Redefining French haute cuisine

The biggest food news out of Paris in recent months – aside from the opening of a McDonald’s at the Louvre in December – involves some heavyweight chefs on the move. Jacques Maximin, of the eponymous restaurant on the Côte d’Azur, is now overseeing the kitchen of Rech, the famous seafood house owned by his friend Alain Ducasse. Jean-François Piège, a Ducasse protégé, quit his job as head chef at the Hôtel de Crillon last summer to devote himself to Thoumieux, a Left Bank brasserie that he bought with a partner last year.

With his multiple restaurants, cooking school, publishing imprint and other endeavours, the 53-year-old Ducasse is the most visible French chef of his era, and it is a rare Michelin-starred kitchen in France that does not have a Ducasse protégé working the line.

But for Ducasse and other top French chefs, these are unsettled times. Even before the global economic crisis hit, many two- and three-star restaurants were struggling. Many in France have neither the money nor the desire to pay the exorbitant prices these restaurants command. It is not too fanciful to imagine that a decade from now the luxury palaces of haute cuisine will be little more than overpriced culinary museums.

There are few young chefs who seem to want to go that route; the trend these days is to open casual restaurants serving top-quality food but without all the bells and whistles – sommeliers, tuxedoed waiters and the like. In its forms if not its flavours, French cuisine is being redefined.

Maximin made his name as chef at the Hôtel Negresco in Nice, where he earned two stars, and earned two more stars at his restaurant in Vence, La Table d’Amis Jacques Maximin. Along with Ducasse and Roger Vergé of Cannes’ Moulin de Mougins, Maximin helped elevate Provençal cuisine to a new level of respect. Two years ago, Maximin closed La Table d’Amis. He was hired as a consultant by Ducasse and, last spring, given responsibility for Rech.

When I ate at Rech a few years ago, I found the dishes to be well executed and the service friendly. Ducasse had kept the restaurant’s art deco interior intact and had left two of its signature touches, the wedge of Camembert for the cheese course and the supersized éclair for dessert, on the menu. The restaurant had opened to mixed reviews but the hostility appeared to have more to do with what Ducasse represented (the globetrotting, absentee chef) than what was on the plate. I was eager to return to Rech on learning Maximin was involved.

Maximin evidently functions as the restaurant’s creative director; the kitchen is run by a young chef named Julien Dumas and there was no sign of Maximin the evening I was there. I ordered from the €54 (£49, $74) set menu and started with a half-dozen raw oysters. I then had an escabeche of red mullet, a lacklustre dish and a disquieting indication of what was to come. For my main course, I went with a sole meunière. The menu said the fish was served on the bone; the problem was it seemed to consist only of bone. I spent several minutes scavenging for more meat, and finally gave up.

The “famous Camembert” was an indifferent slab and my dessert, a pear crumble, was blighted by an overabundance of cumin. When the maître d’ noticed that I had barely touched my dessert, he offered to replace it but I politely declined.

A visit the next evening to Jean-François Piège’s Thoumieux was more rewarding. The brasserie is located on the rue Saint-Dominique, the same serpentine street in the seventh arrondissement that is home to Christian Constant’s acclaimed quartet of restaurants. The 39-year-old Piege’s career trajectory bears an uncanny resemblance to Constant’s. In the mid-1990s, Constant was head chef at the Crillon, held two Michelin stars and was considered a sure thing for a third. But convinced that the ostentation associated with Michelin-starred dining was going out of fashion, he quit the Crillon and opened Le Violon d’Ingres on the rue Saint-Dominique, a popular bistro nouvelle.

After running the kitchen of Ducasse’s three-star restaurant at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris, Piège became head chef at the Crillon in 2004 and, like Constant, was regarded as a certainty for a third star. In January last year, he teamed up with hotelier Thierry Costes and took ownership of Thoumieux. Last summer, Piège shocked the culinary establishment by quitting the Crillon in order to be at Thoumieux full-time – the latest in a list of eminent chefs, led by veterans like Constant and Alain Senderens, who have decided that winning Michelin’s approbation is no longer such a priority.

With its red-velour banquettes, brass railings and mirrored walls, Thoumieux is a spruced-up version of a classic brasserie. On the night I was there, Piège made several passes through the dining room. His attentiveness and his reputation have turned the restaurant into one of the toughest reservations to procure in Paris.

The food is very good. That brasserie staple, frisée aux lardons, was flawless, as was a soulful chicken liver pâté. For the mains, a slow-cooked veal shoulder on a bed of lentils was delicious, and a loin of veal served with mashed blue potatoes was equally satisfying. For desserts, a rum baba was terrific but the two tarts I sampled were dried out – the only flaws in an enjoyable, reasonably priced meal (€10 appetisers, €19 main courses).

A coterie of young chefs has given renewed vitality to the Paris restaurant scene; Piège’s change of course is another encouraging development.

Rech, 62 avenue des Ternes, 75017 Paris; tel: +33 (0)1 45 72 41 60;
Thoumieux, 79 rue Saint-Dominique, 75007 Paris; tel: +33 (0)1 47 05 49 75

Michael Steinberger is the author of ‘Au Revoir to All That: The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine’ (Bloomsbury)

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