Past mistresses

23 November 2001 by
Past mistresses

Alexis Gauthier has a simpler and more rustic approach to his cooking than most one-Michelin-starred chefs. And he's a big fan of some of the UK's favourite female home cookery writers. Janet Harmer reports.

Alexis Gauthier's knowledge and understanding of British food has not come from eating out in UK restaurants, nor from reading any tomes written by indigenous chefs in recent years. Instead, he has immersed himself in the writings of Britain's best-known domestic cooks - Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Isabella Beeton.

"In France, we don't have the same culture of food writers who cook in the home," says 27-year-old Gauthier. "Most French cookery books, dating back to Escoffier's time, have been written by chefs."

So inspired

So inspired has he been by David, Grigson and Beeton that it is not unusual for him to credit them on his menu at Roussillon, the one-Michelin-starred restaurant he co-owns with brothers James and Andrew Palmer. Currently, Gauthier's version of dishes such as Mrs Beeton's Prince of Wales soup, which is based on a concentrated veal stock combined with glazed turnips, and Elizabeth David's oven-roasted apple with cumin and honey, both appear on the autumn menu. "They really understood how to get the best out of ingredients, and that is why I turn back to them time and time again," Gauthier says. "In particular, I share the experiences Elizabeth David had in the south of France."

The south of France is where Gauthier's career as a chef was launched. After studying at the hotel school in his native Avignon for three years, he arrived in Nice in 1991 at the two-Michelin-starred Hotel Negresco. Two years later, he moved to Alain Ducasse's Louis XV restaurant in Monaco. Working for the three-Michelin-starred Ducasse, Gauthier suddenly found himself refocusing his attitude to food. "The basis of Ducasse's cooking is very simple - take the best ingredients from the local area and respect them," he says. "That, and understanding your instinct, is all there is to it. There really is nothing magical about cooking - everyone has the potential to become a good chef."

Gauthier continued to follow the seasons and work only with top-notch produce when he became an employee of the Strauss family of Levi Strauss fame in San Francisco in 1996. "The family were extremely knowledgeable about food and were only interested in ingredients when they were at their very peak," he says. "And if that meant waiting for just one day a year to pick the most succulent, sweetest persimmon, then that is what I did."

While the stint in California ensured Gauthier an enviable lifestyle and a job with no commercial pressures, after two years he was keen to move on. The opportunity to do so arose when he met Andrew and James Palmer, who had founded the New Covent Garden Soup Company. "They wanted to open exactly the kind of restaurant that I wanted to be part of - one that serves simple, tasty, good food and is not in any way a temple," he says. And this is what the three partners have striven to do at the 40-seat Roussillon since opening just off Pimlico Road, on the edge of Belgravia, London, three years ago.

Gauthier is currently in the process of buying as much as a 49% share in the business. He believes that Roussillon fills something of a gap in the one-Michelin-star level he is working at. "We're certainly not a typical one-starred establishment," he says. "There is nothing designed or constructed about our dishes. We never aim to impress by sight, we only try to do that by taste. And we certainly never ever turn a vegetable. Why would we spend time doing that? It doesn't enhance the taste.

"I would happily serve just a straight bowl of broad beans in June - the perfect produce at the perfect time," he continues. "But, for some people, that would not be impressive enough - they would want it sitting on a herb cream sauce with a dollop of caviar on top. For me, the best broad beans are an experience to be enjoyed by themselves."

Enthused

Gauthier is particularly enthused by his Garden Menu, which, at £45 for seven courses, is one of three menus available at Roussillon and the one chosen by nearly one-fifth of its customers. Although only vegetables, nuts, fruits and cheese are used on this menu, it is not a vegetarian menu as meat jus and fish stocks are incorporated in some dishes. "Sometimes, there is nothing better than a chicken jus for bringing out the flavour of an ingredient," Gauthier says. "The taste of girolles, for example, seems to explode when you cook them in chicken jus."

Other dishes on the current Garden Menu include a light watercress royale in a field sorrel infusion; crunchy salad of thinly sliced artichoke, parsnip and celery heart; poached organic duck egg, bitter dandelion and creamed leeks; selection of matured British and French cheeses; warm compote of Gloucestershire quince, French toast finger and clotted cream; and chestnut soufflé.

Besides another set menu, the seven-course Autumn Menu for £60, a third menu comprises four categories of starter and main courses - The Classic, The Garden, The Sea and The Land. Customers can choose a starter or a main course from any section and pay £29 for two courses, £35 for three and £42 for four - with pudding choices coming from a separate dessert menu.

The vast majority of ingredients used on this menu are British, including all of the meat, which Gauthier buys from Donald Russell - "it's such superb consistency," he says. He serves grilled cuts of organically raised Angus beef with seasonal vegetables (at the moment, he uses carrots, parsnips, salsify and pumpkins) roasted in lard, and thick French fries. Organic chicken from Red Torfrey Farm in Cornwall is served rustically, slowly cooked in a pot with cèpes and cos lettuce, and roasted pigeon is enhanced by the addition of sage leaves and almonds pushed under the skin, and served with salsify cooked in butter and chicken stock until fondant.

The dessert menu is also divided into sections. This time there is a choice between Cheese, Fruit and Herb, Chocolate and The Farm. There is just one dish currently representing The Farm - a spicy soufflé of organic duck egg, gingerbread fingers and maple infusion. Spiked with cinnamon and Chinese five spice, the soufflé is served in a duck-egg shell (sterilised to avoid cross-contamination).

A selection of British and French cheeses is available, while the fruit section always offers what is best seasonally. At the moment, that includes a caramelised damson tart with almond, sautéd autumn fruits (apples, pears, plums and damsons) with vanilla pod and ice-cream, and pear soufflé. Chocolate lovers are well catered for with a choice between chocolate fondant and cinnamon ice-cream, chocolate and tender chocolate praline finger, and a chocolate soufflé.

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