FROM learning to cook in his family's inn in the Landes, Michelin-starred chef Alain Dutournier presides at one of Paris's top restaurants, the two-star Carré des Feuillants, and is president of honour at this month's Paris Cookbook Fair (www.cookbookfair.com). He loves cooks with a personal approach, but hates gimmicks such as fish with fruit.
You were inspired by your childhood in the south-west?
I was born at an inn where my mother and grandmother did the cooking and I started helping out very young. Then, as my family were not well-off and I wanted to find out about the way people ate in different countries and cultures, I thought my only option to travel was to become a chef and go and work in kitchens abroad.
What training did you do?
I went to catering school in Toulouse and worked in Munich, Stockholm, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and then in catering for Air France, and took part in a lot of events, such as opening the catering for Royal Nepal Airlines in Kathmandu.
So I travelled. When I was ready, I started my own small business, my first venture, the restaurant Au Trou Gascon in the 12th arrondissement, which was so called because I'm from Gascony. It's still there and has a Michelin star.
Another well-known chef, Alain Ducasse, is from the same part of France: what is it about the area that inspires people to cook?
He is a good friend and comes from a village 25km from mine. Today you can eat well all over Europe, but originally in France, at the start of the last century, there were three regions that produced cooks because they had a gastronomic and culinary culture: Alsace, Provence-Alpes-Côtes d'Azur and Aquitaine.
Each had a lot of regional recipes and a real culinary heritage, whereas, if you went to Brittany, you would not have eaten well. You wouldn't have found much fish or seafood, because the locals all had loved ones who had been sailors and died at sea, so they ate pork, bacon and cabbages.
In the Auvergne or the Basque Country, the cuisine was rudimentary, and it was not up to much in most of the centre of France.
I thought Lyon was noted for its food?
If you analyse it, it is in a corridor between Paca and Alsace. When you hear of quenelles (dumplings) de Lyon, it's really Alsacian knödels; if you eat tripes à la lyonnaise, there are tomatoes and olives because it's the influence of the South.
Whereas in Burgundy there are extraordinary wines but no great cuisine, in Aquitaine there are not a lot of great restaurants, but in families, at the Bordeaux chateaux, they have known for a long time how to eat well.
What are the key elements of the cooking?
It's not at all based on dairy products. It's based on duck or goose fat and oil; we don't like thick creamy sauces, we use jus.
And is your cooking still rooted in south-western cuisine?
I simply take a product I like and bring out the best in it. I'm from the south-west, so you find products with a touch of the south-west, but I do not try to make ‘southern-western cuisine'. I do whatever comes into my head.
There are some constraints because I have a business to run, but basically I am very free in my cooking. I only do what I like, when I like, and I couldn't care less what the guides might think of it.
Since I turned 50 [11 years ago], I have drawn a line under guides and the press. I eat my food. That's the first thing I ask chefs: do you eat your own food? There are a lot of people who serve up raw pork or badly cooked foie gras, but they don't eat it themselves. If they did, they would understand.
I might make a new dish because I warm towards a certain producer who supplies some oysters, or I create a dish as a reaction to something. For example, in my youth I had to make tons of crêpes for crêpes Suzette; now I make crêpes Suzette again, but destroy them completely in a blender and make them into a different shape: to get revenge.
Cooking happens because of emotional reactions; you don't organise it or do it to order. There are basics; you have to master your craft, then on top of that you use your imagination.
People who say, ‘Every day, when I go to the market I am creative, I create dishes every day', it's not true. People don't create a new dish every day; they copy a lot of dishes.
So originality is important to you?
I don't want to do what other people do. If a chef is working with me, I don't ask him to tell me what he used to do when he worked for Joël Robuchon; I don't give a damn. I make my cuisine with my ideas and at the end of the day we have a few loyal customers all the same.
What are some of your specialities?
One thing I have done for a long time, which I make in winter, is a chestnut stock with an aroma of pheasant, little pheasant meat quenelles and fillets of white pheasant meat, with broken fresh chestnut, all lightened with a touch of green cardamom to refresh the chestnut. You always have to liven it up, otherwise it is banal.
On top, a little frothy quenelle of foie gras emulsion with a lot of slices of white truffle. The sculptor and painter Arman used to come every year to eat that because he thought it was dreamy. I make oysters in a seawater jelly, which come from a very specific place.
In France we are lucky, whether it is wine or food, to have the biggest variety in the world. You could discuss the tastes of different asparaguses all day, if you know what you're talking about, even though, at the supermarket, everyone scoffs the same one.
Oysters are like poetry in France; in the Arcachon basin, you can find oysters from beds 400m apart that taste completely different; each kind of food is like that. I take very sweet plump oysters in their jelly and put on top a bit of caviar, then fresh seaweed... my aim is for you to really be eating the sea. I tell a story in the plate.
Are there tendencies you disapprove of?
One that bothers me a lot is fruit and fish. Everything is possible, really good turbot with really good mango might be edible, but I'm not convinced it's very gastronomic. It's just done to try to impress people who don't know much about food and who take it for creativity.
Have you been involved with the Cookbook Fair for long?
I've been on the jury before and I think it's important to have cooks on the jury. I respect writers and critics, but it's also good to have people who master the fundamentals.
A lot of cookbooks are now written by non-professionals. Does that matter?
It depends. If someone wants to explain the fruits of their experiences and there is an emotional investment in it, why not? What bores me is that, with most books, a charming person phones up chefs and says, "Can we do something for kids, or something for one-legged people..." and it's a compilation around a theme no one has any real investment in.
If a housewife came up with a book of ideas for things you could do with peelings, instead of throwing them away, that, for example, that would interest me. Not just something bland.
One of my favourites is Eloges De La Cuisine Française by Edouard Nignon (1865-1935). He was a chef and a traveller who went and hunted in Burgundy at a certain time of year, fished in Normandy and did recipes inspired by the season and the products.
You wrote your own cookbook, Des Landes au Carré des Feuillants...
Yes, I took four years over it. I wrote the recipes of my childhood, then classic dishes that I learnt at work, with a twist, and then my own recipes. Each is accompanied by a personal anecdote, such as how Orson Welles and Elvis Presley's lyricist, Mort Shuman, met at my place because of a special kind of bean, or how Claude Chabrol, whom I knew, got married because of a gigot.
But it's not just about celebrities. I talk about how a sausage should not just be stuffed with any old thing, but can be very refined, and explain how you should slaughter and prepare a pig.
I have an idea for a new one, with a big focus on products and wine. In the first book I gave suggestions for wines, but not the ones you would expect, no Pauillac with lamb, something else. My liver is worth a fortune, I have spent my life drinking wines most people will never taste and I need to tell the stories.
American collectors ask me about certain vintages: "Do you know Yquem 1937, do you have any?" I say I've tried it, but don't have any, I collect empty bottles. "You drank it? Don't you know the price?" For them it's an investment; that doesn't interest me.
I would recommend Tertre Roteboeuf from Saint-Emilion, which is a very authentic wine, but costs much less than a lot of others.
Another is Lalou Bize-Leroy's wine, made from Aligoté grapes, which usually make simple little wines you quaff young, but that is as good as a Mersault-Perrieres, but not the same price.
Does the festival have plenty to interest the general public?
Today there is real desire to open up the cookery field. The French had a problem, though they have it less and less, that they thought just being born in France made them wine and food experts, even though they knew nothing. Fortunately, young people now are very interested in cooking, maybe because of all the food scares.
I've never seen so many in my restaurant as before; they buy cookbooks and don't want to eat any old thing. They are very open and don't have the arrogant pretensions of their parents, and the salon is in the same open-minded vein; it's not just the definitive recipes of the great chef so-and-so.
RECIPE – Arcachon oysters, Aquitaine caviar and seaweed
This dish of special Arcachon Bassin oysters in seawater jelly with seaweed tartare will serve six
- 50g Ebène caviar (just salted right and delicately fruity)
- 30 oyster halves, which should be size G spéciales (these are finished off in claires beds, giving a meaty texture and nutty taste with the iodised taste of the ocean)
- 100g sea lettuce seaweed (fresh or preserved in salt)
- 1 just-ripe avocado
- 1 grey shallot
- 1 tbsp little capers
- 4cl hazelnut oil
- 1 lemon
- 2.5g agar-agar (natural gelling agent extracted from seaweed)
- Ground black pepper
This cold starter should be presented in individual plates, preferably square.
To lay out the oysters and seaweed tartare elegantly and separately, you need two rectangular moulds/frames per plate (one 6x10cm and one 2x10cm).
These cadres can be bought in shops or you can make your own with a polystyrene tub lid: cut out the 6x10 and 2x10 holes that will act as moulds, leaving about a 4cm gap between the two.
Half-an-hour before the meal, open the oysters and tip into a bowl with their seawater. Drain on kitchen towel. Filter seawater and heat 40cl with agar-agar, then cool in the fridge to get a very light jelly.
Peel and finely chop shallot, rinse in a light stream of water and drain. Peel the avocado, cut into small cubes, add lemon juice to avoid oxidisation. Rinse and drain raw seaweed and chop finely.
Finely slice six raw oysters, add seaweed, avocado, shallot, capers (well-drained), hazelnut oil and a few twists of a peppermill. Mix together delicately and place into the 2x10cm frame on each plate.
Place four oysters side by side into the other frame and cover with the seawater jelly. With a knife, prepare six lines of caviar that you will place on top of the oysters. Place it in the fridge. Take off the frames before serving.
Because of the iodised richness of the oysters and seaweed and the strong-flavoured caviar, a characterful wine is called for. A Côtes du Jura will do well, or a young, pure vin jaune [another speciality of the Jura department] or otherwise a Manzanilla, from Andalusia.