-style was a novel concept at that time. Asian accents debuted at his restaurant miso with chocolate, soybeans, tea-infused meats, dates, lemongrass, soy sauce and what not to the consternation of the old-school chefs.
A lot of big name chefs have trained with him, from Alain Passard at L'Arpege, Frederic Roberte of La Grande Cascade and numerous others including my friend Chef Pierre Albaladejo, the executive chef at the Park Hyatt Aviara resort in Carlsbad. I decided to talk to chef Albaladejo about his experience when he was at Lucas Carton from 1985 to 1986. I will relate the rest of my conversation with Chef Albaladejo in a later segment. I only know Chef Senderens as the kindly, genteel man in his early seventies but wanted to know more about him in his heydays and what his kitchen personality was (every chef has one!)
When did you work with Senderens and in what capacity?
I started as a commie in 1985 and worked my way up, as is traditional in the professional French kitchen. You have to prove yourself at every station before moving up to the sauces and the sous chef position.
What is one dish you remember working on that posed the most challenges?
It was the Canard Apicius, which was a very complex dish with 16 spices and compotes of date and green apple that needed to balance the sweet dates, tart apples and the spices. We had 12 hour days, working just on one dish that involved poaching and then roasting and perfecting the sauces.
What was the atmosphere like in the kitchen; was he a patient teacher or temperamental?
There was a lot of tension in the kitchen, we put our head down and everyone just focused on their dishes. The dishes were very complex and demanded complete attention. You dare not mess up because the chef would berate you in no uncertain language if he did not like the taste of your sauce etc. The recipes were all based on taste and nothing was measured so you had to recreate the perfect notes every time.
Did he cook himself in those days?
No he didn't, he created the dishes and then the kitchen worked to execute them every day. He walked around the kitchen tasting and critiquing us.
He was always ambitious in his work and his career how was he with his subordinates?
He was very difficult to work with since it was hard to please him. He walked around the kitchen with a cigar and I always wondered how with that taste in his mouth he could still critique my sauces. Nevertheless, you learnt a lot being around him.
So did people quit?
No one quit because his was a very prestigious kitchen and you had to be at the top of your game to be even considered for a stage or training there. That was the way things were in those days. We worked hard with a small afternoon break and just kept going at our assigned stations. The restaurant was busy with 80-100 covers not including the members only private club upstairs with 50-60 guests in the evenings.
Have you since created any dish inspired by him?
Yes, I have to say that I still use his spice combinations and though it was a very tough environment I did learn a lot. One thing I learnt for sure is how not to be that hard on my juniors.
He has said that he is very progressive and is futuristic in his philosophy of life. What are your thoughts on that?
When I first joined his kitchen, at the fish station they were cooking cod, wrapped in parchment, sous-vide in 1985! There was fondue with star anise, there was a fish dish with cod wrapped in rice paper and fried. His vision of using spices, especially Asian spices was contradictory to conventional French cuisine. He created a complexity with new techniques and products. At that time he worked with Georges Pralus to learn the sous vide technique.
(The sous-vide technique was taught by Pralus as early as 1979, so when there is all this talk about new revolutionary techniques in the kitchen it is important to get the facts right. It was first developed by Gaussault in 1972. Pralus the local charcutier was requested by Michel Troisgros of Maison Troisgros to find a way of searing fois gras while retaining the good ole duck fat and he presented the sous vide as a solution which later became the norm in pricey restaurants like Lucas Carton, then in 1982 chef Joel Robouchon used it provide meals on trains to the SNCF and the technique became more mainstream. My experience at Lucas Carton was in the pre-iPhone era and taking pictures in the dining room of food was not something you dared.)
Alain Senderens is not done! This 73-year old chef is still making his mark and we have yet to see where this visionary will take the food world next.