With restaurants closed for months, chefs have had to resist, reinvent themselves, adapt their dishes to delivery. A sense of improvisation which is an integral part of the art of cooking. Saturday September 25, in the auditorium of World, as part of the thematic afternoon “Improvisons nos vies”, journalists Joséfa Lopez and Stéphane Davet gave the floor to Pierre Gagnaire, the man with 16 stars and 23 establishments, to Manon Fleury, former head of Mermoz and chef of the Elsa restaurant in Monte-Carlo (one star), as well as to Mory Sacko, chef of the MoSuke restaurant (one star), known to the general public since the “Top Chef” program.
Does a chef improvise from culinary themes like a jazzman in front of old standards?
Pierre Gagnaire: Yes. But no improvisation without technique. For years, I was doing happenings in the kitchen. With crazy energy and a small team, I liked to free myself from the map. The menu changed almost from minute to minute: I offered something to the customer, then I went back to the kitchen and I had already forgotten! Besides… I went bankrupt! I arrived in Paris, I took a big bowl. I learned that our job is also commerce. I got into it, even if I’m still a bit crazy. Our customers must be able to understand what we are doing, but they must also give us the chance to make them happy and, therefore, sometimes, a little bit miss each other.
Mory Sacko: Any improvisation requires preparation. Otherwise, you’re like a mechanic with no tools in his kit. The samurai method remains the most effective: shut up and learn first. Once you know how to do it, learn to do it well. Once you know how to do it well, learn to do it quickly. Improvisation comes only afterwards, and on condition that you never be too selfish in your creativity: if the client doesn’t like it, I lost my bet.
Manon Fleury: What makes it possible to go to the end of a product is the limit. Often, during services, I force myself to work with only three ingredients, a bit like when, on Sunday evening, all we have left is eggs, tomatoes and salad in the fridge. This framework makes it possible to search for the texture of the product, to push it as far as possible, and therefore to improvise. I established a relationship of trust with a market gardener near Paris to understand how he works, follow the rhythm of the seasons, and adapt my cuisine to enhance the product.
You have just spent several months in the Michelin-starred Elsa restaurant at the luxury hotel Monte-Carlo Beach. Is improvisation possible in this context?
M. F .: The operation of a luxury hotel restaurant is very different from that of the small establishments in which I have worked, where we give more room to improvisation: there, we have a menu, we We are keen on it, we work on repetition, we are both traders and artisans. And the sometimes thankless side of repetition is actually very important. By force, we perceive the same dish differently. Depending on the day, it will not be performed in the same way, because human beings are of variable mood, and the raw materials also change: one day you will have the perfect tomato, the next day it will be overripe. To repeat a dish every day, it can be very beautiful.
When you are behind the stove, how much time do you devote to creativity… and improvisation?
M. F .: It is difficult to quantify, because the days are very divided in the kitchen. My collaborators throw me black looks when I improvise during the shift, while all the setups are ready! But if I feel that the teams are good, I allow myself a little improvisation, I play. In such moments, time is suspended, we are… in levitation. These are the most beautiful moments in the kitchen.
M. S .: I offer a cuisine that mixes French, African and Japanese influences. All my customers know when they walk into my home is that they don’t know what they are going to eat! I am only 29 years old, I am constantly learning, and clients with me. Recently, we used cascara bark but we found that this dried pulp of the coffee cherry produces reactions on some people, much like cilantro. One customer finds it excellent, the other too bitter: it’s problematic, so you have to know how to move on. But keeping these moments of surprise is important: cooking is also about discovering a product, and forming an opinion, positive or negative. All creativity is born out of great curiosity.
Pierre Gagnaire, you are the head of around twenty establishments around the world. Do you still take the time to let your imagination run wild?
P. G.: I spend a lot of time taking care of staff management, but when I feel like I have to devote myself to the kitchen, it’s urgent, and nothing else matters. The cursor is at the level of the heart. When, in 1977, I took over the family business [Le Clos fleuri, le restaurant de son père] I did it because I had no choice: I’m the oldest of four children, I come from a rural background, that’s how it was in my generation. In forty-eight hours, I figured it wasn’t going to be okay.
My luck was that at the same time the new kitchen was exploding. For the first time, Gault & Millau gave depth to our profession, by putting words on emotions. What was previously only repetition and transmission has become a work of art. Thanks to words, I understood that cooking was a way of reaching out to others, of communicating. And I had before me an incredible territory to explore: forty years ago, everything had to be done. We didn’t cook with Jerusalem artichoke, and Brussels sprouts, we didn’t know what it was. I’ve spent my life showcasing products that never fit in restaurant kitchens.
The last few months have been difficult for the gastronomy, with the restaurants being closed for a long time. Has the pandemic changed your vision of the profession?
P. G.: Above all, during confinement, I was able to rest and take care of my family! Then at Gaya, in Paris, we developed a take-away offer, which made it possible to maintain a link with the neighborhood. I was lucky to be able to count on collaborators who have followed me for decades, such as Michel Nave, my historic chef, with whom I have worked for nearly forty years.
M. F .: For me, the pandemic was, in a way, an opportunity. I had left my old job at Mermoz to open my own restaurant in Paris, without necessarily realizing that the transition from salaried work to entrepreneurship was a psychological process that takes time. I should have opened in 2020 … The confinement allowed me to mature my project, we rarely have the opportunity in a society where everything goes fast. I cooked for caregivers like a lot of chefs, I did chronicles on the radio which allowed me to speak differently about my job and, in doing so, to take a step back, and to evolve. Today, at the Elsa restaurant, in Monte-Carlo [premier restaurant bio à avoir été étoilé en 2014], I cook gourmet food, while at Mermoz I offered bistro cuisine. In my Parisian address, it will be something else.
M. S .: When I opened the MoSuke restaurant (in the 14e arrondissement of Paris), in September 2020, I was prepared for the possibility of a second confinement, which occurred shortly after. In these moments, we are no longer a leader but a business leader. I left no room for improvisation: the day after the announcements, I offered a street food offer. It worked so well that I will be opening a new address in Paris in early 2022 dedicated to street food. For too long, we’ve wanted to pit chefs and street food against each other, but it’s up to chefs to offer affordable, healthy and virtuous cuisine if we want to prevent people from eating anything in chains. Besides, I understand them: when I was young, my coach motivated us by telling us that after the football match we would go and eat a kebab or a McDonald’s, and it worked very well! We have to tackle the problem head-on: street food is not an enemy, but an opportunity for chefs.