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Friday, December 09, 2005

How fat was that duck again?


"Get thy arse back in the kitchen", that's the message from François Simon, not to Heston Blumenthal, the subject of his article, but to enterprising French Chefs. Who is François Simon, you asked? Why, only the eminent French culinary critic, whose influential words -or poison pen, depending on whom you are speaking to- grace the pages of Le Figaro, the Parisian paper of record, every week.

The good Monsieur Simon just wrote a review of The Fat Duck in Madame Figaro the other day. No, it's not the rave review that the Independent UK thought it to be, but a good review nonetheless. He asked French diners a rhetorical question, have you been there? "But why..", replied his imaginary counterpart. "Because it is good, sometimes very good", Simon retorted.

And what was that about whose arse again? Well, the more I read the piece, the more I find that it is far less a review of the Fat Duck than Simon's insidious way of making snide comments at the lauded French chefs –the ones whose empires rule far and wide yet are rarely seen avant le feu (citing, by name, Ducasse, Robuchon, Savoy, Bocuse), and the ones whose cooking is 'timid', taking no chances (Marx, Decoret, Barbot, Camdeborde). Like a father praising the children next door to his own brood, Papa Simon used The Fat Duck's Heston Blumenthal's creative cuisine -somewhere between Mary Poppins and the fabled chefs' chef Alain Chapel- and the fact that Heston's behind is seen -yes- behind the line day in and day out to shame his children into behaving.

Then again, I must hand it to Simon for his generosity. He went to the Fat Duck with an open mind, and was able to enjoy the novel experience for what it was, and not with the frame of reference heavy with baggage from the long and illustrious French culinary tradition. In other words, he didn't complain that the food sucked because it wasn't French. The cuisine of the 21st century, was no longer Turbot en Croute, he conceded.

That open mind was far be it from his German colleague, Wolfram Siebeck from Die Zeit, whose review a few months ago surmounted to a grumpy old beard complaining that the food wasn't any good because it was all too, well, weird. His argument was more than a little circular, in fact. Chefs adored experimentation, he claimed. Yet Heston is faulted for delighting in unnecessary trickery. The Tatin sisters (inventors of the famed Tarte Tatin) went down in history as innovators, while The Fat Duck and elBulli and all the breed added up only to the fart of nothingness. And all this missive came from a German, whose native cuisine is not exactly the shining example of gastronomic achievement. Currywurst, anyone?

Calling elBulli or The Fat Duck style of cuisine nothing but frivolous trickery because it is novel is just as wrong as calling L'Ambroisie's cuisine boring merely because it is classical. Ultimately, food, as many things in life, should be judged on its merit and substance. Is it any good to eat? If it is so, I don't care if it's been bathed in Sodium Alginate or cooked over an open fire pit. Prejudice is prejudice, no matter which way you cut it. Bravo François Simon. Boo Wolfram Siebeck -go home and wolf down your currywurst in peace, allez-y.


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