Some chefs serve food, others create works of art that delight the eyes
and tantalize the palate. Meet the new culinary stars pushing the limits of possibility
The image of a chef poring over a plate at the pass, fastidiously pimping the presentation of a dish, is, in reality, less than 50 years old. Like most things in today’s gastronomically ambitious restaurant, you can blame it on nouvelle cuisine. A famously influential movement in French cooking, it was championed by the restaurant critics Henri Gault and Christian Millau via the eponymous guide they started publishing in 1965, the former coining the term before defining it in a manifesto in a 1973 article.
Leaving aside its widely berated signatures – microscopic portions and pretentiousness the usual charges – it gave traditional haute cuisine a much-needed makeover. The emphasis was on healthier, lighter sauces, and more natural flavors, with creativity encouraged through new recipes, ingredients, and techniques to move beyond the established culinary canon famously codified by Auguste Escoffier.
But another, less-noted legacy of nouvelle cuisine was that for the first time in the history of haute cuisine, it was the chefs who plated the food. Before then, the established style of service – service à la française – involved the dish being finished tableside by the chef de rang (the head waiter), who would mix, sauté, carve, or even make a sauce, before plating the food up with a garnish, and presenting it to the guests.
I see this restaurant as a canvas and I’m painting it with food
André Chiang at Restaurant André, Singapore
With chefs of nouvelle cuisine in complete control of their plates, dishes were entirely assembled in the kitchen and increasingly artistic presentation followed. The plate had become a canvas: an expression of the chef’s creativity delivered directly to the diner.
All of which, of course, is to look at things through Western eyes. This kind of thinking in terms of food presentation had already been part of Japanese culture for centuries, notably in the beauty of multi-course kaiseki menus. Lyon’s legendary Paul Bocuse, an early advocate of nouvelle cuisine, first traveled to Japan in 1970 and it’s entirely possible that it had an impact on him, the Troisgros brothers (fellow Gault et Millau poster boys), and early Nipponophiles.
So now that Ferran Adrià’s legendary El Bulli has shut its doors for good, and once-cutting-edge Heston Blumenthal (of bacon-and-eggs ice-cream fame) is producing food on an industrial scale for an upmarket British supermarket, who are the next generation of chefs creating edible works of art, and where should we go to sample their wares?
René Redzepi at Noma, Copenhagen, Denmark
Since opening Noma in 2003, René Redzepi has moved beyond being cast as the figurehead for the “New Nordic” movement, via topping “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants,” to influencing haute cuisine worldwide. Drawing on classical French training and spells at El Bulli in Catalonia and The French Laundry in California, he combines strict seasonality, wild and foraged ingredients, and innovative techniques.
Typical dishes: Fried Finnish reindeer moss with pulverized cep mushrooms; Lacto-fermented gooseberries with lemon verbena oil and lavender.
In his own words: “We need to surprise people through cooking. We do this by distilling our landscape onto a plate. We try to give our diners a sense of time and place and celebrate deliciousness in a modern way.”
Hélène Darroze at Restaurant Hélène Darroze & Connaught, Paris, France & London, UK
The fourth generation in her family to cook for a living, Hélène Darroze only decided to become a chef in her mid-20s. It was at Le Louis XV in Monte-Carlo, where she worked as an administrator after finishing a business degree, that Alain Ducasse convinced her to enter the kitchen.
The Frenchwoman – recently named the Veuve Clicquot World’s Best Female Chef for 2015 – now divides her time between the two restaurants where, in staying loyal to her roots, her elegant, intensely personal menus always feature foie gras and champion her favorite growers, farmers, and fishermen.
Typical dishes: Foie gras, beetroot, blood orange, pistachio, traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena; Lobster, asparagus, botargo, seaweed; Rhubarb, sarawak pepper, Greek yoghurt.
In her own words: “The smallest details on a plate can recollect and represent who I am, what I have experienced, and furthermore, evoke feelings, memories, aromas, and even a trip.”
Ben Shewry at Attica, Melbourne, Australia
Hailing from North Taranaki, on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand, Ben Shewry was raised on his family’s coastal farm and fed on wild, foraged ingredients throughout his childhood. Later, he moved to Melbourne to work under Michael Lambie and Andrew McConnell, before working his way around the US, eventually ending up at the London outpost of David Thompson’s haute-Thai, Nahm.
Typical dishes: Wallaby blood pikelet; Salted red kangaroo and bunya bunya; Potato cooked in the earth it was grown in.
In his own words: “It was obvious for me to pick things from the wild or from along the coast where I lived because they were fresh; I like using the ingredients I pick on the day for dishes we serve on that day.”
André Chiang at Restaurant André, Singapore
Born in Taiwan, André Chiang grew up working in his mother’s Chinese restaurant in Tokyo before building up an impressive culinary CV, including stints at London’s L’Atelier de Jöel Robuchon and Maison Troisgros in Roanne.
Typical dishes: Cockscomb and duck tongue terrine with smoked eggplant, caviar, and sesame salt; Warm foie gras jelly with black-truffle coulis; Chlorophyll capsules on fresh moss.
In his own words: “Sometimes when we see the produce we think it would make a perfect ‘Artisan’ or ‘Pure’ dish, but you can work the other way, like when I’m inspired by a painting or a movie and want to portray the message through a dish. I see this restaurant as a canvas and I’m painting it with food.”
Massimo Bottura at Osteria Francescana, Modena, Italy
Born and raised in Modena, northern Italy, Massimo Bottura was two semesters into a law degree when he decided to follow his passion for cooking by buying a roadside trattoria in 1986, opening it a week later as Trattoria del Campazzo. He went on to cook under Georges Coigny in Piacenza, who showed him how to apply French techniques to Italian regional ingredients and traditions.
Typical dishes: “Bread is gold”; “An eel swimming up the Po River”; “Oops! I dropped the lemon tart.”
In his own words: “Italy is a country in which culinary identities are formed at a young age. It was absolutely necessary for me to take a step back to move forward. A little irreverence, self-mockery, and irony helped me find the critical distance I needed to see things from another point of view.”
Grant Achatz, at Alinea, Chicago, USA
From his parents’ restaurant to Charlie Trotter’s famously intense kitchen, via Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, Grant Achatz was arguably influenced most by his time at Ferran Adrià’s experimental El Bulli. On returning to the US, he joined Trio in Evanston, Illinois, where his daring new direction gained national attention.
Typical dishes: Wagyu, parsnip, black trumpet, kombu; Scallop, citrus aroma, fourteen textures; Balloon, helium, green apple.
In his own words: “What makes the food that we do so interesting on the outside is that we really don’t let ourselves say no to an idea.”
GOURMET TRAVEL: A TASTER OF ITALIAN LIFE
Nestled in the Umbrian hills, the Castello di Reschio is a collection of ancient farmhouses – set among 3,000 acres of woodland, olive groves, and vineyards – six of which are available to rent as vacation homes. Purchased in 1994 by Count Antonio Bolza, the Reschio estate has been restored to its former glory and beyond, with each farmhouse boasting a swimming pool within its gardens.
For culture with your cuisine, visit the estate’s old tobacco drying shed, now beautifully restored to house a creative hub. Artworks by Nic Fiddian-Green are on display this summer/fall (July 4-September 30) – a fitting setting for the master of equestrian sculpture, as Reschio has exquisite stables where some of the world’s best dressage horses are bred and trained.