The New Marxist Cuisine
Sylvie Bigar - September 2009
Regaining his spiritual groove on the other side of the world, a liberated French chef has planted an intense and intensely personal style of cooking (plus a martial arts school) in conservative Bordeaux.
Back from his stint as a French paratrooper in war-stunned Lebanon, wounded in both body and mind, Thierry Marx, a Parisian pastry apprentice, began to search for healing and fulfillment. He took cooking classes but, despite subsequent spells in top French kitchens, including those of Claude Deligne at Taillevent and Joël Robuchon, he still felt lost. War memories haunted him, and in an attempt to exorcise them, he traveled to Asia and Australia for a two week trip, stayed five months, and gradually started to become himself again.
Working in pastry at the Four Seasons Hotel in Sydney, he was unexpectedly asked to oversee catering. Terrified, he succeeded, but only with the aid of a small cooking manual. Fearing he would be asked to do dishes he'd never made before, he carried it like a bible in his back pocket.
Twenty years later, far from the battlefields, in the harsh Médoc wine region of France, I chatted with Marx, long after the last diner had left his soothing classic dining room in Cordeillan-Bages, the Michelin two-star Relais & Châteaux where he's been happily entrenched since 1998.
When vintner Jean-Michel Cazes, whose family had for generations owned highly prized vineyards in the region--including the Grand Cru Classé Château Lynch-Bages--needed a chef for his restaurant within the Cordeillan-Bages mansion, he searched for the refinement and innovation that would match his wine's spirit. The relationship between the restaurant and the vineyard is intense, as is the mutual respect both men feel for each other. "I run my own place," says Marx, "but I work for Cazes. I do everything I can to help him in his marketing efforts."
While he speaks, Johnny Cash's Walk the Line loops in my head. So much of Marx's life was led along some kind of borderline--always a step away from crossing into delinquency, alcoholism, drugs, and violence, the decor of his adolescent years in the troubled suburbs of Paris. Marx is not tall, but his presence is massive. He's been likened to a French Bruce Willis, but the man I meet is a far cry from a Hollywood-made fighter. Beneath the shaven head is a nose you can't miss, a kind mouth, and eyes that look both at and through you. At 45, he works out every morning and before service at the martial arts school he's founded in Bordeaux. His signature white Mao-style shirt melds his passion for Asia, his trade, and his natural elegance. "Violence is fear, and fear of others can be channeled," he says. "I regularly teach cooking workshops with prison detainees around Bordeaux, because cooking facilitates communication."
The essence of Marx's cuisine seems at first to be pure creativity. The Gault-Millau guide (as important a publication in France as the Michelin) awarded him an impossible 19 out of 20. He works with the technologies of the day and either invents tastes one didn't know existed, as in his raw brioche dessert that mixes yeast and fermented milk, or dissects a traditional recipe like a Basque squid fillet with piquillo peppers, only to put it back together in completely new ways. "The problem with squid is often its texture," he explains. "The scanner reveals that its muscles are not organized geometrically, so by beating and flattening the flesh, it becomes tender." A tube of squid gets encased in a "skin" of red pepper. Intellectual cuisine? Scientific experiments? No. What remains at the end of each bite is pure pleasure. "Good is not enough. I want to provide an emotion, to procure sensations."
Bread at various stages of the cooking process often plays a supporting role to his dishes. His earliest kitchen memories, the fragrant and crunchy morning baguette he shared with his mother, and the baker's window against which he pressed his nose every day, seeded his first culinary memories. Marx says he is inspired by bread, sometimes to produce dishes "based on unusual and surprising bread and butter concoctions such as toasted bread with linseed or spelt biscuit."
Inventiveness, and the three months he now spends in Japan every winter while the restaurant is closed, come alive in translucent sous-vide prawns accompanied by homemade tofu (with the consistency of a thick yogurt), crunchy seaweed, and a globe of Japanese cucumber (molded with the help of pectin and calcium chloride). "Every life experience brings innovation. Ideas don't stem from the pots, they're born out of the meeting of ingredients, atmospheres, and aromas. I always carry a notebook with me, and my dishes start as images or designs," he explains. Marx maintains a pied-à-terre in Kyoto, where he teaches at the French Food Culture Center.
He also co-owns two traditional Japanese restaurants named Ozu in London and Paris. On his menu, he produces, among other dishes, grilled mackerel caramelized with yuzu and served with ohitashi spinach. In a small space, the oven represents the perfect bridge between a home and a restaurant kitchen. "We use Electrolux equipment for its even distribution of heat," he says.
One revelation came to him at the movies while watching Buena Vista Social Club. He noted that the grandmother of one of the musicians used to steep a grilled chicken wing in a bowl of warm water, thus creating two dishes. From this, he imagined a sizzling deboned chicken wing stuffed with ground chanterelles and encased in a tea bag. Diners were advised to infuse it in the accompanying warm bowl of water and then savor the resulting caramelized nectar.
"Last year we experimented with 1,700 new dishes and kept 30. And now only half of them have become staples. Every Sunday at tables for four, three guests pay for the meal, but we offer the fourth free in exchange for a written critique."
Last year Marx cooked alongside Gabriel Kreuther for a $1,500 per person dinner at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City--part of a wine promotion dinner organized by American Express. The two chefs matched dishes with some of the best Lynch-Bages crus. Says Kreuther, "Marx is a personality. Serene and real. You can't label what he does. His cuisine has a soul. Some of his dishes, like soybean sprout "risotto," blends ocean (oysters and oyster foam) and earth (truffles). He purifies the ingredients to their essence."
Marx also served up an ethereal Champagne/cauliflower cream with a shallot reduction, touches of oysters and foie gras with a quenelle of lime infused whipped cream, and a crunchy tuile made with seawater and rice flour in addition to a lamb "charlotte" with lamb jus inside.
"I would love to open something in New York," he says. "I worked there at The Plaza hotel years ago, and I come back every year to run the marathon."
Following Planet Marx (Minerva), an oversize and strangely eccentric coffeetable cookbook he wrote in 2006, Easy Marx (Minerva), a collection of 500 easy recipes and 1,250 images aimed at the home cook, has been published in France.
His latest project, conducted in Paris along with his partner, Harvard scientist and writer David Edwards, is Le FoodLab, an atelier for chefs where extreme innovation is the game. Members of the attached LaboClub can both eat and cook there experimentally. Its first venture last fall was an attempt to modify food for inhalation. Reduced to a micro powder, chocolate gets inhaled through a "whif," a small cigar-like tube placed in the mouth. The powder covers tongue and palate, allowing for a luscious way to enjoy the taste.
Marx often melds aquatic and earthy ingredients, bringing together cultures and civilizations under the same banner. In Cordeillan-Bages, I savored a joyous and unique succession of dishes. Marx's food almost defies description. Based on classical techniques, inspired by Asian influences, and utilizing modern technologies, it ultimately results in a pure essence of flavor. My meal included a scalloped oyster encased in a beet/oyster emulsion, which spoke to the tongue of intense and overwhelming ocean. It was served with a delicious "longuet," a rectangular toasted brioche filled with a chicken breast/oyster/Aquitaine caviar stuffing. Then came an unforgettable boned quail rolled into a conical tagine shape, stuffed with a Moroccan spiced butter, spices, hazelnuts, and petits pois. It released a rich Moroccan fragrance as I bit through the bright green coating of chervil, coriander, parsley, and tarragon.
No longer afraid to cook without a manual, Marx has not only dispatched his anxieties, he has opened up a new culinary dimension.