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Michelin-starred chef finds the symphony in Franco-Vietnamese cuisine

Wednesday, 02/08/2017 15:15
Alain Dutournier is a French chef who earned himself “the Oscar of culinary world” – Michelin star twice. Following his chain of successful restaurants in Paris, the chef broke his own rules by establishing the first dining place outside France.

Head chef Alain Dutournier was born 1949 in South West France. When he was 24, with 20,000 francs he single-handedly opened his first restaurant Au Trou Gascon in 12th Arrondissement, Paris. This was a shocking decision since his family had to pledge the inn, their only livelihood, to finance the business.

Therefore, he has to succeed by all means. After one year of non-stop improvement, in terms of business strategies and dining experiences, Au Trou Gascon attracted more and more customers who came for amazing Cagnotte-style dishes. The place has won its first Michelin star since 1977. After this success, in 1986, Alain Dutournier launched the second restaurant Le Carre des Feuillants in 1st Arrondissement with higher standards and larger scale. This is where he nurtured his dream of expanding the business as well as the culinary philosophy. Le Carre des Feuillants soon shot to fame and was awarded two Michelin stars.

In 2003, he continued to thrive with Pinxo, another fine-dining restaurant in 1st Arrondissement that served Spanish cuisine, then in 2012, Mangetout on Mazarine– St Germain des Pres Street became known as his next Aquitaine style restaurant. In recent years, Alain has achieved prestigious titles including Best Restaurateur, Chef of the Year, National Order of the Legion of Honour, etc. for his business and profession. He also finished writing a book of his cooking adventure with each story coupling a signature recipe.

During his visit to Vietnam to attend the launch of a restaurant in Hanoi, we had chance to interview him on his perspectives for Franco-Vietnamese cuisine and its transformation from traditional to modern style.

Your name and the “Oscar of cuisine” - Michelin star has been sticking together for a while. What do you say about the title?

The Michelin originated from a story of truck tyre and automobile dealers. In order to encourage their customers to travel longer miles, they invented a list of attractive restaurants and resorts within French territories based on their own star system. Gradually, they built a standard guideline for dining namely Michelin guide. The brand name became more and more famous and had certain influence in the world of food lovers.

However, for me, not all dishes at a Michelin starred restaurant are delicious. And, actually, you can have a fantastic meal at a non-Michelin restaurant.

France is famous for its cuisine, and in fact, was introduced to Vietnam a long time ago. These days, besides French food, we also has our adoption for those from Japan, Korea, Turkey, etc. What is your opinion on the differences French food has compared to the rest of the world?

I still has not had chance to travel much to obtain proper understanding for every dish all over the globe. Since cuisine is part of every culture, it has the tendency to reflect the depth of history and the country’s lifestyle. For instance, North America is a newly-discovered land whose culture was immature to some extent, hence, people there only pay attention to fast food. Or take China, the country with thousands of years of history only keeps a few signature recipes for record.

Unlike France, whose history spread in the span of 700 years, we have well over 2,000 recipes written down. As a result, it is a profoundly built basis.

What are major differences between French modern and traditional cuisines, sir?

To answer this question, I’d make a comparison between food and music. Music in the 60s and 70s totally contrasted with DJ-produced auto tune these days. The same happened with food. More and more French chefs nowadays try to distance their creations by using more exotic and rare ingredients from all corners of the world. I would not object such creativity. I just want to emphasize the similarity of food and music. What matters most is not being unusual and strange, or picking up fads, but creating masterpieces that last in people’s mind and heart.

What makes Vietnamese cuisine impressive to you?

First and foremost, I strongly believe in the richness of Vietnamese cuisine. I once tried some dishes and their taste turned out delicate. I am exposed to Vietnamese food for the past 40 years. I have a Saigon-based friend whose mother cooked us some good dishes of this place. Vietnamese cuisine have certain improvements to go further. However, if you guys paid more attention to food hygiene, storage and preservative methods in order to gain higher quality ingredients, everything would be perfect.

Could you please share more about Vietnamese ingredients?

I like your vegetables very much. Vietnam is a tropical country with lots of fresh, strong-flavoured vegetables, spices and greens. Poultry such as chicken and duck are tasty if raised in the right way at small scale. In addition, your country has a long coastline. If the harvesting and preserving are conducted properly, which means scrupulous care towards the ocean environment, you will achieve a clean, high quality source of seafood as well.

Why did you decide to open a restaurant in Hanoi?

Actually I did not have intention to run a business outside France. This is a story of friendship and casual rendezvous from time to time. I had a friend who worked for a French television. Thanks to this friend, I stayed in touch with the investors of Press Club, who later persuaded me to open a restaurant in Hanoi. You can see how much I love Asia. I used to spend time experiencing Nepal, Thailand, and so on. My wife and I together traveled to Vietnam. We paid visit to some art galleries and Ha Long Bay. I have a special affection with Hanoi.

What would you say about women’s roles in their home kitchen?

Traditionally, cooking is one of homemakers’ afflatus. Our wives and mothers feel happy to cook hot dishes for their husbands and children. In my family, mom and grandma spend most of their time in the kitchen and I chose cooking as inspired by their extraordinarily awesome food.

Nowadays, women have more social responsibilities which lessen their time for families and turn cooking into somewhat a duty, or even a burden. Sometimes I myself help my wife with that.

However, this leads to a sad story that young women gradually lose their ability and knowledge for culinary arts. They may not know how to cook, and how to relish cooking assets properly. As I saw some of them struggle to cut their beef steak, my heart sank.

How do your mom and grandma’s food cast their influence on your cooking philosophy?

The precious thing I can learn from them is to love and respect ingredients. In today’s world, we often use supermarket food, which are totally processed; we don’t see how a chicken or a pig is raised, or how trees grow and bear fruits, so we don’t make the full use of these sources to make dishes. For me, every part is worthy and I try not to waste any. As a result, I have amazing creations from neck or leg.

Why are most chefs male?

First, I guarantee you a great chef could be either male or female. However, the nature of cooking requires great effort and sacrifice that not many women can spare. A chef works three shifts a day, which takes place in a harsh environment and needs keep on moving to learn. Women as dedicated wives and mothers will face challenges in reaching the peak of cooking career.

Thank you very much for the talk.

By Sandra Phan

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