THE GREAT AND THE GOÛT

The re­cent Good France din­ners show that power is soft cheese and a baguette.

Esquire (Malaysia) - - CUL­TURE - WORDS BY JA­SON TAN

He was The Big Cheese. Gen­eral de Gaulle counted 246 other va­ri­eties in his coun­try, and fa­mously pro­nounced France un­govern­able. But surely, that’s a good thing. Lib­erté, egal­ité and fra­ter­nité come with a healthy dol­lop di­ver­sité and plu­ral­ismé. In eat­ing and drink­ing well, at the very least, France is a ri­otous ca­coph­ony and soar­ing or­ches­tral horn of plenty. It’s like the pri­mor­dial soup of cre­ation it­self, a mixed metaphor, a beau­ti­ful uni­corn in the non-sil­i­con Val­ley sense of the word.

The prove­nance of its in­gre­di­ents— ter­roir—is re­spected and pro­tected from gross ex­ploita­tion by a sys­tem called Ap­pel­la­tion Orig­ine d’con­trolee, which iden­ti­fies where its pro­duce comes from, and how it has come to be. ‘Prove­nance’ is re­ally a poor trans­la­tion for ter­roir, which this I de­scribe, lib­er­ally, as a unique trin­ity of cos­mos (cli­mate), earth (ge­og­ra­phy), and farmer.

Hu­man in­ter­ven­tion, like a light­ning rod be­tween sky and earth, dy­nam­i­cally al­ters the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the lat­ter, which com­prises a se­ries of mo­ments in a cy­cle of sea­sonal trans­for­ma­tions. This ex­plains how ter­roir con­founds multi­na­tion­als that de­mand the pre­dictabil­ity and uni­for­mity that sim­pli­fies mass pro­duc­tion and turns food into eas­ily recog­nis­able brands for con­sumers. In short: ter­roir com­pli­cates big busi­ness, and it ex­plains a bit of de Gaulle’s lament.

But I di­gress. Of course, it would be a chef, Alain Du­casse, who shows that de Gaulle the ex-gen­eral-turned-politi­cian could not see the wood for the trees: France’s soft power, specif­i­cally its pro­jec­tion of its food cul­ture around the world, is prob­a­bly un­ri­valled as a for­eign pol­icy tool of its kind.

Eigh­teen restau­rants and chefs in Malaysia par­tic­i­pated in the global din­ner on 21st March 2018 • 2 Ox French Bistro, Kuala Lumpur • Arte Res­tau­rant, Pe­nang • Cilantro Res­tau­rant & Wine Bar, Kuala Lumpur • Co­cott’ Kuala Lumpur • DC Res­tau­rant, Kuala Lumpur • En­fin by James Won, Kuala Lumpur • L’ate­lier French Res­tau­rant, Kota Kin­a­balu • Es­pace An­dre Coin­treau at Le Cor­don Bleu Malaysia, Ban­dar Sun­way • French Feast, Kuala Lumpur • Garvy’s in the Park, Ipoh • L’or­angerie, HELP CAT, Kuala Lumpur • Mai­son française, Kuala Lumpur • Nathalie Gourmet Stu­dio, Kuala Lumpur • Nook, Kuala Lumpur • Soleil, Kuala Lumpur • Sup­per­club, Kuala Lumpur • The Brasserie, Kuala Lumpur • Yeast Bistron­omy, Kuala Lumpur Op­po­site page, from clock­wise: Aus­tralian(!) beef rib-eye, choron sauce at Co­cott'; blue Lob­ster, spring vegeta­bles, lemon balm emul­sion, pick­led turnip at Soleil; de­con­structed clas­sic beef bour­guignon, saf­fron boulan­gere potato, baby vegeta­bles at Nook; tran­scen­dent bounty at En­fin.

This page: fresh catch of the day at DC Res­tau­rant

But soft power is not wielded like a big stick (a big baguette?). Com­pared with say, China’s strate­gic mil­i­tary abil­ity to cre­ate whole is­lands in the Te­brau Strait and around the Spratlys, it is but a sub­tle force. But we have it on good au­thor­ity that the sizes of Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ties around the world cor­re­late with global Co­gnac sales (and, in Malaysia’s case, is out of all pro­por­tion to it). In China, the peo­ple now nav­i­gate to the best restau­rants by fol­low­ing the Miche­lin star twin­kling in their hori­zons. Soft power, as China’s ram­pant Mongol con­querors found out too late, se­duces. Iron­i­cally, China’s new gen­er­a­tions now con­sume French cul­ture and as­pire to its lux­ury life­style, but the con­verse is less ap­par­ent. (They also buy its ter­roir, re­port­edly 2% of Bordeaux vine­yards, at last count.)

Du­casse founded Goût de France in 2015, af­ter Unesco in­scribed in 2010 the “gas­tro­nomic meal of the French” on the Rep­re­sen­ta­tive List of the In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage of Hu­man­ity. (We have to say that cul­ture is in­trin­si­cally in­tan­gi­ble, but that’s a story for another time.) Goût de France is billed as the “World’s Great­est French Din­ner”. The fourth edi­tion this year kicked off right af­ter the March sol­stice. Of the snow­balling num­ber of 3,000 chefs and 3,000 menus across five con­ti­nents, a new record of 18 emerged from Malaysia, in­clud­ing new en­tries Ipoh, Kota Kin­a­balu and Pe­nang. It was a de­gus­ta­tion of de­gus­ta­tions

Du­casse says it’s all about “light­ness, op­ti­mism and plea­sure, ideas which are cen­tral to the im­age of Des­ti­na­tion France.” So, all the things which we could do with a bit more of, over here, and right now.

Each of the restau­rants had their menus vet­ted and ap­proved by an in­ter­na­tional com­mit­tee based in Paris led by Du­casse. All shared com­mon el­e­ments: an apéri­tif with fin­ger food, a starter, a main course or two, a cheese plat­ter and/ or dessert, ac­com­pa­nied by wine and cham­pagne. This was slow food at its best, mov­ing to the rhythm and beat of liv­ing well. Alas, like slow food, Es­quire can only hold back the in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion that rises like swelling tide be­hind an in­se­cure dam. That’s our excuse for this short in­tro­duc­tion. Tune in to es­quire. my for a re­view of this grand un­der­tak­ing and what it means to eat well.

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