Pierre Gagnaire is one of the giants of cuisine. Love what he puts on the plate or not, he is indisputably a master of his craft. My one meal at his hands at the Restaurant Pierre Gagnaire in Paris in 2005 shortly after his divorce was ultimately disappointing. The food was beautiful and technically flawless. I am sure it was presented exactly as he wanted. The problem was that I did not enjoy the balance of flavors on the plate. It focused on bitterness as the predominant flavor type. Had I been in a different mood that evening or had the bitterness not been so prominent throughout the meal, I might have enjoyed it more. As it was, the bitterness was too much for me that evening. Most restaurants in that price range only get one chance to impress me. His food was interesting enough though that despite that evening's bitterness, this is one restaurant and chef who continues to intrigue me. Watching him work on stage at Starchefs only reinforced that notion.
Culinary improvisation has achieved an unprecedented level of interest in the United States, largely through the popularity of television shows like Iron Chef, Top Chef and Chopped. Though these shows are contrived and not necessarily truly spontaneous, the usefulness of an exercise along these lines reflects a renewed interest in cooking from the market. An ability to cook spontaneously has become increasingly valuable and praiseworthy. This was manifested at the latest Starchefs ICC when Pierre Gagnaire was charged with creating dishes from a market basket that he was introduced to only 30 minutes prior to his demonstration.
Gagnaire's surprise basket included Wisconsin artisanal cheeses, Pennsylvania Asian pears, New Jersey bicolor corn, Long Island kale, New Zealand King salmon, California spot prawns, Rougie magret de canard and Kopert Cress micro-greens, all of the suppliers Congress sponsors, as would be expected for an event like this. In addition to these ingredients, others were also part of his pantry.
Gagnaire, speaking mostly through an interpreter said that he hoped that he would be able to show a couple of things, but this was a “nerve-racking experience.” He thought his first dish was to be a panna cotta with Wisconsin gruyere accompanied by red beets and Asian pears. Through most of his presentation, verbal silence reigned as Gagnaire was busy creating dish after dish, a blur on stage as he raced from ingredient to ingredient and technique after technique with the sounds of cutting, whisking, whirring and cooking predominating. He was truly a marvel to watch as he and his assistants put together various combinations and permutations of the allotted ingredients. At one point, he stopped to explain that he was still figuring out what he was going to do with some of the ingredients and that an additional part of the difficulty of the exercise was determining the right plates and platings of the dishes. He also explained that many of the products he was presented with were new to him, a challenge that he enjoyed. The panna cotta dish was vegetarian, but he told how meat or fish products like scallops could be added to it if desired. It took a while for Gagnaire to figure out precisely what he would do with everything, but once he did, the dishes started appearing quickly.
Additional dishes paired the duck with the prawns, and salmon done several different ways. As he formulated his ideas and began preparing them, even more ideas came to him. At one point he asked if he could have some paprika from any of the purveyors in the marketplace, a request which at least one was happy to oblige.
While preparing his dishes, Gagnaire spoke to his philosophy of cooking in a kitchen on a daily basis. He said “Everything is simplicity, it is all about the flavors.” He went on to add that in the kitchen, “cooking is about emotion... the dishes will always reflect how the day goes, the years goes and everything around it.” I found this statement to be reflective of the meal I had at Gagnaire back in 2005. This sentiment on emotion is not a new one from Gagnaire. I had always heard that the food on his plate reflected the state of his emotions. That year was apparently a difficult one for him, with major change and turmoil in his life from his divorce . His wife had been closely involved with the running of his restaurant and she was no longer there and they were no longer directly involved in each other's lives. While I am not nor should I be privy to the details of that situation, it was obvious from what was on the plate, that he was affected by his circumstances and he had transferred them to the plate. With his statements at the ICC, he essentially confirmed this. It is, however, because life and circumstances change that I would wish to see and taste what he can do in happier and less stressful times.
It was fascinating to watch and listen to Gagnaire cook. The specifics of the dishes and the techniques used were really secondary in importance. They looked and sounded delicious and I am sure they were. The more important element was the process he employed as he viewed his ingredients and assimilated their characteristics in his mind, enabling him to transfer those properties to the plate in an appealing manner. This enthralled the audience. Gagnaire's approach appeared simple, emphasizing flavor as the primary element, building a dish from the ingredients out. Indeed, it may have been simple for him, but for everyone else, it was just plain fun.