Don’t you love sitting down to some really, really great food?
I love Pierre Gagnaire’s food, but not only that, his personal style. Each dish is formulated with balance and finesse. It’s haute cuisine, which ever so slightly nudges the pretty end of Molecular Gastronomy without ever going completely into the field of weirdom. It’s also fusion cuisine, nouvelle cuisine, but essentially it’s individual. It’s clever, creative, modern and often very technical, stretches boundaries but is never disturbing. His style is both relaxed and manic, it’s emotional, artistic, changeable. I also love his professional demeanour – the way he both avoids the limelight and yet finds his way into it – the accidental celebrity chef. Famous for his food rather than his television personality or off-screen shenanigans.
I love Reflets, his Dubai restaurant. It’s name meaning ‘reflections’ is perfect – the interior reflects with its carnival-style halls of mirrors and prism-like bathrooms, the sparkling Dubai Creek reflecting the million dollar launches and aging dhow warfage, and on the plate a reflection of Gagnaire’s very soul. And again, we see his love of contrast in the interior textures and colours, and also in a way, his choice of venue – in a new area of Old Dubai, on the wrong side of the creek, contradicting where fashion and progress might like to put him with the likes of the other big names around Dubai Marina, Downtown and the DIFC.
I love the way Gagnaire attends the restaurant to work several times a year, rather than just float in for a celebrity chef publicity jaunt. On the other end of the spectrum I also love traditional French Cuisine, particularly in its simplest form. Pâté de Foie – so buttery it melts on impact with warm toast, blanquette de veau – creamy and soft enough to feed a baby, salade de tomates – simple, but the essential flavour of a Provincial Summer, soupe à l’oignon with its sodden toast dripping salty Gruyère. Pain au chocolat, coq au vin, île flottante, you know the kind of thing. Delicious. You always know what you’re getting, although some times the dishes are better than others. Very rarely (if you choose the wrong place), it’s badly done. Recipes that have been cooked for so many years that it’s almost impossible to muck them up yourself if you know how to read a cookery book.
I don’t love it when incredible chefs serve me good simple food in what is usually a singularly spectacular restaurant, but on this occasion has been shelled out and filled with bland bar tables and conference hall staff, to accommodate the many attendees of a Literary Lunch which is not really lunch. I like all those things mentioned above, but each in their place. Essentially, if I want traditional French food, I’ll go to a traditional French bistro.
I’m referring to Emirates Litfest and the Pierre Gagnaire literary lunch, where the man himself came to show us his newly released book, 175 Home recipes with a twist. And it’s my fault I didn’t love the event – I should have looked at the name of the book, read the reviews on Amazon. But the intro to the event was “Along with anecdotes of his life and career, Pierre will invite you to taste three-Michelin-star cuisine, both for home dining and chic entertaining.” It was easy to make the mistake, and I wasn’t the only one who did. I went along expecting three-Michelin-star cuisine, but I got party canapes.
The food was good, tasty. Choux pastry cheese balls (gougeres) and some other simple pastry morsels, toast canapes (one with smoked eel that was quite scrumptious, and another with roasted red peppers which tasted exactly like a chip and dip combination), crumbed and deep-fried marbles of melt in the mouth foie gras, crevettes crus (raw shrimp in a cold and slightly citrussy bisque), mini hamburgers sans bun, avec diced turnips, blanquette de veau with specks of black truffle and pan-seared gnocchi (pronounced ‘veal blanket ‘by the staff member holding the platter), and an incongruous inclusion of steamed moneybags. Dessert was a selection of tarts in pretty french patisserie style, coconut marshmallows with lime (they were pretty awesome), panacotta, chocolate covered chocolate marshmallows and coffee ice cream dipped in chocolate and dusted with roasted almonds, tasting and looking very like a Magnum mini.
All good food. But all finger-food when we were expecting a sit-down ‘lunch’ of inspirational food, something like this one experienced by Francine a couple of years ago (Miss Francine of the food lane was a partner in crime on the day), and more importantly, none of it was particularly ‘Gagnaire’ in style. In fact, I could have cooked every single dish myself (admittedly with effort for some dishes) To combine with that, interaction was minimal – there were a couple of chefs (not Gagnaire) preparing the burgers, some terrine and dumplings, Gagnaire himself only spoke for a few minutes at two points in the day.
I was confused. I questioned him, hoping that maybe this change in style was a new direction with actual meaning for him, so that even if I didn’t like it, this change had a good reason for being there. I asked if his decision to veer from his usual sophistication was either a statement referring the recent trends towards organic home grown produce, a fashionable return to tradition and simplicity that we have seen in a home cooking. He did after all open “Twist” in Las Vegas two years ago, which appears to be the foundation for his new book. Did he think we would be likely to see more of this simple cuisine in other Michelin starred restaurants? Or was it merely an indication that he personally was going through a new phase in life? Dare I say, getting older, winding down a little? He is white-haired after all, and we all know how the French like to retire early – although his energy still appears more than vibrant. He said “No”, and that he had forgotten all his recipes ‘with a twist’ already.
I took my breath of relief with a tinge of bitterness. I’m so glad that the Pierre Gagniare is not turning from an astounding chef into a great cook. But I paid to see him in his element and it just wasn’t right. Why should we digest this cuisine when he himself cannot get behind it? Is this a sign of chefs becoming something they should not be? Driven to the edge of their art by publicity demands, agents, publishers and financiers? And sometimes completely over the precipice altogether? I suppose it’s a price of fame, and the celebrity is not the only one who must pay it. And as it is our market, of which I am part, that may well have driven our favourite chefs to where they are, then perhaps I should quite simply get off my high horse and suck it up?
But I can tell you one thing – he is amazing, and I’ll give him another chance. I’m going back to the restaurant very soon, and I know I’ll love it.
Despite my visit during the Literary Festival, Reflets by Pierre Gagnaire is usually an incredible restaurant, and should be visited. It’s not an inexpensive journey, but it will be worth every penny. Open for dinner only, seven days.
Reflets Pierre Gagnaire
Intercontinental Festival City
website (bookings online)
or ph. +971 4 701 1127
If you want to try his cuisine in your own area, you might want to try one of the following:
Paris, Pierre Gagnaire at Hotel Balzac – the flagship – Michelin ***
Paris, Gaya Rive Gauche Seafood restaurant, Michelin *
Courchevel, Pierre Gagnaire Pour les Airelles Seasonal alpine restaurant, Michelin **
London, Sketch, collaboration with Mourad “Momo” Mazouz, Michelin **
Tokyo, Pierre Gagnaire a Tokyo Contemporary French cuisine at the Ana Intercontinental
Hong Kong, Pierre Modern French at the Manderin Oriental
Seoul, Pierre Gagnaire a Seoul
Las Vegas, Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, Traditional cuisine with Gagnaire flair (more interesting than that described above by the look of the menu.
Saint-Tropez, Colette at Hotel Sezz
Moscow, Les Menus par Pierre Gagnaire at the Lotte Hotel
And when it comes to books:
This is the big one – Re-inventing French Cuisine – only 40 recipes, but more than that, it’s a life journey for PG, and gives an insight into why his food is the way it is.
For those who are looking for inspiration rather than recipes, you may prefer Reflections on Culinary Artistry, which is again, full of snippets of life and learning, and some lovely plate presentation.
more photos of the event follow…