Much has been written recently about the decline of French gastronomy both in France and abroad. As an unabashed Francophile, I've read with dismay about the challenges faced by many chefs and restaurant owners and while I don't deny that there is indeed a malaise of sorts in the French gastronomical community, I for one refuse to believe that traditions which have been refined and nurtured for centuries can simply be allowed to wither away and die. Luckily, I'm not alone to hold this belief. I had the immense privilege of dining with chef Raymond Blanc at an intimate dinner he co-hosted with historic French cognac brand Martell earlier this week. The dinner, which took place in the windows of Harrods, was designed to showcase (both figuratively and literally) various facets of French gastronomy and craftsmanship.
The first thing you note when you meet chef Blanc is that he wears his Gallic pride on his sleeve (or in this case, on a custom made bow tie in the colors of the French tricolore which he was sporting for the occasion). To hear him speak passionately about food and its role in society is to understand exactly why French gastronomy has dominated the world for centuries. In his view, “gastronomy is not just about cooking, it is craftsmanship, turning raw materials into something extraordinary.” To a chef like Raymond Blanc, one senses that raw ingredients such as the organic vegetables he grows in his personal gardens are no less precious than the stones sourced by Cartier from which they craft their exquisite baubles. Food and its provenance therefore became one of the themes for the evening as we were treated to a four-course menu that included a succulent truffled risotto made with black and white truffle and a tasting of l'Or de Jean Martell, an exquisite cognac described by Martell's cellar master Benoit Fil as "the highest expression of Martell cognac". Heavenly.
Beyond the obvious pleasure of sampling fine food and fine cognac, there was something truly uplifting about this dinner thanks in part to the lively and surprisingly candid conversation that ensued roughly between the truffled risotto and the artisan cheeses. French gastronomy is not the only sector within the luxury industry currently under pressure. The luxury industry as a whole has evolved considerably in the past decade and the aggressive expansion of certain sectors (including the advent of celebrity chefs) raises many questions most notably of authenticity. More importantly, it raises the question of just how much any industry can grow without ultimately losing its soul along the way. For those of you who read The Luxe Chronicles regularly, you'll understand that these are all themes that are near and dear to my heart but which are rarely (if ever) discussed publicly by the industry. An opportunity to discuss these issues with passionate connoisseurs over a fine meal was therefore almost too good to be true. Simply put, the discussion was as delicious to my ears as the truffled risotto and fine cognac were to my taste buds.
The only way to face any challenge is to tackle it head on with clear-eyed determination and a willingness to address the issues honestly. Of course, it helps enormously to have passionate advocates to lead the way forward. My sense is that as long as there are ambassadors for French gastronomical and winemaking traditions such as chef Blanc and Cognacs Martell, France's expertise and traditions remain in very good hands.
The proceeds of Atelier Martell's "Live Dining Experience with Raymond Blanc at Harrods" will benefit Action Against Hunger. If you have a moment, I highly recommend you swing by Harrods to examine for yourself the exquisite trunk commissioned by Martell from French trunk maker Pinel & Pinel and which houses some of the brand's most exclusive vintage cognacs.
The Luxe Chronicles