A LESSON FROM A HERETIC

MASTERCLASS 4: RATATOUILLE; Eclectic, Paul Gayler calls his cooking; some may call his various ratatouilles heresy. But it's the classic French dish he teaches Michael Bateman

ONE of Paul Gayler's fancier creations is a cannelloni of ratatouille with ricotta. Very French, I don't think. He also does a spicy Thai ratatouille and, cooked in a pumpkin, a ratatouille Creole.

It must only be a short step to ratatouille gravad lax and paella ratatouille. Give him time. To those of us brought up on Elizabeth David's version of this Nicoise vegetable stew, Mr Gayler is a heretic.

Paul Gayler is executive chef of the upmarket Lanesborough Hotel (their Royal Suite costs pounds 3,000 a night) and presents what he calls an "eclectic" menu to his international clientele. Expect a soupcon of French here, a shrug of Italian there, and a brushstroke from the Orient.

Paul Gayler is also the country's leading practitioner of haute cuisine vegetable cooking. "I'm not a vegetarian," he hastens to add. Frankly, it was a career move. In the 1980s, when he was head chef at Inigo Jones in Covent Garden, he observed that restaurant critics complained that top restaurants offered no more than a token vegetarian dish. He decided to make them his speciality and soon he introduced an elaborately conceived vegetarian meal, his seven-course ''Menu Potager".

Compared with the salad the chef might send up at a top hotel restaurant of the day, what Paul Gayler created was a magical mystery tour. It bore no relation to the moral goodness of country soup and chunky bread at Cranks, or the eternal verities of macrobiotic brown rice.

A vegetarian gourmet feast at Inigo Jones might have started with salad of avocado, asparagus and wild leaves, followed by a warm mousseline of wild mushroom and spinach with truffle sauce. Then, perhaps, a lasagne of Nicoise vegetables followed by filo pastry stuffed with prunes and goat's cheese. You might finish with a terrine of fruits marinated in kirsch. Had the fancies of vegetarians ever been so tickled?

Paul Gayler learnt his craftsmanship when he was Anton Mosimann's deputy at the Dorchester Hotel. He won unstinting praise from The Good Food Guide: "As a stylist he is perhaps the most accomplished in Britain," they asserted.

Now he's about to publish his first book, Virtually Vegetarian (Harper Collins pounds 17.99, out in September), where you'll find his Italian, Thai and Creole versions of ratatouille. Was he really the right man to conduct our masterclass in this famous rustic dish, I wondered.

Paul Gayler looks less than cool in the baking subterranean kitchens of the Lanesborough, dressed in bulky chef's whites, with a strangle-tight toggle knot at his neck. In spite of his Faustian appearance, he is an Essex lad (40 tomorrow). His father was a Dagenham draughtsman who used to moonlight as a toastmaster at City livery dinners. Then one night Dad came home and said to Mum: "Those dinners are... merde. We could do better."

So it was that Mum and Dad started a catering service, with the 12-year- old Paul chipping in to roast potatoes and boil Brussels sprouts. "I knew there was nothing else in the world I wanted to do. In my last year at school I joined home economics classes along with one other boy - and 42 girls." He came out top, of course, as he did on his two-year course at Gray's Thurrock catering college. We take it that ratatouille wasn't an Essex speciality?

Patience, mon ami. It was working at the Royal Garden Hotel that he encountered his first fearsome French mentor, the huge Remy Fougere. "He could lift a cook by his toggle with one hand, and hold him an inch from the kitchen floor," said Paul Gayler with obvious admiration.

One day when he had cooked a lobster dish for 10, he found M. Fougere at his side, tasting the Madeira sauce. "Suddenly he hit me, whack, right under the rib cage, and I doubled up in pain. I thought I was dying. When I looked up he was smiling: 'Not bad for an Englishman.'"

M. Fougere did not teach him to make crab ratatouille or ratatouille empanadas, but he did teach him to make the ratatouille of his native France, and this is the recipe he is about to show me. Paul Gayler has varied it not a whit in all these years, and nor would he dare.

We exchange the cool oasis of his office for the blistering heat of the kitchen. Here a large South African is balling courgettes, using a melon baller. Hundreds of them, smaller than marbles, are piling up in a bowl. What a lot of balls, I manage to resist commenting. But Paul Gayler really is sticking to the classic recipe and these are not for the ratatouille.

There are two schools of thought in making ratatouille, Paul Gayler explains, posing in front of a jolly still life of red and green peppers, black aubergine, courgette, onion, tomato pulp and basil leaves. You can stew the vegetables in oil, starting with those which take the most time to cook (such as onion), adding the others in order: aubergines, peppers, with courgettes and tomato last. But the possibility is that you may well end up with a slathery mush in which all the vegetables have melted into each other.

"It will still be very tasty and I've done it that way when I'm desperate," says Chef Gayler. "But it's one-pot cooking and a bit too rustic to serve in a restaurant. You don't have full control over the texture of each ingredient. So we cook them all separately, and combine them for the last 10 minutes."

He's looking to produce a dish of contrasting textures and flavours that will look as good as it tastes. It will be a palette of colour indeed, in which the shining skins of the red and green peppers are bobbing in a red lava of tomato sauce, along with purpled aubergines, white discs of courgette, green smudges of torn basil. That sort of thing.

So here we go. He skins the tomatoes by plunging them into boiling water and then cold water, and halves them and removes the seeds. "Tinned tomatoes are fine, but I can't use them in the restaurant."

He peels and chops the veg. Size is important. The onion is cut finely; the garlic mashed in salt, to release maximum flavour, using the flat of a kitchen knife.

He cuts the peppers into half-inch squares; the aubergines into three- quarter-inch pieces (bigger pieces because they shrink to half an inch in the cooking, he says); the courgette goes into quarter-inch discs (this way they show off their whiteness to best advantage). He prepares a bouquet garni, tying a sprig of thyme, two inches of celery, a bay leaf, rosemary in the green of a leek.

Now for the cooking. We move to the blasted heat of the range. He pours a little olive oil into a heavy-bottomed pan, and on a medium heat he sweats the onions (10 to 15 minutes, until soft but not coloured). Then he stirs in the garlic and the tomato paste. Tomato paste, explains Chef Gayler, contains oil and it's necessary to mix it in now. In go the tomatoes, with the bouquet garni, and they're left to simmer 15 minutes, to "cook out", as chefs put it. This your tomato fondue (see recipe below).

In another pan he cooks the aubergines, using groundnut oil this time (vegetable oil is just as good, but olive oil leaves a bitter taste in food if it's raised to too high a temperature). He sweats them on a medium heat till they're tender and turning very slightly golden. Then the aubergines go into a colander to drain off the surplus oil. A lot.

He sweats the peppers. He briefly sweats the courgettes. Beads of perspiration run down Paul Gayler's face. He is sweating. I am sweating.

Now each vegetable has reached the point of perfection. In a large bowl he tosses the mixture using a wooden spoon, careful to avoid crushing the vegetables. He adds for the first time the seasoning: salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar. "With every tomato dish I always add a pinch of sugar to offset acidity."

It's time to finish it. He turns the mixture into an earthenware container, prodding in the bouquet garni, covers it with a lid (and seals it with foil) and bakes it in a pre-heated oven at 375F/190C/Gas 5 for 10 minutes.

Now it's ready. Chef Gayler lifts off the lid to release a wonderful aroma. The vegetables are glistening on a red sea of tomato... (etc, etc). Now for a special chef's trick, taught to him by M. Fougere. In a small pan he puts a little virgin olive oil, some of the crushed garlic and the torn basil leaves, and in perhaps 20 seconds all the flavours are released. No sweat. He carefully stirs the mixture into the ratatouille.

It's done. Eat now, hot, or later, cold, or tomorrow, re-heated. It is a very forgiving dish. Have it as main course or as a side dish. Serve it hot, with a poached egg on top, or cold, with ricotta cheese.

And now, using the principles involved, by pre-cooking items separately, you may feel able to assemble your own exotic creations, When you're adding the garlic, for example, you might add some grated ginger, even some pounded green chilli to give it an oriental spin. You have made a Thai ratatouille.

You could vary the vegetables, introducing, say, okra and small cubes of pumpkin. If you wanted to go all the way with Paul Gayler you'd serve it in a baked pumpkin shell. And you'd have made his Creole ratatouille. Come on, now, it's not so daft, is it?

RATATOUILLE Serves 4 as a main course

1 onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, mashed with a pinch of salt

750g/l12lbs ripe tomatoes, or two cans

12 tablespoon tomato paste

350g/34lb aubergine, cut in 34in pieces

2 red peppers and 1 green pepper, cored and cut into 12in squares

1 courgette, cut in 14in discs

2-3 tablespoons groundnut (or vegetable) oil

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons basil, chopped

12 teaspoon sugar

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 bouquet garni - celery, thyme, rosemary, bayleaf (and oregano and basil if possible) rolled in the green of a leek and tied together

In a heavy-bottomed pan make the tomato fondue. Cook the onion in the olive oil till soft, but not browned, for 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in half the garlic, then the tomato paste, and then the tomatoes with the bouquet garni. Simmer gently for 15 minutes, stirring carefully.

In another pan, pour in two or three tablespoons of groundnut (or vegetable) oil and cook the aubergine until it is tender and slightly golden. Drain in a colander.

Cook the peppers in the vegetable oil until they are tender, but not browned. Remove with a slotted spoon. In the same pan, cook the courgettes briefly.

Combine all the ingredients with the tomato fondue and bouquet garni in a lidded casserole (or covered with foil) and bake in a preheated oven at 375F/190C/Gas 5 for 10 minutes.

In a small pan, heat a little olive oil, the rest of the garlic and the basil leaves, and incorporate this into the finished ratatouille. Adjust the seasoning and serve. !

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