Come with me to Paris to discover how classic rules combined with creativity create competition.
It’s lauded as the oldest, most prestigious chefs’ competition in the world. When asked to describe le Taittinger Culinaire Prix from a personal perspective, I have simply said, to some, a career highlight. To others, a dream come true. To meet some of the world’s top chefs and to experience the excitement and pressure of the ’Everest of Gastronomy’, was indeed an honour. To be invited to bring my home country to compete in the future, is the pinnacle of my career in food. Next year chefs plated in the JHP Gourmet Guide™ will have the opportunity of competing too, a first for South Africa. The guide is a platform for our chefs to shine, and Taittinger has acknowledged that the guide and its plating rating is the perfect conduit for eligible and interested chefs to apply for this competition.
Jetting off to Paris for three days was all the working schedule allowed, and our itinerary did not even allow time to support the Springboks in beating France! The first two days were, I confess, spent in the Marais area trundling in and out of the boutiques, boulangeries and bistros, day two we headed to the shops on the Champs-Élysées. My partner in crime, Linette Cox, distributor of Taittinger Champagne in SA, led the retail rendezvous, starting at Louis Vuitton where I, uninitiated, was a willing second, happy to ooh and aah and drink Champagne whilst she parted with her euro. Shopping was always punctuated with Champagne, cappuccinos and patisserie – the highlight being a visit to Ladurée for their famous macarons. Oh and the other highlight was getting up close and personal with Hugh Grant as he walked along the red carpet into the Lido for the premier of the Paddington movie. Regardless of how many times one has visited the city of lights, the sight of the Eiffel Tower lit up at night is breathtaking, more than deserving of another glass of Champagne, or two, before dinner that simply had to include French onion soup. Paris in Autumn has its own beauty, and with the lure of Christmas lights and beautiful windows, there is lots to wow about, a feast for all senses.
On the eve of the competition the finalists from Japan, France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Germany and the UK met for their briefing. The theme of the contest was: ‘Game animal with fur (deer, not rabbit as I had expected), served with gravy or a jus in a gravy boat and three sides: one with a potato base, one with a pumpkin and chestnut base and one free choice. The candidates then only had a few hours to develop their recipes and to create their dessert recipe – their interpretation of quince and fig tartlets presented on decorated plates.
On the day of the competition we headed off early to the famous École Grégoire-Ferrandi in the 6th arrondissement. We were warmly welcomed by Jean-Pierre Redont, VIP and Hospitality Manager of Taittinger, and co-ordinator of the competition. The eight candidates had been at the cookery school since dawn, starting to cook in 15-minute intervals. We arrived as the Dutch candidate was about to start, and managed to give him some distraction by discussing SA restaurants and chefs. He proudly announced that his former colleague, Pierre Hendriks opened a restaurant Le Bon Vivant in Franschhoek, and best we get there! We donned unflattering white protection gear (intended for hygienic reasons but did well to hide three days of feasting) and wandered into the kitchens to watch the competitors hard at work. The tension was palpable. Translation was a problem for UK chef Tom Scade, who, when calling for cornflour, I was delighted to be able to shout ‘Maizena’ and witness his relief as the ingredient arrived! After scrutinizing technique and use of ingredients, I had earmarked my most likely contender. Swiss efficiency and precision always impress me, and chef Tom Meyer of Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville de Crissier was no exception. Watching him at work was like poetry in motion.
Another respected global partner for the 2018 JHP Gourmet Guide™ is Swiss International Air Lines and as stated by them, one of the foundations of gastronomy when flying with their airline, “Whether it’s the precision of executing a boiled egg in the evening or a cutlet and French fries in the morning – knowing the right dish to satisfy the client’s taste goes a long way. Crowning the gourmet execution with a fine precision of charm is of underlying importance.”
Whilst Tom and the team were busy putting final touches to their creations, media were treated to a lunch of simple, traditional French fare, with the trotters and lentils served in the ubiquitous copper pans, being a highlight. Then Chef Emmanuel Renaut who, since 2013, has presided over the jury in his leadership role, demonstrated the deer Wellington for us, kindly translating into English when needed. Chef at the 3-Michelin-starred Flocons de Sel, he is humble and friendly, known for his fairness.
The kitchen jury consisted of four iconic chefs: Bernard Leprince, Christian Nee from La Pyramide (2-Michelin stars), Amandine Chaignot from the Rosewood London Hotel and Lars van Galen from Larnsnik (1-Michelin star), from the Netherlands. Lars took time to explain the workings of the competition whilst we were standing in the steamy kitchen, which was, after all, the reason for us being there – to witness the intricacies in order to brief the SA plated chefs who wish to enter in 2018.
Watching the judging was an exceptional experience. Each platter of food was brought out at 15-minute intervals and the deer Wellington expertly carved into portions for the judges by Chef Emmanuel. Tasting each was a real treat. Once the judging was finished I was thrilled to re-acquaint myself with Michel Roux Jnr, part of the tasting jury. When encouraging him to visit SA, he suggested that we start working on his wife that evening at the gala dinner!
The glamorous awards ceremony took place in the sumptuous setting of The Peninsula Paris, next to the mythical Place de l’Étoile. After an animated speech by Pierre-Emmanueal Taittinger and his daughter, Vitalie, I vowed that next year I will be able to understand at least the basics of the French language, rather than just body language.
This is the second time that the legendary Swiss restaurant, Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville de Crissier has secured first place. Chef Tom Meyer is the youngest winner in all its history, at 24 years of age. Second place on the 2017 list was awarded to the Japanese, chef Tomoaki Sakata of the InterContinental Tokyo Bay hotel, while France took the third place.
The dinner, created by the talented chef Christophe Raoux, Meilleur Ouvrier de France 2015, was a fitting finale to a fabulous day. Lucky to be sandwiched between Linette and myself at the dinner was Chef Ulf Wagner, of Sjömagasinet, a 1-Michelin star restaurant in Gothenburg, Sweden, who visits SA regularly. His daughter, Molly Wagner, gave a superlative jazz performance whilst we dined like royalty. Simply explained – a smoked cep velouté followed by a paté with a foie gras centre. The main course was a vol-au-vent of langoustines in a Champagne Brut Reserve Taittinger sauce with truffles, dessert was a white coconut orb filled with passion fruit and scented with jasmine.
For this celebratory meal, Maison Taittinger had reserved a vintage of which only a few bottles remain, a delicious Brut Millésimé 2000, as well as its exceptional vintage, the 2006 Comtes de Champagne, served both as a Blanc de Blanc and as Rosé. Champagne heaven indeed.
As we managed our last cappuccino and pain au chocolat before heading to Charles de Gaulle homeward bound, Tom Meyer tried to discreetly sneak into the breakfast room. Carrying two enormous trophies made him rather obvious, and it was our delight to quietly congratulate him once again, for the honour bestowed upon him by Taittinger and some of the top chefs in the world.
As our whirlwind trip came to an end I was reminded of the origin of the award. My dream started with someone else’s dream, a dream of the union of Champagne and chefs, between a family and gastronomy. The idea came one evening during the 1966 harvest when Claude Taittinger, President of the House of Champagne, invited Georges Prade, Commander of the Ordre des Côteaux de Champagne, to the Château de la Marquetterie. The two epicureans discussed their memories, their love of cuisine with natural flavours, their fears about the evolution of gastronomy. They decided to launch an international gastronomic competition, organised and judged by professionals, to celebrate cooking with classic rules and creativity. Young crowned chefs started to become stars and to gain recognition. The handing down and sharing of valuable expertise is for the family, the heart of this iconic competition. It was with a heart full that I returned to share the experience with young chefs in South Africa.