Restaurant consultant Chris Barber reports from the Festival Culinaire Bernard Loiseau in Mauritius, the Michelin-starred culinary competition for European and Mauritian chefs in remembrance of the legendary chef
Before the tragic death of chef Bernard Loiseau in 2003, his head chef, Patrick Bertron, had taken part in a promotional culinary event at the Constance Belle Mare Plage hotel in Mauritius.
Following Loiseau's death, Bertron and the hotel's chefs, Bruno le Gac and Michael Scioli, came up with the idea of a culinary festival that would celebrate the life of the former three-Michelin-starred chef. The Festival Culinaire Bernard Loiseau would be a one-week festival and culinary competition, where one-Michelin-starred chefs from Europe would be paired up with Mauritian chefs to create dishes to present to a panel of judges.
The festival grew in prestige and reputation, and previous UK winners of the competition have included Bjorn van der Horst and Bruce Poole, and chefs Angela Hartnett, Alfred Prasad, William Drabble, Mike North and Tim Allen have all taken part.
This year saw the festival's 10th anniversary and the bar was raised: the European chefs are now required to have two Michelin stars.
And that's not forgetting the competition element. Here a two-Michelin-starred chef was randomly chosen to pair up with an Mauritian chef and given the challenge of creating a menu comprising a canapé, starter and main course, using defined ingredients and supplemented by their own creative additions.
Each pair spent three days getting to know each other, discovering local markets and ingredients and formulating their dishes together. On the competition day, the European chef produced and served the canapé, the Mauritian chef cooked and served the starter and main dish. The dishes were presented to a jury of seven world-renowned food and wine experts, which included Bertron, Loiseau's widow, Dominique Loiseau, and 2015
Bocuse d'Or winner Orjan Johannessen from Norway. Also on the jury was French chef Cyril Lignac, who attended the festival with his 'bake-off' partner, Jacqueline Mercorelli, a macaroon expert and food blogger known as Mercotte. These two are the Hollywood and Berry of France, and seem to be having equal success as their UK counterparts - Mercotte even looks like Mary Berry.
The kitchen this year was very special. Both Frachot and Vieira have competed and won before, as have several of the Mauritian chefs, so there was a high level of confidence. All the European chefs embraced the spirit of sharing and friendship and, despite their celebrity and status, they were there for the experience, rather than to win.
For me, there were two highlights this year. The first was the 12-Michelin-star dinner for 120 guests: I cannot imagine a more extraordinary experience. There are many events where starred chefs created a menu or oversee the kitchen, but here they rolled their sleeves up and did the work themselves - though each had a team from the hotel to help get the dishes out. They also worked together, helping each other to get the courses served on time.
The man with the task of running the pass was Dominique Grel, the exceptionally talented executive chef of Belle Mare Plage. I managed to squeeze my way into the kitchen pre-dinner and, blimey, it was hot, but Grel had it under control. "I need consistency. This is a long service with some big tables. We are under pressure, but we will deliver," he said. As service began, Grel was a picture of concentration, taking table orders and instructions from the waiters, barking orders to his superstar team. However, as another check came in and the noise got a decibel too high,
Grel gave an authoritative command for "quiet in the kitchen" and order resumed.
The second highlight was the competition itself and, unlike my former visits when I was a member of the jury, this year I had a roving pass and was able to view the dishes coming from the kitchen and mingle with the chefs and their island teams. Each of the dishes came past to a huge roar of appreciation before they reached the tranquillity of the judging panel - the atmosphere was quite unique.
Two days later, at a gala party where the winners were announced, the podium had a genuine pan-European feel. Caines and his team came third, Felix from Germany second, and Frachot deservedly scooped the first prize. Frachot's team comprised Amit Chandel from the Constance Ephelia Seychelles and commis chef Bisham Jumangalsing from the Constance Belle Mare Plage.
Frachot was surprised, delighted and, despite battling tonsillitis, visibly proud. "Of course, I am delighted to win," he said, "but this is for my team. I normally don't accept 'competitions', I don't need the pressure and don't have the time, but this is different and I have learned from the island chefs as much as they have learned from me."
Dominique Loiseau, chair of the jury, was impressed with the standard. "It was noticeablethat the standard was even higher than previous years; perhaps with two stars they have nothing to prove, so are more open to collaboration and the exchange of ideas," she said. And a final word to Caines, who remained on the island for a well-deserved short break."
This event has been way beyond my expectations. I was happy to come third, but I wanted to win for Aviraj and Ravi [his team], so I guess
I am a bit disappointed as they worked so hard and were amazing. I can't believe the week has gone in a flash. It has been hard work, but I have loved it - seeing old friends, making new friends - it has been an incredible experience."
So the 10th anniversary of Festival Culinaire Bernard Loiseau is over and the planning for the 11th edition begins. Caines has been a wonderful ambassador for the UK and, not surprisingly, has been a huge hit in Mauritius. My thoughts now turn to selecting the UK competitor for 2016.
The legacy of Bernard Loiseau
Twelve years after his death, the legend of Bernard Loiseau may perhaps be less obvious to the younger generation of chefs. Loiseau was one of the first superstars of the culinary world, not only revered by the culinary guides, but celebrated by media and befriended by the rich and famous. He was arguably the first modern-day celebrity chef.
He gambled everything on the purchase and renovation of La Côte d'Or in Saulieu, Burgundy, which went on to deliver his dream of three Michelin stars. However, behind the ever-smiling and charismatic persona, Loiseau was a complex and troubled man.
After being downgraded from 19/20 to 17/20 in French restaurant guide Gault Millau, rumour was rife that Loiseau would lose a Michelin star. On 24 February 2003, Loiseau took his own life and, despite much conjecture, not even those closest to him knew the exact reason for his suicide.
Relais Bernard Loiseau, headed today by Patrick Bertron, retains its three stars. One of those close to Loiseau was Michael Caines, who was in Mauritius for the Festival Culinaire this week. He was reunited with his old friends Patrick Bertron and Dominique Loiseau, now chair of Groupe Bernard Loiseau.
Caines had a unique relationship with Loiseau, and I asked Bertron for his view on this. Despite being just a chef de partie, Caines became an important lieutenant in the brigade, gaining trust and responsibility from Loiseau and Bertron well beyond his kitchen status.
"Michael has the same heart, professionalism and infectious smile as Bernard," says Bertron. "They were similar, but Michael was the same in and out of the kitchen. When Michael left Saulieu for JoÁ«l Robuchon in Paris, Bernard picked up the phone to JoÁ«l to recommend him; he would
never have done this for another. "If I wasn't in the kitchen, Bernard would always ask if Michael was working. If he was, Bernard would smile and direct all of his instructions at him.
"I believe Michael was the first, and perhaps only chef from the Loiseau family to gain their own two Michelin stars. He is a special friend to me, and although we have few chances to meet with our busy lives, I count Michael as one of the closest."
Caines also spoke fondly of Bertron, and there is no doubt that they have a deep respect for each other. "Bernard told me that Patrick can cook Loiseau better than Loiseau himself," he said.
So why did Bernard become so fond of Caines? Caines explains: "On my first day, he said to me: 'Michael, come here, do you speak French?' I said yes, although at the time I didn't, and he reeled off a whole list of instructions for me, few of which I understood. But I got by, learned the
language and stayed for 13 months. Despite moving to Paris, Saulieu was my home, and I would return there on days off.
"Bernard always said that I was French. He said my spirit, my personality, my cooking style - even the way I spoke was French. I was brought up by adopted parents, but a couple of years back I traced my birth parents and found out that my natural father was from the French-speaking island of Dominica in the Caribbean. So perhaps Bernard knew all along that, despite my obvious Englishness, he could sense the Frenchman within me."
I was intrigued by Caines' memory of Loiseau in the kitchen: "He was a natural showman and leader to us; he was always the same," he says.
"Before every service he would lead the team talk, saying we are the best, don't forget, and then he would run the pass expertly for 120 covers. He would never show any weakness.
"The cuisine was his, but he allowed us to come up with ideas and contribute and he would 'Loiseau' them, to make them his own."
Dominique was equally fond of Caines and still refers to him as family. "Bernard considered his team to be his family. He was paternalistic and never wanted to fight with his boys," she says. Apparently, he left discipline to Bertron."He liked Michael," Dominique continues, "as he said yes to everything. Nothing was a problem to him and he always had a smile on his face. Being English, he slipped immediately into using the familiar 'tu' with Bernard [as opposed to a formal 'vous']. No Frenchman would have been allowed this privilege, but it was right for Michael and Bernard."
Chris Barber is managing director of Catering Business Food Solutions