PARIS – A few decades ago, France suffered a severe shock. A Spanish restaurant called El Bulli, on the Catalan coast north of Barcelona, ââled a culinary revolution so daring that French cuisine suddenly seemed stilted, a tradition of self-righteousness stuck in a cloying bed of butter and cream.
In an article the French have never forgotten, Arthur Lubow wrote in the New York Times Magazine that “Spain has become the new France”. The chefs felt that classic French cuisine was running out of gas. It was a country, suggested a esteemed Spanish restaurant reviewer, where chefs go “to learn what not to do.” How could a veal blanquette or an entrecote with morels and cream hold a candle with white bean foam with sea urchins or spherical melon caviar?
This was in 2003. Ferran AdriÃ , in collaboration with his younger brother Albert, transformed his restaurant in the Catalan seaside resort of Rosas into a gastronomic gem so sought after that the annual demands for tables have risen by the millions, few of them. they satisfy.
The world wanted to taste M. AdriÃ ‘s conspiracy of improbable fusions and levity. Kitchen and laboratory merged. Escoffier gave in to the essences. The sauces were airy rather than reduced. Beetroot mousse and basil jelly were the new Dutch and velvety.
The pendulum, however, always swings too far. El Bulli, overwhelmed, closed its doors in 2011. The great Catalan and Basque culinary flowering that left France to heal its wounds has reached its peak. Other countries – Peru, Denmark, Japan – have become the object of a gastronomic fascination.
France, like Aesop’s tortoise, has continued on its path shaped by superb ingredients, immemorial professionalism, demanding tastes, great wines, rigorous finesse and, where appropriate, “enough melted butter to throw down a regiment. As AJ Liebling once said. After all, that’s what frog legs ask for – and not just any butter: the creamy, otherworldly beauty that is French butter.
âFor a while the Spaniards did better than us,â said Nicolas Chatenier, a prominent culinary consultant. âThey had a message. We do not have. It was a sobering call to adapt ancient knowledge to contemporary circumstances. Food, you have to understand, is French soft power.
No one has wielded this power more effectively than Alain Ducasse, 65, the demanding and restless French chef raised on a farm in the southwest of the country. At 33, he became the youngest chef with three Michelin stars (at the Louis XV in Monaco) and has since accumulated 29 in his 30 restaurants in Europe, Asia and the United States. Mr. Ducasse, always on the move, is a perfectionist entrepreneur.
“One problem? Two solutions”, he likes to say, not always the reflex in a country which sometimes seems less inclined to yes than no. Now, Mr. Ducasse has developed an ingenious plan which seems to be based the Franco-Spanish trauma with complete elegance.
He joined forces with Albert AdriÃ , a longtime junior partner of El Bulli travel and now Barcelona restaurateur, to create a 100-day pop-up whose menu combines French, Spanish and other cuisines with an emphasis on sustainable ingredients. The menu does not offer meat. Fish and cereals are in the spotlight, but not to the exclusion of a rich Brillat-Savarin with shavings of Alba truffles on a light meringue. Above all, there is a quest for the innovative and surprising balance of improbable ingredients.
Baptized ADMO – acronym of AdriÃ , Ducasse, Romain Meder (formerly executive chef of Ducasse at the Plaza-AthÃ©nÃ©e) and Les Ombres, the restaurant where the pop-up is located – the experience is the first ephemeral table of such ambition in Paris, located in a room that offers one of the best views in the city of the Eiffel Tower. The desserts are signed Jessica PrÃ©alpato and M. Adria.
“It is a European act, a civilizational act through haute cuisine”, suggested Mr. Ducasse, who is a skilful marketer as well as an extraordinary gastronomic talent.
Mr AdriÃ , 52, said he had no hesitation. âComing to Paris at the invitation of Alain Ducasse was more of a risk for him than for me! he said. It was an opportunity, decades after the Spanish culinary revolution, to âshare, talk, exchange ideas and secrets, and see how gastronomy has become a global languageâ.
While speaking in the kitchen a few days before the opening of the ADMO this month, he tasted the ingredients of a black quinoa, walnut, miso and cocoa pancake to serve at the aperitif.
“Less butter, a little more miso, go easier when you fry the nuts!” he instructed a team of nine members to rush from Spain.
The Spanish revolution, reflected Mr. AdriÃ , was a liberation of France. He guillotined the idea that haute cuisine was necessarily French in its fundamentals. His brother traveled regularly to France. The first menus at El Bulli, with saffron mussel soup and roast leg of lamb, were derived.
“Then we started to wonder why we didn’t use our local ingredients – knives, sea urchins – and why we steamed vegetables and added butter, when our mother always used olive oil. olive, âhe said.
A free-wheeling exchange of ideas produced some unusual dishes at ADMO. Mr. AdriÃ has a Mexican restaurant in Barcelona. He suggested the mole sauce that accompanies roasted cauliflower in brown butter, seasoned with confit of monkfish liver and black sesame paste. The cooking techniques here are largely French, the ideas Hispano-Mexican.
âThis dish really brought us together,â said Meder.
Merging kitchen staff with different protocols and techniques has not always been easy, especially given the complex mix of ingredients.
The quick-cooking knives are found in a tangy verbena butter flavored with an extraction of goat horn plantain. The cod skin is cut into strands resembling soba noodles that float in a broth of mushrooms and Galician sea urchins. Saint-Tropez sea cucumber is accompanied by candied garlic, chickpeas and caviar.
âSome American diners seem to find the texture of sea cucumber a bit difficult,â Chatenier said after the restaurant opened this month.
At 380 euros, or about $ 430 for the 13-course dinner menu, or about half of lunch, ADMO puts it âhighâ in haute cuisine. The recommended libation for several of the dishes is a 2008 Dom PÃ©rignon RosÃ© Champagne, served at different temperatures for different dishes.
For Ducasse, whose air of amused detachment belies a fierce attention to detail, this is just the latest of many companies that in recent years have included new ventures in ice cream and chocolate. He is led. At 28, he was on a small plane that crashed in the Alps, killing the other four on board and leaving him writhing in the snow for hours before being rescued.
âAfter that you believe you have a destiny and you want to control it,â he said.
Mr. Ducasse says he has never doubted the resilient appeal of French cuisine. âIt’s an obsession, something in our DNA,â he said. âThe expertise to find the right reduction, the right temperature, the right seasoning, the right preparation and the right wine to accompany it all.
What sets M. Ducasse apart is the steadfast pursuit of expansion that has led some critics to say he’s over-stretched, and his simultaneous interest in the perfectly executed simple dish alongside extremes of refinement.
The black pudding or roast pork from its bistro Aux Lyonnais at a moderate price in Paris, run by its new chef Marie-Victorine Manoa, excites him as much as ADMO, which will close on March 9. Even at ADMO, a paddle of butter on rice flour the bread served in the middle of a meal is a clear Ducasse touch, a comforting break.
âOK, so now the Scandinavians are serving the perfect plate of peas,â he said. “So what? Following?“
M. Ducasse likes the Italian word âaggiornamentoâ, which he sees as the continuous adaptation of tradition. In the end, ADMO is less a Franco-Spanish fusion restaurant and more complex and cultural haute cuisine.
France has not disappeared, after all, from the culinary super league. He reconciled with his Spanish executioner. He learned to make cod skin noodles even though his frog legs are still swimming in butter. It may be soft power in the guise of the 21st century.