What happens when a three Michelin star chef from California visits France?
by Andrew Chalk
Set the controls for Virtual Cinema on September 18th. Amid the sea of dross that permeates Food Network there is a chef program worth cancelling normal life for. It is called A Chef’s Voyage and it follows 3* Michelin chef David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, California, as he closes his restaurant for a month to tour France with his senior crew and cook in the kitchens of three Michelin starred chefs.
The opening sequences are shot in Los Gatos and introduce us to Kinch. He walks deliberately around his kitchen with a studious professorial air, interacting closely with chefs at each station. During service time his instructions are given in a laid back style, with never a raised voice, and the program, shot without a narrator, reveals him to possess a wicked sense of humor and a love of surfing. At one point he warns a young Icelandic chef working in the kitchen that he may not be allowed in by French immigration because of the trouble that his Prime Minister is in.
After a long flight, apparently from the west coast to Nice Côte d’Azur airport (but not in the plane shown in the video -- its a narrowbody and would never reach Europe), followed by a coach ride, the groggy crew arrives at Baumanière in the impossibly beautiful medieval flower garden town of Les Baux (The Rocks) in Provence. Restaurant L’Oustau de Baumanière had two stars (it has since been upgraded to three) under chef/owner Jean-Andre Charial. His Relais & Chateaux five-star hotel can offer you a room, starting at about $300/night.
The event setup is not clearly explained but I presume each restaurant invited their most loyal customers to a prix fixe featuring dishes from the host chef and ‘Manresa, in California’. It must have proven popular as Kinch is surrounded by local media for interviews on his day of arrival. Part of the attraction may have been a silicon valley restaurant coming into the proximity of France’s equivalent to silicon valley, Sophia Antipolis.
Kinch speaks fluent French but the rest of his crew are almost solidly monoglot, which leads to stony faces when the two brigades face each other for the first time in Baumanière’s expansive kitchen. There is a gem of a moment on an inspired move by Kinch - serving the first dish prepared by Manresa (‘red bell pepper and black olives with a bit of chili’) to the host front of house team and kitchen brigade. Smiles spontaneously break out as if triggered by a chemical in the food. Suddenly, all are one.
Throughout the 90 minutes program Kinch’s decision to bring local food specialties from California redounds to Manresa’s advantage. One such is Abalone, which is diver caught off the central coast coast, another is burdock (‘gobo’ in Japanese, explains Kinch to a French wait staff that believed every herb known to man already existed in Provence).
Wine director Jim Rollston never says a single sentence to the camera but his childlike sense of wonderment speaks through his facial expressions as the team visit a local vineyard. Provence is one of France’s major wine making regions, and best known for having made rosé so popular. The French now drink more rosé than white wine and half of it comes from Provence.
Suddenly, we are in Paris, the hub of all things French, and at Le Taillevent with its two Michelin stars and status as one of the best known restaurants in the world. Chef Alain Solivérès travels to and from work on a scooter, not because he has to, but because of the horrendous Paris traffic. In his restaurant his approach is messianic: French cuisine is the best in the world. His master plan is to have it take over the world. To that end he brings talented young chefs from other countries to learn ‘the French way’. You almost expect La Marseillaise to be on infinite loop in the walk-in. But he asserts “That’s essential for French gastronomy”.
Here, the cuisine is more classical. Duck is cooked and used by both teams (one takes the breast and the other the legs). High game is served, a concept new to some of the California staff. Kinch explains it with reference to his childhood. His grandfather would shoot a pheasant and then nail it, by the neck, to the door of the barn. When the flesh rotted enough that the carcass fell to the ground then, and only then, he would cook it. It produced a more flavorful bird. The practice is common in rural Europe where meat is not the sanitized and pristinely colorized blob that spends its life on a refrigerated styrofoam tray covered with cling film.
With jet lag eradicated and two successes under their belts the team begins to unwind and you can see mirth start to break out. It might help that the staff meal is Aligot, the only edible heavy metal, and choucroute.
To the Gare de Lyon and the TGV at a leisurely 200 mph to Marseille in under four hours. The scruffy city looks just like it did when Henri Barthélémy broke Popeye Doyle of his heroin addiction in 1975. Gérald Passedat is the chef at Michelin three star Le Petit Nice, situated on a promontory with a dock. Fishermen deliver fish at the dock directly from their boats each day. We learn that Kinch swam here when he was younger. Also we find that Passedat is part philosopher, describing his process as “adding less”. You could not find a better canvas than seafood that arrives pure, where the most likely effect of intervention is to spoil it. That said, his dishes are the most telegenic masterpieces in the show, maybe that you have seen for some time.
There are some personal stories of crew members thrown in but I will let you discover and assess them when you watch it yourself.
A Chef’s Voyage can be appreciated on several levels. The voyeur can take a happy romp through beautiful French countryside, admire the food porn, and be a fly on the wall to David Kinch’s journey of a lifetime. The amateur or professional cook can buy in emotionally to Kinch’s odyssey and find this show an inspiration.
Check out the trailer, just to get your toe wet.