It's been a big month for French cooking. Julie & Julia, the film starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams about a New York blogger who documents her progress through Julia Child's classic 1960s cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, opened to much acclaim (it opens in the UAE next week). And Je Sais Cuisinier, (I Know How to Cook) Ginette Mathiot's cherished tome which has graced the shelves of practically every French kitchen since its publication in 1932, has been translated into English for the first time.
Pierre Gagnaire, the internationally acclaimed French chef who is in residence this week at his Dubai restaurant, Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire, is unimpressed. "The Americans discovered French cooking through this book (Mastering the Art of French Cooking)," he says. "But Julia Child is not the French cook of today. It is folklore. It's like thinking about Dubai just with camels. It's the vision from outside of what French cooking is. But it's not the reality."
Millions of housewives will be sorely disappointed, since it was through this revolutionary book that American households were first introduced to the delights of bouillabaisse and boeuf bourguignon. "I don't think a single French person has ever read this book," he adds. "And it has never been translated into French. She was giving a dream idea of what French cooking is. It's like the film Amelie, where they show Montmartre as a very romantic place, when it's not like that any more; it's full of beggars and pickpockets."
Mathiot's offering gets equally scant praise. "It's a very traditional book," he says. "It's kind of old-fashioned with a nostalgic post-war feel. It's not really what French food is about today." Gagnaire, you may have gathered, is a very modern chef. Internationally renowned and with three Michelin stars, his culinary empire now extends from Paris to London by way of Hong Kong and Tokyo and Dubai.
"I don't belong to any food movement," he says, "and definitely not any national movement. I am proud to be French but my cooking expression is highly personal. I try to tell my story. And my story is the world. But I am French. Very French." Like many chefs who have exported their skills several times over, his visits to his various outposts are fleeting (he come to Dubai three times a year). Maintaining the quality boils down to several factors, he says: "It's important for me to have a restaurant of modest capacity. I also have good staff, who keep with the energy and honesty of the work. And we are always in communication about the food and the atmosphere. It's very important because we are like a family. If the same people work with you, you can do something interesting."
Despite the current economy, Gagnaire's restaurants remain fully booked. Quality, he says, will always win out. "Firstly, our prices are reasonable. If you offer good quality and are honest and pay attention to the details, you have the clients. We have space for 40, not 200. If you have the choice, you must be reasonable about the capacity of the restaurant." That more people might be forced into the kitchen, is, he says, an unexpected benefit of straitened times. "Cooking at home should be a celebration. It should not be the satisfaction of a physical need. And when people eat out every day, they don't understand how important a meal is. Also, at home you are with your kids and family. If I have something important to tell my family, I wouldn't do it in a restaurant."
People's love affair with French cooking and the return to more rustic fare is nothing new, he says. "We've been speaking about the return to the roots of cooking for 20 years. The truth is there have been many things that have happened since then. The real goal now is that food should go back to being about real, honest hard work." Is French cooking hard work? "It's not easy. But I think Indian food is also difficult. The problem with French food is that it's almost ceremonial. What we are trying to do and what we're very proud of is to give people French cuisine, but without any frills surrounding it. We have removed the useless ceremonials that some classic French restaurants around the world pretend to teach people. The ambition of French cuisine is to be very elegant, very tasty, very precise but modest in the approach and in the way it is served."
Pierre Gagnaire will cook live at Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire, The Intercontinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City, daily from 7.30pm today and tomorrow. To make a reservation call 04 701 1199 or 04 701 1128.