Monday, 24 September 2012

Parlez-vous Champignons?

My week in France delivered everything that I’d hoped for in that it helped me to open my mind and think differently about the challenge ahead.

I always find France inspiring, it has amazing quality produce, fantastic markets and a genuine passion for pushing culinary boundaries.  I capitalised on my trip by spending time with three very different chefs - first arriving at Daniel et Denise in Lyon to meet Joseph Viola, a chef who has returned to the basics of home cooking after having spent years in two and three Michelin starred kitchens.  

From Lyon, I headed to St Etienne, where I was collected by the esteemed, three Michelin starred chef Régis Marcon. Restaurant Régis et Jacques is a truly special place - not only is it run by one of France’s most talented chefs but it is surrounded by a bounty of superb produce.  The volcanic soil adds intensity of flavour to everything that grows there and the wild mushrooms there are something else.  

The restaurant is quite a contrast to Simpsons, which is just five minutes away from Britain’s second largest city, in that it is in the middle of nowhere.  The village Saint Bonnet le Froid, has a population of about 200 and yet the restaurant manages to do 120 covers every day.  Régis is understated and charming, for him it’s about food not celebrity.  That said, his presence is clear around the town - the family owns a hotel, bakery, bistro, cookery school and of course the three starred restaurant.

People will travel from miles around to eat Régis’ celebrated mushroom dishes and this is where he excels.  I have never seen such a variety of mushrooms as fresh and as abundant as these.  One day myself and seven of his chefs had the task of preparing 80 kilos of cêpes - which where then pickled, bottled and sent down to be sold in the Marcon family store.

A glut of mushrooms is a nice problem for any chef to have and Régis has the talent and imagination to take them to another level. His dishes surprised and inspired me - chocolate and cêpe praline was one that particularly sticks out. Régis’ use of acidity is very clever and his expertise has been honed from years working with such quality, earthy ingredients. 

Régis is not only a born chef, but he’s a natural mentor who keenly feels his responsibility for sharing his passion and knowledge with others.  Each Sunday, he gives a ‘lecture’ to the chefs and whilst I was there the topic was mushrooms.  Régis lovingly described each of the mushrooms, taught us how best to prepare them and explained how they reproduce. It was great to see such a talented chef, share his philosophies and approach with this class of future talent.  

Moving on from Régis, I stayed with another wonderful chef, Christophe Ansanay Ale.  Christophe is more of a personality outside the kitchen but has the focus and talent for running the two Michelin starred L’Auberge de l’île.  His food is considered to be among the best in Lyon so it was a privilege to spend time with him.

Whilst each of the chefs has a very individual style, what they each possess is a talent for getting the best out of their produce.  I’ve returned to Simpsons with my mind buzzing and I’m really looking forward to working on my own ideas. 

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