Tom Corbett

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Pilot Light: Postnational Cuisines?

Ariane Batterberry - October 2013

In this issue we focus on Europe, and I have just returned from France, which got me thinking about the cuisine long considered the world’s greatest, and how it stands up today. The conclusion I came to is that, as in politics, the old generalizations no longer hold. Today, on a certain level, the food of each chef is so grandly idiosyncratic that it reflects the era and its trends, rather than the country of origin and its tradition. Chefs often play fast and loose with historic dictates rather than slavishly obeying them.

To make my point, I would like to compare the dinners I had recently at the Michelin two-star restaurant, Le Castellas in Collias, deep in the interior of southern France, with Betony, which recently received three stars in the New York Times.

At Castellas, chef Jérôme Nutile, who worked under the three-star chef Georges Blanc for four years, presents his very personal cuisine in an enchanted garden under a flickering canopy of banana palm, mulberry, and linden. Here the breathtaking dish is modestly entitled “oeuf de poule fermier presque parfait” or “an almost perfect farm egg.” It was poached, drenched in an emulsion of zucchini, and nestled in a curry mayonnaise, all shot through with fair-colored but pungent summer truffles. This was preceded by amusing amuses—a sweet macaroon of sugared olive, a crisp little ball of pork’s foot and ear, a diminutive glass of gazpacho with minced mussels, and a tiny pink dome of brandade with red pepper. Nutile’s is a cuisine of emulsions, foams, and soufflés, and there is sweetness throughout. A mousse of chicken in orange foam with peas is wrapped in a lighter-than-air pastry, a lamb kebab rests in a foam of merguez spices.

Bryce Shuman, like Nutile, is young, not internationally known, and was the apprentice of a master—Daniel Humm. Betony itself is a stylish restaurant near New York’s Fifth Avenue. And here the amazing dish is the “grilled short rib.” Short ribs of beef are on almost every menu these days—meltingly rich, consoling, the very essence of comfort food. But here the rib is first prepared in a complex manner sous-vide, and then grilled, and it somehow surpasses even the best Kobe in its deeply satisfying crisp and meaty flavor.

Shuman’s amusements are sometimes delightful riffs on American favorites—a “lobster roll” that is a cigar-sized roll of brik pastry stuffed with lobster meat and a smooth roe “bavarian.” A “tuna melt” is an exquisite little round of brioche spread with chive mayo, topped with bits of tuna and caramelized fontina. His poached lobster is veiled in juniper sprigs, through which a bisque is poured, assuming the flavor of the leaves as it drenches the lobster meat and accompanying cranberry, soy, and fava beans beneath. The silken roasted chicken is served with its own jus with a chanterelle puree, and accompanied by a little bowl of crunchies—a mixture of atomized leg confit with farro.

As you can see, these two chefs are presenting different cuisines—Nutile’s is all unctuous pleasure, Shuman’s more thunderclap surprises, but no one could say that one could only be in France, the other only in America. They both signify the postnational character of today’s best restaurant cuisine.

Ariane Batterberry, Founding Editor/Publisher