Chef Arnaud Faye has been working for three years at the Ritz Paris, one of the most prestigious hotels in the world. The hotel also houses the famous Hemingway Bar, named so because it was Ernest Hemingway’s most loved bar. We get to meet the young chef and Colin Field, the gregarious head barman at Hemingway, at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, Mumbai.
Faye works at the double Michelin-starred restaurant L’Espadon and was here for a week for a promotion at Zodiac Grill, “to serve French food to Indians as it is in Paris”. He says he has not changed anything in the recipes besides using local produce. With Field translating, we spoke to Faye about French cuisine. Edited excerpts:
Adaptation: French food can be as simple as Crunchy Vegetables in Lemon Dressing and Coriander Emulsion. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
How has French cuisine changed over the years?
French cuisine has a lot of history, but it is changing. People are travelling more now and want to try new things. There are hundreds of fantastic chefs who are travelling and, with the inputs from their travels, are constantly changing French cuisine. And who creates French cuisine but these chefs? I am here in India now, and if I see something interesting, I will try it. If I travel to Japan, I take something back. But at the end of the day, what’s most important is the produce. You put little touches, you don’t change it in a major way. For example, I use more ginger now. But I don’t use fresh ginger. I just infuse it in the oil and use the oil in my dish. So you don’t eat the ginger, just taste the flavour. I make lemon and vanilla oil. I use wasabi, lemon grass, coriander and get spices from Kashmir, such as cinnamon, cardamom, clove, etc., and infuse them in oils. I use some of these spices in amuse-bouche. And the people in France like these flavours.
People are overwhelmed by French food. Is it difficult to master?
Many people say French food is complicated. But it’s not. French food is all about the quality of produce. Otherwise, it can be as simple as some vegetables cooked in butter. In India, you use different kinds of spices; we use wines for flavour. For me, Indian food is difficult, there are so many spices. French food could be a carrot that is perfectly cooked and you can taste the flavours of the carrot. All you need is a little oil and garlic. It’s cooked in a pan without water, in its own juice.
What are the three meals of the day in France?
Breakfast could be coffee or tea, marmalade, butter, freshly baked bread, croissant, and brioche. People say that breakfast should be big, but in France dinner is a big meal. People are working all day and don’t really have much time to cook or eat. Breakfast and lunch have to be quick. So if you go to a restaurant, you eat a salad or maybe roast lamb with vegetables. Dinner is larger. You get home and make something nice. It could be a filet mignon of pork with carrots or peas. There can be charcuterie and dinner can be followed by cheese.
What is popular street food in France?
Crêpes are very popular as street food. We have mobile vans that serve all kinds of crêpes. Lebanese dishes are also very popular as street food. Otherwise, sandwiches are also available.
Which foreign cuisines are popular in France?
Japanese food is really big in France—sushi is very popular. Korean, Lebanese, Italian and Indian food are also popular.
What are the uncommon types of meat eaten in France?
Foie gras, escargot, frog legs, duck gizzards known as gesiers are the unusual meats. If you live close to the sea then seafood is an important part of your diet. Veal, beef, chicken and lamb are commonly eaten. Frog legs and escargot are not easy to prepare at home, so they are mostly eaten at restaurants.
French dishes often have alcohol. What type of alcohol is popularly used for cooking and how?
Cognac and wine are used commonly. But it’s used to add flavour, not so that there can be alcohol in your food. We make marinades and sauces with wine and cognac. For cooking, you don’t have to take fantastic wines. It’s a personal thing to decide which wine to use with what meat. One could say that white wine and chicken go well, but look at Coq au Vin, which is a famous French chicken dish that uses red wine. If you use too much wine then you change the taste of the meat. Red wine also goes well with fatty fish. You can flambé fruits in sherry, cognac is better for making marinades for game, wine is used mainly in sauces.
Has French food become lighter in keeping with people’s demand for healthier food?
Yes, it has. I don’t use too much cream or butter. It’s used just to cook the dish and then a sponge is used to absorb the fat. We often use olive oil, but only for cooking and don’t pour it on top.
What are the popular dishes eaten during celebrations in France?
Foie gras, smoked salmon, lobster with butter sauce, oysters, game is eaten for Christmas and New Year. Game is special because it’s the only animal, you can be sure, that has eaten naturally from the forest. Vanilla ice cream with meringue, chocolate is important and the meal is finished with a good cognac.