There was a neat symmetry about the Roux Scholarship this year. Not only did the winner, 29-year-old Matthew Tomkinson, have as his group executive chef a former holder of the title (Martin Hadden, who won in 1989), but by choosing to work his three-month winner's stage at Michel Guérard ‘s renowned Les Prés d'Eugénie restaurant, he was also treading in the footsteps of the very first scholar, Andrew Fairlie.
It was natural, therefore, that when scholarship founder Michel Roux popped over to south-west France to visit Tomkinson in the autumn he should invite Fairlie along, too. The visit gave his two scholars a fascinating opportunity to compare experiences and chew the fat with Guérard himself over lunch and dinner.
Tomkinson (junior sous chef to head chef Stephen Crane at Ockenden Manor in Sussex) and Fairlie (now chef-proprietor of his own restaurant at Gleneagles in Auchterarder, Perthshire) chose Guérard's three-Michelin-starred kitchen to do their stages for exactly the same reason: they relished the chance to further their craft in the kitchen of one of the godfathers of modern French cuisine.
It was Guérard who, back in the early 1970s, pioneered and popularised cooking without dairy produce, adapting classical French cuisine to the modern world, making it lighter and less artery-clogging. He was also the first significant French chefs to cook vegetables al dente, one of the fundamental techniques of nouvelle cuisine.
Over the years, his dishes established a reputation for their depth of flavour, a quintessential element that remains to this day, whether they are on the menu of his flagship Les Prés d'Eugnie or on the listing at its newer sister-restaurant, the auberge-style La Fermes aux Grives. However, it isn't only his food that has garnered Guérard Michelin honours. It's also the standards that he has implemented throughout his restaurant, front and back of house.
"I spoke to Andrew before I left England and he told me the biggest thing that he took away with him from here was the attention to detail," says Tomkinson, chatting to Roux and Fairlie at Les Prés d'Eugnie. "Not so much awareness of new produce, or cooking techniques, but the way food is sourced and served; the garnishes, the tableware. He was right: it does open your eyes and inspire you."
"Michel Guérard is the consummate professional," Fairlie agrees. "Coming here at the age of 20 changed my whole career. I wasn't technically behind, but it made me realise why I was doing what I was and gave me a benchmark. I'm sure my career would have taken a different direction if I hadn't come into contact with Guérard ‘s passion for what he does."
That passion manifests itself in a painstaking sourcing of produce, particularly with regard to quality and variety. "Over five days it's
not unusual to use 10 different fish, far more than we would probably use over the same period at Ockenden," Tomkinson enthuses. "And the gilt-head bream that I've seen here are amazing - huge! We get about six portions out of one fillet."
Talking later over coffee, Guérard underlines Tomkinson's reflections. "The whole of cooking is to do with using the best produce - and you have to show it respect," he stresses.
Let's move on to specifics. One of the ways in which Guérard likes to bring out the characteristics of food is by smoking produce (he uses both hot and cold techniques), with lobster and foie gras being favourite ingredients. Fairlie took away the idea of smoking lobster and has made a signature dish for himself; Tomkinson aims to use his new-found knowledge of smoking foie gras in the future.
One dish in particular has made an impression on him. A starter of smoked foie gras with a peach jelly ("absolutely brilliant" opines Fairlie), the fruity acidity of the jelly providing a perfect counterpoint to the richness of the liver, which itself was tempered by a delicate overlaying of wood smoke.
"I won't just replicate the recipe," Tomkinson explains, "as I don't think that would be right. But I've already pushed for a smoker and chatted about doing a jelly that's a bit more tart than a Sauternes - we'll end up doing it our way."
It wouldn't be overstating the case to say that Michel Guérard is one of the most influential and most copied of France's nouvelle cuisine chefs. Yet to tar him with the worst excesses of that particular way of late-20th-century cooking - a frugality of portioning for instance - would not be fair.
It's true he was a pioneer of a lighter method of cooking - his famous Menu Minceur took cream and butter out of dishes, replacing them with fromage blanc, fresh stocks and vegetable pulps - but his gourmande menus have always been generous on the plate.
He was born in 1933 in Vétheuil, north of Paris, the son of a butcher who also bred his own beef. Despite these roots, Guérard began training as a pâtissier with the renowned Cléber Alix at Mont la Jolie in the early 1950s. Here he learnt the importance of keeping a check on the supply chain from gate to plate (the pâtissier used to buy in meat and butcher it himself for things such as vol-au-vents).
Another early influence on the masterchef was Jean Delaveyne, for whom Guérard worked at the former's restaurant Camellia, in Bougival. Delaveyne was famous for saying chefs should not use Escoffier as a straitjacket - a mantra that his protégé took to heart when he opened his first restaurant, Pot au Feu, in the insalubrious Parisian suburb of Asnières in the early 1960s.
Here, Guérard adapted and personalised classical French cooking, making it cleaner and lighter on the palate. Paris flocked to Pot au Feu, and by the time he moved to Les Prés d'Eugénie in the spa town of Eugénie les Bains (following his marriage in 1972) he had won two Michelin stars.
In this corner of south-west France he developed his revolutionary Menu Minceur. It was ahead of its time and made him internationally renowned. Les Prés d'Eugénie has held three Michelin stars for 29 years.
A Taste of Guérard
The four carte menus at Les Prés d'Eugénie are: the Gourmande, L'Ecole Buissonnière, Jardins de la Mer and Jour de Fête au Pays. Here is a small selection of dishes.
- Lightly smoked foie gras with peach jelly and tempura salad leaves
- Oysters with ginger, coriander and green coffee bean chantilly
- Floating islands in on an iced green pea soup
- Scallops with lychee, crabmeat, stuffed onion and curry sauce
- "Mano a Mano" beef fillet with beef tartare on the side
- Verbena ice-cream with red fruit "on melba" with poached white peach
Life: Life is there to enjoy and have fun with. I wouldn't change the outcome of my life, but maybe if I had the chance, I'd do certain things a little differently. Why do exactly the same thing? It's boring!
Molecular cooking: All cooking is on a scientific basis. Molecular cuisine shouldn't be rejected. It's important to enlarge your knowledge - it enables you to go further.
Employing chefs: I look for technique, basic knowledge, good seasoning ability.
Creativity: It comes from being in a team.
Three-Michelin-starred chefs: They are the ones who have got the palate.
President Chirac's remarks on British food: I have seldom been in the UK, but I know from what I read and from what my friends tell me that things have moved on.
Where he would have his last supper: At Michel Roux's of course….
The 2006 Roux Scholarship
Like all good things, the Roux Scholarship has stood the test of time. There are several reasons for this: the continued personal involvement of two generations of the Roux family (founders Albert and Michel Snr, and their respective sons Michel Jnr and Alain), its generous prizes - including the central one of a stage at a European three-Michelin-starred restaurant - and the quality of its judges.
In 2006, the judging panel will have two new members - Heston Blumenthal and the very first scholar, Andrew Fairlie. The latter takes over from one of the competition's original judges, Victor Ceserani, who has decided to step down.
Among the spoils for the winner of next year's competition are a cash prize of £3,000, and trips to New York, Milan and Champagne, courtesy of various sponsors. All national finalists will win £750 and a day's butchery course. For further information contact Alison Jee on 020 8744 0744 or at www.rouxscholarship.co.uk. The closing date for entries is 16 January.
Competition sponsors include: the Savoy Educational Trust, Restaurant Associates, L'Unico Caffe Musetti, Champagne Gosset, Global Knives, Fairfax Meadow, BA Inflight Service, the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park and the Caterer Group.
Tomkinson's scholarly tips…
- Learn the kitchen language of country you do your stage in
- Write down every recipe you can
- Take pictures of dishes
- Ask questions - as many as the kitchen brigade can stomach
- Check out local produce/visit producers in your leisure time