Paris: A community of chefs

Making the world a better place through cuisine and hospitality is Relais & Châteaux’s goal. Announcing this seemingly lofty ideal was the motive behind the gathering of international journalists and 500 hoteliers in Paris in November for the 40th International Congress and the 60th anniversary of the Relais & Châteaux hotel group.

What started as the dream of a few French hoteliers to create a gourmet route connecting Paris and the Riviera now connects 520 hotels on five different continents.

It’s easy to see how the vision of the company might have become lost in the growth of hotelier members and an ever-changing foodscape – and clearly there’s a need to return to the group’s modest roots.

‘Trends imposed by the industry’
The manifesto states: “For the past two decades, food, cooking and dining have gone through some significant and troubling changes. The actions of many large-scale food producers and dining establishments have had a profoundly negative impact on the health of both our planet and our consumers.

“As a result, some chefs have embraced the styles and trends imposed by the industry, which are, in truth, inconsistent with the original tenets of our profession.”

Press, invited guests and members gathered at the Unesco building to hear the panel present the new manifesto.

It was a panel that comprised, among others, Olivier Roellinger, vice-president of Relais & Châteaux, Philippe Gombert, Relais & Châteaux international president, Relais & Châteaux chef Anne-Sophie Pic, and writer and philosopher Michael Onfray, who all presented in French.

Gastón Acurio. (AFP)

Peruvian chef and restaurateur Gastón Acurio, comfortably seated among the heavyweights, spoke without notes in halting English. As an ambassador for Peruvian cuisine, and someone who speaks passionately about protecting the future of small producers and farmers, he represents the hotel group’s vision.

“After our country became a colony after the war, creativity stopped but not in cooking.

“We started experimenting with the mixing ingredients,” said Acurio, a burly presence with a mop of curls and a sure, steady voice.

“In the last 20 years we became a stronger group of chefs trying to recover our emotional freedom. We are still working to develop a movement that will embrace our heritage, understand our present – trying to understand why we were chefs in Peru with such a long wish list but at the same time so much contradictions, how we can use the power of food in cooking to help our people around us, to share with the world our culture, to bring opportunities to our country, to build a new image of an amazing country.”

Iconoclastic culture
Acurio has opened more than 30 restaurants in 12 countries and hosts a TV show. His restaurant, Astrid y Gastón, situated in the wealthy Lima neighbourhood of Miraflores, came in at number one in Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants and number 18 in the world.

“The result is that we are now a strong community of chefs that work in the same principles that Relais & Châteaux is announcing today,” he said.

“Chefs work closer to customers than farmers so we have more power to talk about their jobs, their problems, to put value to their ingredients and to recognise the hard work that they do every day to make our lives happy, to give them pride of what they’re doing.”

A journalist asked how the hotel group, as a French company with an iconoclastic culture and traditions, aims to marry successfully with other strong cultures and food such as the Peruvian menu.

French food is no doubt king
Each panellist tackled the question, but it was Acurio’s response that elicited understanding nods from the audience. He remarked on how it was every young chef’s dream to become a chef in France.

“I was trained as a chef in Paris. In that moment every young future chef that dreamt of being a chef dreamed of coming to France.

“We come from all over the world to learn all the amazing lessons from these amazing chefs that for us were gods. When we came back to our countries we were so in love with French food that we built French restaurants.

“The world changed. We rediscovered our own cultures, our own ingredients and our own sense of value.

“We discovered that customers didn’t want to have only one version of food. But that doesn’t mean we forget or don’t still believe in the French heritage in what we learn. It’s just different. It doesn’t mean that we don’t still have huge gratitude of what France gave to the food world.”

French food is no doubt king in upper-crust culinary circles but the 550-page tome printed and distributed by Relais & Châteaux, aptly named Taste the World, speaks to that ethos. It’s a beautifully bound edition focusing on regions, hotels, chefs and illustrated maps from Malta to Morocco.

After the proceedings we made our way to the restaurant of Hélène Darroze, situated in the Left Bank in Paris, in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés on Rue d’Assas.

The Michelin-starred chef and member of Relais & Châteaux had given up her restaurant space to Acurio and some of his favourite chefs.

Ceviche, popular in the coastal regions of Central and South America, was the order of the day. But far from the usual red onion, chilli, lemon, coriander and avocado most palates are accustomed to, Acurio dished up a tangy, salty and fiery version made with fresh fish, cilantro, garlic, sweet potato, roasted corn, hard-core chilli and other ingredients that confounded the taste buds.

“We need to protect the future of our small farmers and against huge industrial fisheries with a lot of power. And the world loves ceviche more and more. Chefs like to make profit of this. And in that, the fishermen are always forgotten – the fishermen who work through the night to keep up with the demand and make us happy,” said Acurio.

In the thousands of cevicherias that exist and are opening up in South America and around the world, where the perfect liquid accompaniment is formulated to an exact science to enhance the best flavours of the dish, there are differing opinions about the finest wine pairing.

Some say it demands wine with high acidity whereas others are of the opinion that high acidity should be avoided.

With an abundance of great French wines on offer, and just as many ceviche dishes to sample, the gastronomic event that ended the three-day celebration was a perfect meeting of global culinary heritage.

Zodwa Kumalo-Valentine’s flights and accommodation were sponsored by Relais & Châteaux

Visionary: Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio, is passionate about the need to protect the future of small farmers. Photo: Ernesto Benavides/AFP

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