I have been trying to describe Pierre Gagnaire's food since the day in 1986 when I ate his tempura of Breton langoustines with cinnamon-infused beurre blanc. I was having lunch at his first restaurant, in Saint-Étienne, an industrial city not far from Lyon. Back then, most French chefs hadn't even started cooking with international ingredients and techniques. And Gagnaire hadn't yet been to Asia. Is "fearless" a category of French cuisine?
I hoped for a more concrete explanation from the chef himself when I got the chance to interview him in advance of the opening of Twist, his eighth restaurant, at the luxe new Mandarin Oriental hotel in Las Vegas. Now 60, Gagnaire presides over a vast empire that stretches from Paris to Seoul. His legendary reputation is helped by an astonishing physical presence. The reed-thin chef is over six feet tall with shocking blue eyes and a prominent nose.
Gagnaire told me that he was fascinated, and a little frightened, by the Vegas mythFrank Sinatra, the shows, the crowds. But what Frenchman can ever resist Vegas? The excitement of the city and, just minutes away, the desert calm captivated him.
He went on to define his cooking as "emotion on a plate." I didn't think that clarified anything.
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Gagnaire would be the last person to articulate his own incredible genius. But by example, he's encouraged young chefs to break free of the rules that have governed the French canon for so long. "There is no one doing creative cooking who does not go to taste Pierre's food and get inspired by him," says famed French chef Daniel Boulud, whose own restaurant empire is based in New York City.
I asked a few more chefs to help me characterize Gagnaire's cooking, including Michel Bras, another venerated master, whose restaurant in France's Aubrac mountains is a required stop for serious cooks. (He has been called the country mouse to Gagnaire's city mouse.) Bras seemed no more precise. "A living cuisine, full of 'juice,' " he wrote me. "It's sometimes disconcerting but, oh, how generous."
Paul Liebrandt, the chef at Corton in Manhattan and an F&W Best New Chef 2009, worked with Gagnaire in Paris. "He changed my life," said Liebrandt, whose own unorthodox ideas include pairing eel with chocolate. "His thing is not to stay stagnant. It's more a style than recipes that can be copied. Only Gagnaire can cook Gagnaire food."
The best I can do to communicate the experience of a Gagnaire meal is to offer this exercise. Here's a fragment of the description for the starter Parfums de Terre from a menu at his eponymous restaurant in Paris: Cocotte de foin aux aromatiques dans laquelle on mijote des girolles et des cèpes agrémentés d'une tranche de cochon pluma, mie de pain blonde à l'épine-vinette. Jus de cuisson émulsionné à l'amontillado.
Even if your French is very good, this recipe description may be unfathomable. It translates loosely as "a bed of aromatic hay with a mixture of fresh chanterelles and porcini, rosy Iberian pork [the feather-shaped pluma cut from the loin] and highbush cranberry bread in an amontillado-foamed jus."
Attempting to decipher Parfums de Terre in any language is very much like eating Gagnaire's head-scratchingly complex food. It is not easy, and it can be unsettling. At first, it may cause bafflement, even anger.
There are six more intricate parts to Parfums de Terre. A clever foie gras broth with lentil gnocchi and balsamic-infused onions is one major component. And then there's a puck of white-beet puree laced with horseradish, star anisespiked fennel and an icy carrot granita. It is as if Gagnaire unpacked every idea in his head onto a manic parade of plates. In fact, he turns the farm-to-table ethic upside down. Yes, a cook can let ingredients speak for themselves. But however perfect a ripe apricot or fresh-shucked sea urchin may be, it will never have the dimensions that Gagnaire helps it achieve.
I asked him what shapes his thinking. Most chefs look to each other; Gagnaire looks to artistic genius in any field. The jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, the artists Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly, the novelist Jim Harrison, Gagnaire's own life: They're all in his food. The perfume Terre d'Hermès, for instance, was the inspiration for Parfums de Terre. The fragrance was a gift from Hermès's corporate chef, who had spent time in Gagnaire's kitchen. "I was staggered by the quality of this perfume," said Gagnaire. "Not to slavishly reproduce the aromas. No. It gave me the desire to translate using the earth, colors, red things."
Similarly, the idea for his lush dessert Brillat-Savarin sprang in the most general way from the novelist Gustave Flaubert, creator of the original desperate housewife, Emma Bovary. The dish is a freewheeling tribute to the Normandy-born Flaubert, composed of some of the region's staplesapples, crème fraîche, Calvados and the namesake triple-cream cheese Brillat-Savarin.
To understand Gagnaire's food, it's helpful to think of it as a reaction against everything he was taught as a young chef. He started off like many a French artisan, apprenticing as a teenager, then spending years in different restaurants. But "I didn't understand what I was seeing," he said. "It was always the same thing, the same products. I learned the bad style of Escoffier."
He believes returning home to help run the family restaurant near Saint-Étienne was the worst mistake he ever made in his life. "I don't like this profession," he said. "I prefer to see churches. But it was the only thing I knew how to do." So he turned away from the cooking of his father's generation and tried experimenting instead. When Gagnaire opened his own restaurant in 1981, in Saint-Étienne, he started using new ingredients, flavor combinations and techniques. And his reputation as a miraculous cook began to grow.
In 1993, he was awarded three Michelin stars at his restaurant in a restored Art Deco house in town. Then, in 1996, he declared bankruptcy. Losing everything he had worked for was his crucible. Six months later, Gagnaire reopened, in Paris, where he gained a cult of international devotees and established himself as a global talent. In 2000, the chef started working with French chemist Hervé This on creations like the now-familiar 65-degree-Celsius egg and olive-infused meringues called "wind crystals." But, Gagnaire insisted, the collaboration has not fundamentally changed his cooking. "I like the chemist more than the chemistry," he said, smiling.
Branching out with new restaurants, each unique, is one way Gagnaire continues to evolve. Twist, in Vegas, marks a simpler cooking style for him, focused on U.S. products like Maine lobster, Washington bay scallops and Sonoma foie gras. The chef has trimmed some of his exuberant combinations. His signature Grand Dessert, for instance, consists of five courses here instead of the original nine. But after six months, he said, he was ready "to work on its evolution, to surprise without overwhelming or making a big show."
I shared my frustration at capturing Gagnaire's brilliance with Pascal Sanchez, Twist's chef de cuisine, who also worked with him in Paris. Sanchez shook his head to say he understood the thrill and challenge of cooking with a visionary like Gagnaire. "Brainstorming with Pierre is like flying in a hot air balloon," he said. "Gagnaire is the balloon; we are all in the basket following behind."
Jane Sigal translated 1,000 of Françoise Bernard's recipes for La Cuisine: Everyday French Home Cooking, which comes out in October.