Ketchup and chips <i>à la carte</i>

The wife of a celebrated pastry chef has caused uproar in France with her guide to home-cooked junk food.
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When Frédérick Grasser-Hermé came upon Michelin superchef Alain Ducasse masticating over a box of Chicken McNuggets in his Paris kitchen, he was embarrassed; she was inspired. The result, Délice d'Initiés, is France's most revolutionary cookbook since Brillat-Savarin published his Physiologie du Goût in 1825. And it's selling like Hot Mr Kiplings.

The state-of-the-art encyclopaedia champions the concept of easy-everything: home-cooked junk food that has a built-in comfort factor because you know you really made it yourself. It's Blue Peter grown up and left home. Sick to death of Mum's soggy dinners, he craves a thick slice of chocolate mayonnaise cake (p121). It's quick, chic cuisine for the working woman (or man), using supermarket mass-produced products such as Uncle Ben's, Maggi, Buitoni and Heinz. Follow Mme Grasset-Hermé's directions and a tin of Marie Elizabeth sardines becomes regal; corned beef is fit for a king. And, of course, you bake your own bread - it only takes 10 minutes in a SEB pressure cooker.

"Everything is hyper-bio-this, organic-that," complains Mme Hermé. "It's the little industrial pleasures, eaten in hiding, that are so satisfying. Let's be honest, everyone gets off on Nutella, Coca-Cola, Mars and McDonald's - everyone craves for what's bad for them!"

Because Mme Grasser-Hermé has a Vuitton address book to die for, she called up her best friend, Alain Ducasse, who rose to the challenge like one of his seven-star souffles. "How original and refreshing," he sighs. "Frédérick wants to glorify tins and packets in kitchen cupboards everywhere; her book plunges us into a wacky world of international tastes and flavours. It's the future." Ducasse freely admits to snacking on La Vache Qui Rit cheese, Heinz Ketchup, tinned sardines and packet spaghetti.

"I decided to produce the recipes around 32 products and mythical objects from France, England, Italy, Denmark and America," explains Mme Grasser-Hermé. "I wanted to shake up the chefs, yelling 'transform your archaic kitchens into laboratories of the new millennium - robot yourself - go on, you know you want to. Why shouldn't we mix vacuum-packed with fresh, or frozen foods with bio-products?"

She believes that cooks should, by now, be ordering their ingredients on the net, via the screenfridge. "Let the computer do your thinking," she suggests. "All kitchen equipment will soon have voice recognition. Fridge: open sesame; oven: light yourself; washing machine: go," she cries, like a Don Quixote of the kitchens.

Not everybody was as ecstatic as Alain Ducasse about Délice. There was almost mutiny in his laboratory kitchens, which he opened up to Mme Grasser-Hermé, fascinated to see and taste her creations. "His cooks thought the chef had gone nuts to let this crazy woman into his kitchen," she recalls. "But Ducasse is curious and provocative, he likes a challenge. Once the doubting Thomases tasted the results they became more enthusiastic." They had to if they wanted to keep their jobs - some of the recipes feature in Ducasse's restaurants: Lustucru pasta with black truffles and white ham (served at Relais du Parc in Paris) and le glace au Malabar (served at Spoon in Paris). In the Var, Reine Sammut (two Michelin stars) is serving Caprice des Dieux truffés - "C'est divin," she says. Other top chefs became fascinated with the project, especially Frédérick's husband, Pierre Hermé, France's top patisserie pundit - this big boulanger is the man they refer to as the Dior of Desserts. Either he's afraid of the missus or he really rates her crÿme glaceé au camembert, served daily in his New York and Tokyo establishments. So is the strawberry Tagada, chantilly cream cake and the warm Nutella tart. "Pierre tasted all the sweets and Alain Ducasse tested most of the savouries," smiles Mme Grasser-Hermé, smugly.

Each product is analysed and a brief history given. Nutella, for example, was created in 1946 by an Italian, Pietro Ferraro, for a neighbourhood party. It now shifts 130 pots a minute in France. Mme Grasser-Hermé interviewed "Chloe D", a self-confessed Nutella-maniac, who puts the author right on a few points. "First," advises Chloe, "forget taking dainty little tastes with a teaspoon. Twirl a soup spoon in the pot and turn it sensuously - that way you get the measure of the pot - most important. And, it is absolutely fundamental: never put Nutella in the fridge - it must be molten, unctuous, liquid, to coat the palate, titillate the taste buds." Chloe has noticed that the texture changes abroad - "the German tastes different to the French". Since the factory opened in Rouen in 1960, 900 million pots have found their way into le French shopping baskets and, in 1995, the Louvre dedicated an exhibition to "Generation Nutella".

"Experiment," advises Mme Grasser-Hermé. Cook Chicken au Coca-Cola (see opposite) but don't tell your guests about the Coca-Cola. They'll never guess - they'll say mmm, there's a taste of sweet and sour, but never guess what it is. In fact it's abominablement bon," she promises. This year Mme Grasser-Hermé predicts a boom in sardines, "available everywhere - even if you don't want to prepare them Ducasse's favourite way - with mashed potatoes - start collecting the gorgeous tins, they'll be valuable one day."

The daughter of the Baronne de Rochebelle, Mme Gasser-Hermé rejected her mother's milk in favour of Cow and Gate and, as a small child, was hooked on pots of Blédina baby food, aniseed lollypops and raspberry jam. "I detested real food until the age of 30, when I met Alain Ducasse. He was working in a restaurant near Cannes and I was in town for the Film Festival." Like a woman possessed, Mme Grasser-Hermé ate chez Ducasse every day, accompanied him to the Marché Forville (Canne's answer to Covent Garden) and "observed, tasted and learned. There is a time in every woman's life when she wants to cook and make a home, it's called doing what comes naturally."

'Délicés d'Initiés' by Frédérick Grasser-Hermé published by Editions Noesis, 30 rue de Char-onne, 75011 Paris (tel: 01 49 29 74 20)

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