The cooks, the prize, the duchess and her supper

What happened when the seven best chefs in the world got together for a masterchef deluxe, watched by Fergie and a roomful of glitzy foodies? John Walsh put on his black tie and found that in this competition, it's all in the best possible taste
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The Nobel Prize – until last Thursday, the only global prize in existence – celebrates a significant breakthrough for a lifetime's achievement in six categories: literature, physics, chemistry, economics, medicine-or-physiology, and the promotion of world peace. How in God's name did they miss out cooking? Shouldn't there be a Nobel Prize for Haute Cuisine?

The Nobel Prize – until last Thursday, the only global prize in existence – celebrates a significant breakthrough for a lifetime's achievement in six categories: literature, physics, chemistry, economics, medicine-or-physiology, and the promotion of world peace. How in God's name did they miss out cooking? Shouldn't there be a Nobel Prize for Haute Cuisine?

In terms of global fame and réclame, gastronomy counts for far more than any piffling innovations in cancer research or genetic experiment. A century ago, cooks were hardly more elevated than housekeepers and footmen below stairs; now they're part of the worldwide New Courtier industry, in which shoemakers (such as Manolo Blahnik) and hat designers (such as Philip Treacy) become more celebrated and lauded than any of their extravagant clients. Since the advent of Marco Pierre White, chefs have mutated into edgy, passionate visionaries, their kitchens gleaming shrines to the alchemy of sauce and binding agent, their customers a congregation of cowed and grateful communicants. The chef has shifted identity: once the bloke who chopped vegetables, grilled meat and make cakes, he's now a combination of Henri Matisse and Jesus Christ.

While we're waiting for the Nobel committee to see sense, Wedgwood, the 243-year-old British pottery company, has stepped in and shown the way. Nine months ago, it set up the first World Master of Culinary Arts prize (WMCA), to find the most accomplished impresario of food and drink on Planet Earth and give him a huge, engraved cut-glass vase (the company owns Waterford Crystal) in front of a crowd of his peers. Last week, they found their first, world-conquering winner.

Wedgwood has had some practice at gong-distribution. For six years it has overseen the Chef and Potter awards for young and up-and-coming chefs. The WMCA prize (the initials are a shade too close to Village People for comfort) is for established reputations. An initial trawl of talent in seven countries where Wedgwood has a strong export presence, resulted in seven national finalists vying for the top prize. Presiding over the judges is Roy Ackermann, a noble figure in restaurant land (he used to own L'Etoile and The Gay Hussar in Soho) with his King Lear storm-damaged beard and his air of a veteran jazz trumpeter looking for a basement to play in. He took his 10-strong Grand Jury all over the world, to Japan and Hong Kong and Australia, as well as to Europe and America. In January, the representative for the UK and Ireland was chosen by a jury that included Nigella Lawson and Rick Stein: the winner, announced at the Savoy, was Raymond Blanc, of the legendary Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Oxfordshire. M Blanc is a deracinated Frenchman but, as Rick Stein pointed out at the awards, "he's been cooking in England for 30 years, and he's managed to give the British people the feeling that 'our' food is all right".

The first Chef Oscars, as the award will presumably become known, were held at the Intercontinental Hotel, Paris. It was quite a do. Two hundred tuxedoed and pashmina'd gastronomes milled about the great white atrium, holding cut-crystal goblets the size of ice buckets. Ruritanianly uniformed trumpeters blew baffling fanfares. A black crooner from Manchester prowled the crowd, singing "I've Got you Under my Skin" into a microphone with heart-breaking sincerity. Delegates attending the hotel's other big event, the International Forum on Severe Fungal Infections, looked on enviously. Lord Piers Wedgwood, the raffishly long-haired descendant of Josiah (and the company's freewheeling, one-man global sales force), beamed like God the Father. A large Japanese contingent included a beautiful trophy wife whose dress was accessorised, front and back, with what seemed to be lacquer hat-boxes tied round her waist with bailing-twine.

I ran into Neil Perry, from the Rockpool in Sydney, the only five-star restaurant I know where they put a bib round your neck in case you make a mess with your crab claws. He was studiedly semi-formal in a suit and black silk T-shirt, his hair yanked back in a pony tail. What was his signature dish? "That would have to be the squid-ink. I do some pasta with squid ink, chilli and this smoked ham we get from south Australia". ( That's a signature dish?)

Raymond Blanc, small and dark and looking increasingly like the young Dudley Moore, brought along his mother and father, his son Olivier (who directs The Bill) and his dreamboat journalist girlfriend, Amanda. Women hacks, some of whom had spent the press briefing in the hair salons of the Rue de la Paix, huddled and bitched about the odder frocks on display.

In the middle of the action was the Duchess of York, a slenderised version of her old self in a black cocktail dress with a pronounced décolletage. Wedgwood took her on three years ago as an "ambassador" to raise the profile of the brand in America; now it plans to have her promote its black jasper teapots in Australia, China and Malaysia, insisting on their 100 per cent Britishness. As ambassadors go, the Duchess went like a sprinter. She worked the crowd like an auburn prestigiator, keeping 100 conversational plates spinning.

I grabbed her for a minute. How did she square being a "public face" for Weight Watchers with being the girl who noshed through banquets of the finest (and richest) food that human ingenuity could serve up at the Chef Oscars? "It's no problem," she said equably. "Weight Watchers say you can eat whatever you like, so long as you know what you're eating and count your points. So I know just how much I'm allowed to eat this evening."

I've tried the Weight Watchers points system myself. The highest-scoring (ie bad-for-you) dishes were Indian takeaways. Did she avoid them?

"It's easy to avoid them," said the Duchess, "because I've never actually been to an Indian restaurant." What, never? "It's not that I dislike the food, just that nobody's ever thought to ask..."

Before I could make her swoon with the offer of a two-course special at the Veeraswami, she was whisked away by Kate, her minder.

Inside the Salon Imperiale, with its elaborate rococo ceiling corner-pieces filled with reclining Nereids, we ate slabs of Scottish salmon in marbled aspic, artichoke and chanterelle lasagne topped with a single fat scampi (scampus?), and crusted Aveyron lamb in a fine chemise of filo pastry. It was OK. An exhibition of ballroom dancing sent bodies hurtling across the floor under the massive chandeliers, each the size of the alien mother-ship at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Then the seven shortlisted Top Chefs of the World took to the stage, in their professional kitchen whites, as the winner was announced. It was Thomas Keller, the American entrant, whose Napa Valley restaurant, the French Laundry, had sent the Grand Jury into unanimous raptures.

"At a certain level of cooking, there's really little to choose between the absolutely top-range chefs," said Richard Shepherd, late of Langan's Bistro and one of the Grand Jury. "The difference between the winner and the losers in this competition is probably a difference of mental attitude. None of the judges who dined at the French Laundry, and experienced that combination of the food, the mood, the atmosphere and the people, thought it was anything but truly exceptional."

The winning Mr Keller, 46, modestly described his own cooking as "contemporary American, based on classic French cuisine". He refuses to call it "classic with a twist". He hates the word "fusion". He is a rare example of a self-taught traditionalist. "No, I had no formal training," he admitted. "I grew up in Florida; I worked in restaurants in New York and Rhode Island. I just believed in the integrity of classic French dishes, which we deconstruct, then reconstruct." Such as? "Take Sole Veronique. It's traditionally poached in white wine with grapes, but we experiment with raisins..."

It didn't seem, I said, a very radical department. Mr Keller bridled at the suggestion that he was expected to be revolutionary. He doesn't, he said, go around inventing dishes.

"For all of us working in the restaurant," he said gnomically, "it's an everyday experience, cooking to this extremely high level," he said. "You don't rush things. It's like watching a child growing."

Meanwhile, back in the dining-room, strong passions had begun to emerge. Neil Perry, the pony-tailed Australian, was reported to be livid. Not only had he not won, he'd spent a packet coming to Paris from London, and they'd put him on a lowly table, miles from the stage action.

Also – "The French left early," someone hissed in my ear. "Furious apparently. They didn't announce their national winner in January, like the others, because they knew they must surely win the main prize. That's why they waited until tonight. They said they didn't want to spoil the awards by removing the element of surprise. Tee hee."

Goodness, the perfidy of these Gauls. By the time the dancing started, the air in the Salon Imperiale was thickening nicely with national rivalry and professional bile. Would the French papers say, next morning: "Frenchman wins Best French Chef Award" and ignore the big prize? It seemed likely. What, after all, would be the point of a gastronomic Oscar ceremony without a pugnacious Russell Crowe and a lot of bitching in the press?

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