It’s dinner time at the Oberoi’s La Rochelle and to do justice to the candle-lit ambience, Chef Jean Marc Gonzales has traded his toque for more suitable evening-wear. His attention, however, is riveted by the plates of food arriving at the next table. It’s easy to see the single passion that runs like a thread through the chef’s life: food. It becomes apparent in the way his eyes gleam at the table setting, the way he tells of his very first truffle-hunting expedition in France’s Drom region. But most of all, it comes through in the extensively reworked menu at La Rochelle, which periodically undergoes radical transformations, depending on who the reigning chef is.
Gone are the flamboyant fusion creations of three months back. Expectedly, for someone who has trained in the kitchen of Alain Chapell and other three-star Michelin chefs, the new menu features classic French preparations which walk the fine line between old-fashioned and new world. “French cuisine is all about technique,” explains Gonzales, who features soya and sesame, albeit rarely, along with more usual morels, foie gras and seafood.
It is not unheard of in the culinary world for suspiciously similar preparations to make their appearance in other kitchens. Naturally, there’s obfuscation about the original creator. It’s not an idea that finds favour with Gonzales. He’s unreserved in admitting that the source of one of the finest offerings on his menu, bekti on mushroom risotto served with chicken and morel jus is the creation of a three-star Michelin chef in France with whom he had the good fortune to train in his early days. “The dish is so simple, but it uses a never-done-before combination of fish and chicken.”
Other brilliant main dishes on the menu are tournedos Rossinin and magret of Barbary duck. Originally created for the composer Rossini, Angus steak has been used in a sandwich with fried toast and goose liver, laced with port and truffle sauce. It’s reminiscent of the era of classic cooking, yet is not impossibly old-fashioned or done to death. And when the accompanying potato gratin crumbles under Gonzales’ fork, he claims with a proud flourish that it is not bound with egg, so as to remain light enough to be served with steak. That single remark exemplifies his attitude to food, where no detail is too small to escape his attention.
Expounding on the culinary tradition of France, Gonzales explains why it is being displaced from its premier position currently, to be replaced by Italian. “It’s about the attitude to food which is sacrosanct. The French reverence for top quality raw materials makes it difficult to replicate elsewhere in the world.” Like most of his compatriots, Gonzales is a purist. Thus, a fish consommé with two prawns in it cannot possibly be called bouillabaisse. Neither can whipped cream be put under the salamander for two minutes to emerge as a crème brulee, for that would be sacrilege. The lesson this chef learnt during his training years in three-star Michelin kitchens throughout France have clearly stayed with him. “Cooking would start only when the guest order.” But it’s only in France that a guest would happily wait two hours to be served.
Guests at La Rochelle can expect a meal in considerably less time. Without much lowering of the standards.