LA NOUVELLE VAGUE
After a challenging year that saw the departure of several culinary greats, Chris Dwyer speaks to the chefs who are following in the footsteps of giants
Meet the French chefs following in the footsteps of Joël Robuchon and Paul Bocuse
The first half of 2018 has not been kind to the world of gastronomy. The unexpected suicide of Anthony Bourdain stunned millions of his fans around the world, while the renowned and beloved food writer Jonathan Gold from the LA Times lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. Formidable talents in their own fields, both left a remarkable legacy of breaking down cultural and culinary borders.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, two of the greatest French chefs of all time, Paul Bocuse and Jöel Robuchon, also both passed away. Bocuse’s name may not be as immediately familiar as Robuchon, but his influence was immense—you don’t get called ‘The Pope of Gastronomy’ for nothing. His eponymous restaurant in his beloved Lyon has held three Michelin stars since 1965, a feat unmatched anywhere.
Robuchon himself was named ‘Chef of the Century’ and at one point his global restaurant empire held 32 Michelin stars, including three in Hong Kong. Relentlessly perfectionist and notoriously demanding, he famously proclaimed that the perfect meal didn’t exist: “One can always do better,” he was fond of saying. He helped lead French cooking away from the minimalism of nouvelle cuisine—itself one of Bocuse’s key contributions to culinary history.
Chefs in Hong Kong have continued to reflect on the immense void left by these two kitchen titans, looking not only at their remarkable legacy but also at how French cuisine is set to move forward.
31-year-old British chef Daniel Calvert from Soho’s Belon carries a seriously enviable resume with stints in some of the world’s greatest restaurants, including Pied à Terre in London, Per Se in New York and Epicure in Paris, receiving peerless training in classic French cuisine. Remarkably, he cooked for Paul Bocuse no fewer than three times when at Per Se.
While Calvert finds the loss hard to stomach, he’s also optimistic—recognising that chefs today are starting from a far more privileged position. “We ahave to consider ourselves lucky—when they were starting out, they didn’t have a Robuchon and
Bocuse to look up to. We’re already one up and have an advantage over them, because of them. We’re thankful and try to live up to their legacy in terms of what we do, giving them the respect they deserve.”
A critical change led by Paul Bocuse was how he was open to the possibilities of exporting French cuisine around the world. In the early 1970’s he regularly took his skills and charisma to Japan, helping the country to fall in love with French cuisine and also sowing the seeds of chefs becoming stars in their own right.
“Bocuse had a huge impact on the industry. Before him and Robuchon, restaurants weren’t chef-oriented and that change is down to them,” Calvert says. “Before them, not many chefs were known, so they allowed us to make more money, push our craft around the world and turn the chef into a businessman, which was of huge importance.”
Sitting in his chef whites, taking a break from dinner prep on a Tuesday afternoon, Calvert explains that Robuchon’s impact was more tangible than Bocuse’s on how he cooks. “Classical French cuisine is still the basis of everything we do at Belon. We treat ingredients in exactly the same way but have the advantage of knowledge and ways to finesse the food so it looks sharper. Maybe the sauce is a little less reduced and more elegant, but that’s modernity. Escoffier could walk into the kitchen tomorrow and finish my chicken for me,” he adds with a smile.
In 2017, Calvert was named T.Dining’s Best New Chef and took Belon to 40th place in Asia’s 50 Best the following year. He reflects on who he feels is currently at the
Calvert, Balbi and Chaneton all represent a new youthful wave of chefs for whom classic French techniques and training are the key foundations behind their
vanguard of French cuisine before naming Dave Pynt from Singapore’s Burnt Ends, Callum Franklin in London’s Rosewood Hotel and Sugio Yamaguchi at Botanique in Paris. Tellingly, none of them are French, while Yamaguchi learnt his craft in Paul Bocuse’s hometown of Lyon, confirming that the wheel of influence of the two French greats has truly come full circle.
Two other chefs working at the culinary cutting edge in Hong Kong, delivering different sensational takes on classic French techniques, are Ricardo Chaneton from Petrus at the Island Shangri-La and Agustin Balbi at Haku. The two have become firm friends since meeting in Hong Kong, thanks in part to both originally hailing from South America, Chaneton from Venezuela and Balbi from Argentina.
The globalized nature of French cuisine allowed them to train in famed kitchens. In Chaneton’s case, first at Spain’s one-starred Quique Dacosta and then as chef de cuisine in Mirazur, Mauro Colagreco’s two-starred temple to French gastronomy and impeccable produce. Balbi, winner of T.Dining’s Best New Chef for 2016, also worked in legendary restaurants such as two-starred Cuisine Michel Troisgros and the three-starred Le Bernardin and Nihonryori Ryugin, the latter where he cemented his love for Japan.
Although neither met either of the two great chefs, Chaneton was blown away eating at Paul Bocuse in Lyon: “It was amazing, really, he opened my eyes in many ways. My expectation was fine dining, stiff, serious, but it was completely the opposite. French cuisine was always about secrets, not giving away recipes. He really broke all the rules and shared his secrets.”
Balbi agrees, adding that it was Bocuse and Robuchon’s willingness to share: “You reach a certain age and you know you aren’t going to be
around forever, so you decide to pass the knowledge to someone else. That is what will make you live forever. People will learn from you, and that knowledge will then be passed down again.”
Chaneton is clearly a fan of classic French dishes and Petrus is one of the handful of global restaurants to own and use an antique duck press, while he also uses it to serve blue Brittany lobster in three sensational ways.
For chefs, timeless dishes are one thing, but a legacy is arguably even more important, as he explains: “Escoffier died almost a century ago but we’re still talking about him. I’m sure in 20 or 30 years we’ll still be talking about Bocuse and Robuchon. For example, the Bocuse d’Or - a culinary competition - is like the World Cup of cooking.”
Calvert, Balbi and Chaneton all represent a new youthful wave of chefs in Hong Kong for whom classic French techniques and training are the key foundations behind their critical and public acclaim. Just as importantly, they remain mindful and respectful of the greats like Robuchon and Bocuse who have gone before them this year, and who allow them to walk in the footsteps of giants.
The principles of French technique carry through in the cooking at Belon, Petrus and Haku, where ingredients are treated with utmost respect