Starchefs 2009 Day One: Pierre Gagnaire’s Market Basket

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Pierre Gagnaire is one of the
giants of cuisine. Love what he puts on the plate or not, he is
indisputably a master of his craft. My one meal at his hands at the
Restaurant Pierre Gagnaire in Paris in 2005 shortly after his divorce
was ultimately disappointing. The food was beautiful and technically
flawless. I am sure it was presented exactly as he wanted. The
problem was that I did not enjoy the balance of flavors on the plate.
It focused on bitterness as the predominant flavor type. Had I been
in a different mood that evening or had the bitterness not been so
prominent throughout the meal, I might have enjoyed it more. As it
was, the bitterness was too much for me that evening. Most
restaurants in that price range only get one chance to impress me.
His food was interesting enough though that despite that evening's
bitterness, this is one restaurant and chef who continues to intrigue
me. Watching him work on stage at Starchefs only reinforced that
notion.

Culinary improvisation has achieved an
unprecedented level of interest in the United States, largely through
the popularity of television shows like Iron Chef, Top Chef and
Chopped. Though these shows are contrived and not necessarily truly
spontaneous, the usefulness of an exercise along these lines reflects
a renewed interest in cooking from the market. An ability to cook
spontaneously has become increasingly valuable and praiseworthy. This
was manifested at the latest Starchefs ICC when Pierre Gagnaire was
charged with creating dishes from a market basket that he was
introduced to only 30 minutes prior to his demonstration.

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Gagnaire's surprise basket included
Wisconsin artisanal cheeses, Pennsylvania Asian pears, New Jersey
bicolor corn, Long Island kale, New Zealand King salmon, California
spot prawns, Rougie magret de canard and Kopert Cress micro-greens,
all of the suppliers Congress sponsors, as would be expected for an
event like this. In addition to these ingredients, others were also
part of his pantry.

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Gagnaire, speaking mostly through an
interpreter said that he hoped that he would be able to show a couple
of things, but this was a “nerve-racking experience.” He thought
his first dish was to be a panna cotta with Wisconsin gruyere
accompanied by red beets and Asian pears. Through most of his
presentation, verbal silence reigned as Gagnaire was busy creating
dish after dish, a blur on stage as he raced from ingredient to
ingredient and technique after technique with the sounds of cutting,
whisking, whirring and cooking predominating. He was truly a marvel
to watch as he and his assistants put together various combinations
and permutations of the allotted ingredients. At one point, he stopped
to explain that he was still figuring out what he was going to do
with some of the ingredients and that an additional part of the
difficulty of the exercise was determining the right plates and
platings of the dishes. He also explained that many of the products
he was presented with were new to him, a challenge that he enjoyed.
The panna cotta dish was vegetarian, but he told how meat or fish
products like scallops could be added to it if desired. It took a
while for Gagnaire to figure out precisely what he would do with
everything, but once he did, the dishes started appearing quickly.

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Additional dishes paired the duck with
the prawns, and salmon done several different ways. As he formulated
his ideas and began preparing them, even more ideas came to him. At
one point he asked if he could have some paprika from any of the
purveyors in the marketplace, a request which at least one was happy
to oblige.

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While preparing his dishes, Gagnaire
spoke to his philosophy of cooking in a kitchen on a daily basis. He
said “Everything is simplicity, it is all about the flavors.” He
went on to add that in the kitchen, “cooking is about emotion…
the dishes will always reflect how the day goes, the years goes and
everything around it.” I found this statement to be reflective of
the meal I had at Gagnaire back in 2005. This sentiment on emotion is
not a new one from Gagnaire. I had always heard that the food on
his plate reflected the state of his emotions. That year was
apparently a difficult one for him, with major change and turmoil in
his life from his divorce . His wife had been closely involved with
the running of his restaurant and she was no longer there and they
were no longer directly involved in each other's lives. While I am
not nor should I be privy to the details of that situation, it was
obvious from what was on the plate, that he was affected by his
circumstances and he had transferred them to the plate. With his
statements at the ICC, he essentially confirmed this. It is, however,
because life and circumstances change that I would wish to see and
taste what he can do in happier and less stressful times.

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It was fascinating to watch and listen
to Gagnaire cook. The specifics of the dishes and the techniques used
were really secondary in importance. They looked and sounded
delicious and I am sure they were. The more important element was the
process he employed as he viewed his ingredients and assimilated
their characteristics in his mind, enabling him to transfer those
properties to the plate in an appealing manner. This enthralled the
audience. Gagnaire's approach appeared simple, emphasizing flavor as
the primary element, building a dish from the ingredients out.
Indeed, it may have been simple for him, but for everyone else, it
was just plain fun.

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