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[In depth interview]For eminent chef, cooking is life itself

Feb 14,2007
“Hurry, the soup goes over there. Hurry!”
It was another busy night on Jan. 27 at Lotte Hotel’s Crystal Ballroom. Shouts in a mixture of French and English rang out from somewhere down the hall. Pierre Gagnaire, 57, the chef in charge of the night’s gala dinner, is responsible for the hubbub. The eminent chef has the face of an artist and the body of an athlete. Making sure everything looks and tastes right, Mr. Gagnaire does not have a minute to spare during the five-hour dinner from 7 p.m. till midnight.
He even makes sure to give detailed instructions to the waiters. “When it comes to pleasing the customers, serving is just as important as the cooking,” Mr. Gagnaire explains. Even when the gala dinner is over, he is busy signing autographs and taking pictures with his customers. “You were the best,” he tells his exhausted staff before he finally calls it a night.
Mr. Gagnaire was the first-born child in a family of restaurant owners. Cooking was, one might say, his destiny. He started his cooking career in his father’s restaurant in Saint-Etienne, a small town in central France, at the age of 15. However, father and son did not always see eye to eye, and in 1980 Pierre left and opened his own restaurant. In 1986 the restaurant won two Michelin stars, and added another in 1993. But the cuisine was far too pricey and progressive for the small-town dwellers; that restaurant closed in 1996.
A year later, Mr. Gagnaire moved to Paris and opened Pierre Gagnaire Restaurant and regained his three-Michelin star reputation. His unique cuisine is called “molecular cuisine.” By scientifically analyzing tastes, textures, ingredients and the cooking procedure, he has created his own fusion cuisine. Mr. Gagnaire has won over his critics and epicures. His influence on cooking has spread worldwide, and now he own restaurants in London (Sketch), Tokyo (Pierre Gagnaire Restaurant Tokyo) and Hong Kong (Pierre Gagnaire Restaurant). Mr. Gagnaire spoke to the JoongAng Ilbo after the gala dinner.

Q. Was there a special theme for tonight’s dinner?
A. Plaisir [Pleasure]. I wanted to bring French culture into the festive gala dinner. Generally people think of French cuisine as complex and even abstruse. However, there is no need for such seriousness. Food is there for us to enjoy, and that is all that matters. One thing that I’ve always remembered over the years is that the guests of honor are those who enjoy the food.

Each dish was superb, and the overall course seemed especially well organized.
I often refer to my cooking as a film in the making. Each course is a plot and each dish is a scene. Different dishes intertwine and complete a course, just as different scenes complete the plot of a movie. Thus, it would be pointless to talk about each dish separately.

Did tonight’s gala guests experience the genuine taste of your cooking?
My cooking is poetry and an ongoing history. A poem can leave us with different emotions depending on when we come across it. Similarly, my cooking has been changing continuously over the last three decades. That explains the regular customers I’ve had for the past three decades. If tonight’s gala was great, the next one will be too.
What is your priority when choosing the right wine?
The customer’s taste, without question. If the customer doesn’t have a liking for white wine, it no longer matters how well it goes with the course. It is unacceptable.

What would you say is the core of French cuisine?
French people are generally epicures to some extent, and set high standards for the quality of each dish. Not only top-notch techniques but communication with the staff is also crucial in order to meet such standards.

The French staff seems to treat you with great respect. Why do you think that is?
The kitchen is an extremely tough environment. Some chefs even use violence as a means to get respect. However, respect should not be forced upon others. The leader needs to be persuasive and affectionate to gain respect.

Why do you put so much emphasis on teamwork?
Cooking is not done alone. The kitchen is a battlefield, and the staff an army. The army needs to operate as a team to be victorious. The same rules apply in the kitchen. That is the only way to preserve the consistency in the two most vital features of first-rate restaurants: taste and service.

What would you say are the three most important factors of first-rate restaurants?
Great staff, great ingredients, great location. And if I may add one more ― a talented leader with a positive vision.

How do you feel about Korean food?
Healthy ― that was the first impression I got. It rarely uses cream or butter and prefers fresh and natural ingredients. As the food industries become more and more health-conscious, I think there is a great chance that Korean food will get more recognition internationally. Authenticity, a reasonable price and relatively easy cooking procedures are all favorable for Korean food succeeding in the world market.

Is there any Korean food that inspired your cooking?
There were some that I enjoyed in particular. Nokdujeon interested me most because I hadn’t seen such ingredients before. Bibimbap was also very tasty. Kimchi has a unique taste and I would like to incorporate it in my cooking someday.

Describe your cooking in one word.
Freshness. Which part of the cooking process do you like most? Planning, cooking, or seeing others enjoy your cooking?

I would have to say, the planning part. It is a highly complex procedure, which requires creativity. It is not enough to just come up with an idea. You need to constantly revise it until it is realistic enough to be viable. A chef creates his own cuisine as a musician creates his own music.

Do you ever feel that your cooking is only for the rich, and want to prepare something affordable for the general public?
That is exactly why I opened Gaya, a casual restaurant, in Paris. I devote the same energy and technique; however, it is relatively cheap.

Cooking ― an art or life?
For me, it’s life.


By Lee Na-ri JoongAng Ilbo [estyle@joongang.co.kr]


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