Across my Table

Chef Jacques Le Divellec- Across My Table

Thursday, February 28, 2013Me! In words

I was recently invited to Le Concours de L’Inde des Jeunes Chefs Rotisseurs 2013 (National Young Chefs Competition or JCR) which was being held in India for the first time by the Bangalore Bailliage (chapter) of the La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs  the world's premiere gastronomy society. Coming together under one roof at the Taj Vivanta, Whitefield were 17 chefs from across the country - all below 27 years old with less than 5 years of professional experience. Their task was to cook three courses and battle it out for the first prize of representing the country at Istanbul, at the International JCR 2013. Now for something as prestigious as this, you need to have on the judging panel someone whose credentials can, for the lack of a better way to put this  - scare the bejesus out of you. 

This is where I tell you that along with being invited to cover the event, I also got a chance to meet and spend some time with Chef Jacques Le Divellec, a two Michelin-star chef, who is all of 80 years old right now. He is known as the Ambassador of the Sea. Owns and well as manages franchises of restaurants, has written several books on seafood and its cooking and is a consultant for names associated with the uber-luxurious. He is the first French Chef to be awarded the Legion of Honor. Some of his regular diners have been the likes of Jacques Chirac, Raymond Barre, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, Nicolas Sarkozy and Dominique de Villepin. 

Though I did see photographs of him online, strong, erect and face wrinkled with experience, it certainly did not prepare me to see him in person. Despite his years, he stood tall, walked slow but without assistance and had a gentle demeanor that instantly made him quite the lovable sight. 

As the rules of the competition were being announced, he sat quite inconspicuously at the back of the group of young chefs, listening intently and watching every face in the room. As the competition began, he found a strategic spot to settle down where he had a great view of all the participants. 

Chef Jacques Le Divellec

Chef Jacques gave everyone who wanted to talk to him ample time, with the help of the young translator Smitha. As we settled down to chat, he took a sip of water and was ready. Passion is something that catches early on and for little Jacques growing up in France, it was no different. Born in Paris, his family moved to La Rochelle when he was a toddler. Life was pretty much close to the sea coast, so close that he almost always had first view of all the catch that used to be brought in. He spent a lot of time with his grandfather who took him fishing and familiarized him with the offerings of the sea. With his mother and grandmother he learnt how to convert this fresh catch into dishes that do them justice. He traveled a lot as a youngster all over France and his exposure was quite literally as large as the sea. With this as a foundation, he joined culinary school at 15 years. There was no looking back for him from then on.

Chef Jacques went on to work in some hotel kitchens and then turned to serve his country and joined the military as a chef. Once back on ground, he continued to serve in the same capacity to the Marshall. He opened his first restaurant at the age of 26 and in four years had his first Michelin star. Such recognition for a young man means he has done something right. I asked him what he thought was the one thing that held a kitchen together, no matter kind it was and he said that it was a common language or means of communication. Having worked his whole life in French kitchens this has never been a problem for him and he feels that it has been integral to his success. 

Its natural with his love for the sea and its bounty that his years of experience, his travels etc have had a major influence on how he treats his seafood. No doubt he says, it has influenced him in several ways but what he feels is his biggest contribution is bringing together the seafood intrinsic to a particular land with what is available on land. For example in Paris, where foie gras is a delicacy, he has created a melange with Coquilles St Jacques (a dish made with scallops steeped in white wine and mushrooms). This is something he has tried in several places to help reintroduce people to bounties of their surrounding land and sea. 

At the Young Chef's competition that day Chef Jacques was surrounded by so much young talent. With his years of experience, he has seen so much of such talent blossom and grow. I asked him how he felt perspectives in cooking have evolved over time and he said that most chefs today travel and lot and each time they come back, they bring a lot with them that they incorporate into their cooking. There is a lot of globalization and along with that an evolution of cooking. What is good about this trend is that there is an acceptance of all things new. 

I ask this to all whom I interact with for my Across My Table series and when you have chef of this caliber in front of you, you will want an insight into what he will put on the table for his family. Of course I expected the answer to be seafood, but what left me totally astounded was when he said that this would include dessert as well. Instantly the question of what dessert could you possibly make with seafood tumbled out and he said, "Salmon sorbet of course!" - I could only hang my jaw down in awe. No chance I was going to get a hint of the recipe here now, but then that's what being a culinary maestro is all about. 

The competition lasted all of 3.5 hours excluding plating time. When it was time for the judging, the panel sat down to a tasting of 51 plates. There was attention to detail, careful tasting and years of having food talk to you, coming out on those score charts. It was a pleasure to watch Chef Jacques Le Divellec in action and a meeting I will never forget. 

Monika  Manchanda and I with Chef Jacques Le Divellec (Pic Courtesy: Monika)

Chef Divellec in the center of the judging panel

Here is a look at the 1st prize winner's dishes... a sort of precursor to my post tomorrow on the entire JCR event. 51 beautiful dishes will be showcased in the post and I will take you through the brilliantly organized event the way we enjoyed it. First place went to Chef Hitesh Gautam of Ista.

Course 1 - "Taste of the Sea" - Soy marinated prawn,
black pomfret squid flower and avocado shooter

Course 2 - "Duo" - Duo of Shiraz marinated Tenderloin and chicken roulade, eggplant mash, balsamico risotto, garlic wilted argula and glazed vegetables

Course 3 - "Trilogy" - Dry Fruit Sticky Cake, Chocolate
and strawberry mille-feuille and arborio cake

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