An Irish chef in Paris.
Evan O'Ceallaigh: "most chefs don't have a good understanding of classic cooking"
I was asked to write a piece for Chef Network Ireland about my experiences of moving to France. Well, I’m not going to talk about the restaurant that I’m working in or nothing like that. This piece is really about WHY I am in France. Why it was that I chose to work in France over anywhere else in the world. And ultimately why learning the ins and outs of cuisine classique is so important to me, and why it should be for other young chefs too!
"France is the birthplace of modern-day restaurants"Photo: Pullman Paris Tour Eiffel parisescapes.com
France is the birthplace of modern-day restaurants and is where professional cooking started. There's a long tradition of training young chefs in France which is taken very seriously. With fantastic apprenticeship programmes. Let’s not forget that the French were the King's of the cooking world right up until the past 50 or so years!
Most chefs don’t have a good understanding of classic cooking, that’s just the truth of it. Very few chefs ever step foot in a French kitchen. If we look at Irish chefs, most of us don’t leave the island. The more ambitious chefs tend to make it no further than London. Irish chefs don’t go to France anymore. Why? Because French cuisine isn’t cool. It’s old. And you know what, it’s all bloody Noma’s fault!
The Nordic food movement has arguably been the most influential movement in food of all time. Its influence has spread all across the world. If one looks into it, you’ll see that a large amount of the 1 Michelin star places in the UK are very much the same in cooking style. The food is often described as modern cooking. It’s really just Nordic-inspired cooking. I mean look at the starred restaurants in Ireland. There’s a strong Nordic influence in most of them.
Don’t get me wrong I’ve nothing against it. In fact, I really like this cooking. You can best believe when I first heard about Rene Redzepi and what he was doing at Noma I was the first to be cooking with hay and out foraging for wild plants. This is what the chefs of my generation have grown up with. In a way, it’s the only way we know how to cook.
However, here is where I see the issue: Is this really the cooking that will give a young chef the best foundation? I do not believe so. Is a chef better off learning to make a buttermilk foam over a sauce hollandaise? The obvious answer to this in my mind is that a chef should learn both. The old and the new. However, the reality is that most chefs today only learn the modern. There are very few kitchens still cooking the old-school way. I only know of a small handful of places that fall under this category in the whole of the UK and Ireland.
Pierre Koffman - Evan worked with him at the Berkeley for over a year
I have no doubt in my mind were I not fortunate enough to meet and train under Pierre Koffmann, I may very well be working in Denmark right now. I count myself very lucky that I have been lead down this route. Without sounding too philosophical on the whole thing, how I see the gastronomy world as a whole is quite simple. Imagine cooking being a tree. The trunk of the tree is French. Nordic cuisine is a branch of the trunk. French cuisine is the fundamentals of cooking. I want to learn the basics. In time, I’ll move off and learn a completely different way of cooking. And after that, I'll branch off in my own direction and rip up the whole rule book and create my own identity. That is the way I am going about my career.
I read a great interview about Merlin Johnson recently, one of the youngest Michelin starred chefs working in the UK today. He mentioned the importance of French cuisine and how it has been overtaken by “trendier cuisines like Nordic”. Here are his thoughts on how he creates a new dish: “I begin by doing it the classic French way because I think you have to truly understand something before you can innovate it”. That right there makes a hell of a lot of sense to me.
Evan speaking at Food on the Edge 2016
I believe cooking will be much brighter in the future if we have more chefs who have a strong base in French rather than just Nordic cuisine. I moved to France to discover what cooking was like before Rene came along and when Bocuse was still king. I want to forget about foams and learn the recipes for the classic French Sauces. And you know what maybe down the road I will be cooking vegetables in sous vide bags because that is in fact the best way, but before then I want to learn how they did it before. That is why I am working in France. And in my opinion why more Irish chefs should too.