In March the annualFestival Culinaire Bernard Loiseautook place in Mauritius. Christopher Barber, managing director of Leiths Food Solutions, represented the UK as a judge, with Michael North, chef-proprietor of the Michelin-starred Nut Tree in Murcott, Oxfordshire, competing. Barber reports
About 18 months ago I was approached to nominate a one-Michelin-starred chef from the UK to take part in a culinary festival in Mauritius. A bit of research showed that past participants had been Alfred Prasad and Bjorn van der Horst - both of whom said it had been the experience of a lifetime. The organisers - the Constance Hotel Group in Mauritius along with Dominique Loiseau, widow of the late Bernard Loiseau and patron of the three-Michelin-starred Cote d'Or in Burgundy - also invited me to join the judging panel of the competition. It was the experience of a lifetime, with my nominee Bruce Poole and his Mauritian counterpart Patrick Travady winning the competition.
A year later and I returned to judge, this time nominating former Catey Newcomer winner Mike North (pictured left, with the author), chef proprietor of the Michelin-starred Nut Tree in Murcott in Oxfordshire, to represent the UK.
Although the festival is centred on a competition where a one-Michelin-starred chef from Europe pairs with a Mauritian or Seychelloise chef to create two dishes using local ingredients, the main thrust of the event is to promote friendship and exchange of culinary ideas.
So while the competition can be fierce, there are no real losers when you spend 10 days in paradise with some of Europe's top culinary talent. There is also a "six-star" dinner where each of the European chef's create a course, and a "three-star" diner created by Patrick Bertron, head chef of the Cote d'Or.
The other European chefs were:
Thomas Herman, Restaurant Herman, Copenhagen, Denmark
Jerome Manifacier, Restaurant Vertigo, Geneva, Switzerland
Serge Vieira, Restaurant Serge Vieira, Chaudes-Aigues, France
Hans Horberth, Restaurant La Vision, Cologne, Germany
Xabi Ibarboure, La Table des Freres Ibarboure, Bidart, France
Sunday 13 March
All the chefs, journalists and organisers meet and head for a tour of a tea plantation and rum distiller in the south of the Island. Afterwards everyone enjoys a typical Creole lunch at a hill top location created by the grande dame of Mauritian cuisine, Jacqueline Dalais.
Monday 14 March
So now it is getting serious, the European chefs meet for breakfast at 7am for a final briefing, before they draw lots to find out their team member. Mike draws 20-year-old Marcus Accouche from Constance Lemuria in the Seychelles. The chefs board a bus to the capital Port Louis to visit the local markets. Here they begin to bond and make the first steps to creating their dishes. En route they deliver food and meet with local children at a home for the disabled.
Tuesday 15 March
The chefs spend a day in the kitchen refining their dishes before the lavish launch party with cocktails and Deutz Champagne. The chefs and jury are announced on stage, and the chefs answer questions from foreign and local journalists.
Wednesday 16 March
Final day of trials for the chefs, dinner in the evening at the beautiful home of the managing director of the Constance Group, Patrice Decamps Binet.
Thursday 17 March
Today is the day of the competition. The Jury comprises Dominique Loiseau, Patrick Bertron, Jacqueline Dalais, former head of Michelin Jean Luc Naret, Manfred Kohnke, head of Gault Millau in Germany, and myself.
The judges are presented the plates not knowing which team has created which dish. The starter must use palm hearts as the main ingredient, while the main must use Bourgeois fish (a kind of snapper) and local chards. The main course should also use a blend of spices created by the chefs. The standard is incredible and there are some magnificent dishes. The judges are ushered away to a private room to share their scores and make final deliberations.
Over dinner at Constance Prince Maurice, I catch up with 2005 Bocuse d'Or winner Serge Vieira, who represented France. "What an experience, so different to other competitions," he says. "While we aim to win, in the kitchen we all wanted to help each other, so not the usual atmosphere or pressure."
Meanwhile Danish contestant Thomas Herman has the added pressure of a film crew following his every move. "I knew a bit about the festival from the previous Danish competitors, and I have been to the island before. However, this is way beyond my expectations. My guy did really well in the kitchen, we wanted to create dishes that showed my vision of the island, and hoped that they would reflect my philosophy of food and the importance of using the best local ingredients."
Friday 17 March
Today the chefs create a "six-star" dinner for the public, each designing and serving a course. Mike is on dessert serving Chinese guava crumble with saffron ice cream and cardamom custard. All goes well and the guests are thrilled.
Saturday 18 March
The winners are announced before dinner created by Patrick Bertron.
Winner: Serge Vieira (France)
Runner up: Xabi Ibarboure (France)
Third place: Mike North (UK)
Vieira's winning menu comprised a starter of palm heart, leaf to leaf and tombeau tuna, hot mango rose of winds, lemon grass sauce and grilled peanuts and a main course of Bourgeois cooked at low temperature then lacquered, crispy lime and stems, cannelloni of Mauritian chards and ripe banana with preserved lemon.
Meanwhile North's menu included a starter of palm heart four ways, prawns and curry; followed by grilled and lightly smoked spiced bourgeois fish, Basmati rice, wilted greens, coconut and lemon grass sauce.
North comments: "I am so relieved, my worst fear was to come last, but third place amongst this talent is a fantastic achievement!"
Winning chef Vieira adds: "Winning was not the most important thing, meeting all the guys from Europe and learning from them was special. Also, the attitude of the island chefs was fantastic, they have incredible energy and enthusiasm, and constantly have a smile on their face I will definitely learn from this."
The Gala dinner follows and celebrations continue through the night.
Sunday 19 - Tuesday 21 March
On Sunday, the second of the "six-star" dinners takes place and is another triumph. The next day the chefs are taken on a boat trip followed by a barbecue beach lunch. On Tuesday a last dinner takes place where Vieira's winning dishes are served.
For more pictures from the Festival Culinaire Bernard Loiseau, go to http://www.caterersearch.com/tabletalk/media/bernardloiseaufestival/default.aspx" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">Table Talk.