France still shows the way, says a master

Le Bec-Fin took a break last week from its latest incarnation as the city's fanciest burger joint and Monday-night BYOB, and hosted a pair of blow-out tasting meals that harked back to its not-so-long-ago glory days of prix-fixe haute cuisine.

A visit from Guy Savoy, famous French toque and longtime Georges Perrier pal, was the occasion for the special guest-chef dinners.

About 180 people attended the $200-per-person eight-course feast, which highlighted signature dishes from Savoy's eponymous Michelin three-starred restaurant in Paris (and its sibling in Las Vegas), including truffled artichoke soup and a whole guinea fowl poached with truffle juice inside a pig's bladder that looks like an inflated dinosaur egg when it's rolled into the dining room for presentation.

"Many truffles!" the silver-stubbled Savoy, 56, said with a wink as he sat down for a chat at The Inquirer between meals. In the wide-ranging interview, he touched on topics ranging from his friendship with Perrier to his personal approach to cooking and the so-called death of French cuisine.

Here are some highlights:

Question: Do people in France still remember Georges Perrier?

Answer: Yes, of course! Georges, for me, though he's not much older, was a master when I was younger. Like Paul Bocuse, like Jean Banchet [of the now-closed Le Francais near Chicago], like many of the older chefs. He represented the American dream for us. Today it's very popular to come to the U.S.A. But 42 years ago [when Perrier came], it was an adventure.

We come from the same area, Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France. And there is also Georges Perrier's joie de vivre. We share that. It's important to our craft.

Q: For people who've never been to your restaurants, how would you describe your unique approach to cooking? Would you call it a "naturalist" style?

A: Exactly! First and foremost is the product. I'll work around one [main ingredient] per dish and try to get to the very essence of it. For example, we begin with an oyster dish called huitre en nage glacee. At the bottom of the shell I'll put a thin layer of pureed oyster with just a touch of cream. I'll place a raw oyster on top, and then on top of that a gelee made from the oyster juice. It's entirely oyster.

The sea bass afterwards, I cook with the scales. Why? Because in between the scales, there are plenty of things from the sea, so we preserve that flavor. And the scales, after you grill them you can eat them, and they add an additional texture. I make them eat the fish, the skin, and the scales of the bass!

The goal is to amplify the flavor of the original taste.

Q: It's become fashionable lately to pronounce the death of French haute cuisine and its influence on the world's chefs. What do you think of recent books like Au Revoir to All That by Michael Steinberger (Bloomsbury, 2009), which claims it is now a challenge to find good food in France?

A: No, no, no! I think that it's totally wrong to say that French cooking today is dead! . . . If in America and England and Japan, there is so much interest now in food, I remain convinced that it's the French who showed them the way. . . .

You are too young, but 30 years ago in the U.S., you couldn't find numerous kinds of olives, or vinegars or mustards, the very base elements of cooking. Today, when I go into a Whole Foods market, there's an amazing choice. That's new! It didn't exist 30 years ago! And I repeat: It was France that showed the way, and the spirit! . . .

But La France is not a food dictator. It's an example. We would like to set an example for all the countries in the world. ... If American cooks now think "I have my own personality, and I can do my job with my own personality" that's because it was the French who showed them this way. . . . And we still have such a big diversity [in our cuisine] that we remain The Country of Food.

Q: But what about all these young American chefs who are now going to Spain, England, and Italy instead of France to study?

A: Spain? No. Spain has its own [culinary culture.] But in Spain there are maybe five Spanish chefs that are well-known with their own styles - Ferran Adria, [Juan Ramon] Arzak, Santi Santamaria. In France, there are 500 and maybe more! OK, maybe there are 10 chefs in Spain. But in France? 1,000.

Q: But don't you agree - there definitely has been a retreat lately from the formality and pursuit of luxury that people associate with French gastronomy and Michelin stars?

A: No, no . . . One of the last restaurants in Paris to receive three Michelin stars, L'Astrance, is a very simple restaurant. My restaurant in Paris is not about luxury. . . . But my guests today are looking for a personal place, a unique place where the food is good and the atmosphere is nice. . . . Luxury is not the goal, or the end in itself.

Q: So what does a meal at Guy Savoy cost? $500? The restaurant critic at the Los Angeles Times spent $999 on a dinner for two at your restaurant in Las Vegas.

A: No, not $500 a person! Maybe $300 . . . not even! The average may be $285.

Q: Have your restaurants been affected by the world economy?

A: In Paris? No. In Vegas? Oui! We were down 50 percent for five or six months, but it's better now. . . . Of course, I'm afraid of the economic problems. Every other year I close in August, but this year I stayed open because I'm afraid for September, October, November. The economic crisis. The H1N1 flu. Since 1980, I've seen five or six economic crises. And it's difficult, I know. But I like to stay optimistic, positive.

Q: What makes the experience at your restaurant worth that kind of money?

A: You get to stay for three, four, five hours, and during that time, you are quiet. And around you, everybody serves water, wine, and gives you bread. Everybody smiles. A good restaurant is unique on the planet. . . . it's like a ballet. . . . it's a break in your life.

Every day, I get to experience such great pleasures. First, in the kitchen, where cooking is magic. You take ingredients - sugar, salt, flour, fish - and within a few minutes, you cut, you blend, you cook, and you transform something that's merely edible into pleasure. It's magic, and it impresses me every day, twice a day for lunch and dinner.

When I cross see the faces of my guests - maybe they were tired when they arrived, but now everyone is smiling - I think it's magic, too, like the transformation of the food. . . . It's the same way for cooks all over the world. We are the same. You do French food, Italian food, Chinese food - I am sure we all have the same sensation about the magic transformation of both the food and the guests.

Q: TV chef Gordon Ramsay (Hell's Kitchen; The F Word; Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares) worked for you at one point, so why isn't he always smiling? He's always yelling and cursing at the people in his kitchens. Do you think chefs like Ramsay are inspiring so many young people into cooking careers because they seek that "magic transformation," or rather, because they want to be TV stars?

A: I've been to Gordon's restaurant [in London] and it's perfect. is his choice. And I think that if there's a richness of choices now for chefs, then that's a good thing. When I began cooking at 14 years old, people took me for an idiot. You work when everyone's on holiday. You work 15 hours a day. You work, you work, you work. . . . And if you can't put in that effort, you can't do this job. . . . But once you know your craft after seven or eight years, the entire planet is available to you, a snack bar or a small restaurant with your wife. In Australia or Japan. You can write about food. You can be on TV. This is the job of the free. Of liberty. When I started, everyone told me the opposite.

Q: Now, tell me about this strange dish - pintade pochée en vessie (guinea fowl poached in pig's bladder) - it must be shocking when you roll that big dinosaur egg-looking balloon into the dining room.

A: It's an ancient dish that's classic to the Lyonnaise region. And it's just a way to cook the bird as if it were in a humid oven. And it preserves all the flavors - just guinea fowl and truffle juice. Of course, we don't always translate that one.


Contact Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan at claban@phillynews.com. He conducts on online chat Tuesdays at 2 p.m. at http://go.philly.com/phillytalk.