Food and Drink: Celebrity chefs should stay at home

MANY YEARS ago, when professional cooking was an honourable trade, Emile, a rather louche, slightly cross-eyed chef with a Gauloise dangling from his mouth, would take a break from his labours. Sometimes this came about because he wanted a change of weather (damp springs, a late snow, the melancholy of autumn), sometimes because he wanted to go fishing. And very occasionally these brief migrations included l'amour.

As he was not rich and had cousins he could stay with (also cooks), and as Montelimar was not Saumur, he would be tempted to exercise his trade while on holiday. He did this as a matter of course. He had a certain curiosity: there were new ingredients; the customers had different habits; the ambience in the kitchens was subtly other.

After a few weeks he returned home: to his wife, bent over her cash register as usual, his pestiferous son (who had new- fangled ideas about cooking) and the testy bachelor notary who ate his lunch daily at the same table. Cooking was what Emile (not his real name) did for a living. His little town had a man who delivered letters, another who said Mass and so on. He was a cook. Voila.

Now to the point.

The other day, a dear friend invited me to a gastronomical dinner at a fine hotel, one so good that the president of France commandeered it on one of his brief excursions abroad. I had heard of this dinner on the wireless for a week before receiving my invitation. It was advertised in the kind of hushed tones we devote these days to grande cuisine. Only a few of us, only the most connoisseurish among us, were to be privileged to enjoy a visiting chef's 'selections for his spring menu'.

The chef in question, Marc Haeberlin (ably assisted by Andre Chouvin), of the Auberge de l'Ill in Illhaeusern, equidistant between Strasbourg and Belfort and thus much favoured by visiting Germans and Swiss, is a member of a family that has held its three Michelin stars for many years. He had graced our hotel the year before and done handsomely by his guests. Or so I am told.

I can only vouch that this year's meal was something less than a triumph, and my point is that this sort of gastronomical event - in which I with my deadly eye spy yet another form of the faux-chic that afflicts contemporary gastronomy - is by its nature spurious. The travelling star chef is a by-product of our glamourisation of a perfectly ordinary profession ('trade', my mother would have said). And my view is that, if you take a chef away from his familiar surrounds, from the unseen and unsung staff who sweat away in his kitchens, from the customers who know his menu and demand the best, from the suppliers and ingredients on which his efforts are spent, you are asking for trouble.

But there was worse. Star chefs do not come cheaply these days, and a hotelier anxious to 'animate' (that wonderfully loose French concept) his restaurant will have to pay a pretty price. In this case an excessive one, for the meal was literally hijacked by what I would call a blatant promotion: of the wines of the Trimbachs of Alsace.

Say what you want about Alsatian wines, my view is that a little goes a long way, and that to 'compose' a meal in order to offer a commercial for someone's wine is to defeat the purpose of eating. If you work your way through a meal that is (moderately) 'nouvelle' - a foie gras in vegetable aspic, a splendid but meagre oblong of sturgeon, squab, and pears in filo pastry - while being drowned in a succession of not very fine wines, all of them high in acidity, all but one white, you are going to have a headache plus indigestion the next day: especially if you cannot choose what you want to eat and you have to wait (drinking) nearly a half- hour between courses.

There is no gainsaying that Mr Haeberlin and Mr Chouvin are fine cooks. Individual parts of the meal were excellent (though I do not appreciate so much salt in a boudin de foie gras, which should be on the sweetish side), but its composition left much to be desired.

You see, Emile and I have this antiquated concept that a meal is a whole and that, like a gastronomical essay, it has a beginning, a middle and an end, the parts enhancing the whole. If so, why send your diners in cold? You have put away a few glasses, you have heard speeches, you have applauded the staff (before eating, a fatal mistake]), you sit down and what have you got: a wonderful and artful little slab of tarted up foie gras. (That gives the star time to do his cooking, right?) When fish arrives you are relieved, and it was excellent. But then, why serve a meat course and a pudding both in pastry?

No, avoid these occasions. Skip the animation. Visit Mr Haeberlin chez lui. And please, could we recognise that cooks are just cooks? Nice people plying an honest trade? It is the media that batten on the celebrity they create.

Good eaters will remain sceptical. Emile just did his stuff. He did not have Trimbach on his back. And he was not promoting a thing.