Food: The labours of love

Simon Hopkinson appraises the culinary delights of this year's best young chef
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Stephen Love loves cooking. He is in love with learning too. His wife must also love him very much indeed, to allow him to spend three months away from home, away from his five year old girl, to work [toil, more like] in currently, one of the finest kitchens in the world - and, reputedly, on e of the very, very toughest.

Young chef Stephen won the Roux Diners Club Scholarship last year, on the eve of his 28th birthday. Not surprisingly, he loved winnin g that too! Amongst a cash reward of pounds 1500, an opportunity to join the culinary team on a luxyry cruiser in the Caribbean, and two magnums of vintage and reserve Champagnes, the most significant prize is the chance to work in any three star Michelin establishment anywhere in Europe - this also to include all travel and accommodation expenses. Good eh?

I have been a judge for several years on this extremely well organised and professional annual event and have mentioned my involvement once before on these pages. It is an hourable role for me, not simply for the pleasure in having been asked to do it - which I not only undertake with respect for the brothers Albert and Michel themselves - but also with much humility.

These young and eager chefs who enter such competition s do so with a courage and conviction, youth and exuberance, that I, in my wildest moments of bravery could never have even considered [I was always useless, terrified and gibbering heap at any sort of examination or competition]. But then, when the lucky winner has finallyh come out the other side victorious, he happily zooms off to work in a restaurant of terrifyin gly magnificent proportions, the tops, the dizzy peaks, the pointy starred zenith of all things gastronomic. Alain Ducasse in Paris. Rather you than me, Gunga Dhin. Bravo! mon brave.

About three weeks ago, Michel Roux, myself and others of like minded cur iosity, took a day trip Eurostar to go and see how young Stephen was getting on in the posh 16th, a stone's throw from the place Victor Hugo. We also were to have lunch. Well...one must eat.

For those of you in the know, the restaurant Alain Ducasse [only the very finest French restaurants are so eponymously titled] was once the domain of the most famous French chef in the known world, Joel Robuchon. My friend and co-author Lindsey Bareham [who also Euro-starred with us] and I once snuffled our way through a six-course Robuchon menu here devoted to the Perigoro truffle. It was a magnificent tour-de-force, but might be likened to watching six programmes of Shooting Stars one after another: brilliant but one would be a tad weary by the time Vic's final `Ovavo' was delivered.

With Robuchon retired [at age 50 last year, as he promised], Alain Ducasse leapt at the chance to take over this truffle spattered townhouse, albeit still running the restaurant Louix XV at the Hotel de Paris, in Monte Carlo. And runing between the two seems to certainly be just fine, judging by the lunch we took 4 hours to consume in the salon prive, with its trompe l'oeil bookcases and mock candles, which not onlyh pretend to flicker, but they wobble and oscillate too. Only the grandest eponymous French restaurants have imitation candles that can do this. And only they too, - and I really do mean this - can produce as magnificent a lunch as the one we ate that day.

As an ameuse-bouche, we were served a tiny demi-tasse shaped cup of rich shellfish bisque. It held a truffly lobster mousse in its depths that floated and dissolved on its way to the surface, once loosened by a teaspoon . A lump of lobster claw and a piece of langoustine meat swam under a raft of sliced raw cept, that quietly released its perfume once submerged into the soup's waning heat. It was not surprisingly, very good indeed. And for once, instead of the usual borrowings from the coffee service, it was a real cup, meant to contain such a thing, for there were two handles.

That is one hundred and five words to describe a nibble.

A la Financiere is the description to denote that cock's combs and cock's kidneys are to appear within a dish, according to Larrouse. During the verbal description by the head waiter, I most definitely heard him refer to the `kidney' as a `rognon blanc.'

Now I happen to know that this is the polite way of saying `balls' in French. Just thought I ought to clear that one up, so that you'll know next time you invest in the finance dish. Traditionally, sweetbreads and truffle should also get a look-in too, and here was no exception.

The vehicle of this second dish was some extremely good pasta. These were three small disks, rolled up into the thinnest cannelloni - for want of a more precise description. These were literally bathed with an unctuous lotion of cream and truffle, that made up a sauce of the utmost finesse. It was gloriously rich too, but matched the ingredients to a tee. The balls - or rather ball - needed searching for [miner was hidden under the comb], but once located, burst satisfactorily in the mouth and tasted deeply cocky. Well, I suppose it would, wouldn't it. The comb had an interesting texture; sort of chewy, but any taste [I actually don't think it really has any] was engulfed by the intensity of the sauce. Monsieur Roux - who knows about these things - told me that they take a long time to cook. The texture, now I come to think about it just now, reminds me of jellyfish cooked in the Chinese style - sort of chammy leatherish yet crunchy - which I love. The only curious adornment was a couple of thin slices of briefly broiled lobster tail, that were laid over the dish. They seemed to act as gate crashers, adding nothing to the dish. I quickly ate mine, effectively ejecting the unwanted from the proceedings. Some of their juices had already seeped into the dish, however, and this seemed no bad thing; apart, perhaps, from reminding one a little of the previous cup-a-soup.

The superlative darne of Brittany turbot that appeared next was as marvellous a fish dish as any I have ever had the pleasure of eating. I mean really. It was just fantastically good. God, was it good! This turbot lozengs reclined upon the tiniest cuttlefish [supions? ], or were they squid? Whatever, this cephalopod cluster were the size of fingernails. Truly in attendance too, were several small prawns known as `Bouquet'. Maybe they were `Bouquet Royale', which are the best `Bouquet' you can find - in the prawn world that is. The lightest of buttery prawn juices had been emulsified to make a sauce, tasting so sweet and fragrantly infused by many shells, that it almost made me cross to think that someone can cook this well.

The menu in all its purposeful simplicity of description, begins to describe the following dish as - almost lamely - Lard Paysan : Bacon cooked in the peasant style - it surely cannot mean anything else. But on the following line, it then goes on to say...'croustillant aux pommes de terre caramellisees, tete de porc en salade d'herbes ameres truffee'. There had been other, further explanations as to the garnish or embellishments to previous dishes. For example, the echt description of Turbot de Bretagne also followed on to let you know about the accompanying prawns and their emulsion [although it did not mention the infant cephalopods], but it most definitely was a singular dish.

The peasant's bacon, however, when it finally appeared, was, most definitely, a duet. Even I was quite full, which is rare, but bravely soldiered on to see further magic from this kitchen before the cheese [affines pour nous] trundled throughn on its chariot.

Once more, a remarkable example of how a great and intelligent French chef just simply knows and understands how to do this cooking thing. The tete de porc salad part arrived first, as a small place containing a few rocket leaves. Over these in turn, were laid some meltingly tender pork cheek and muzzle [snout to be directly accurate], that had been cooked and pressed together, and then sliced wafer thin. The ears, with their deeply satisfyingly cartilaginous crunch within floppy soft skin, were similarly sliced into ribbon-like strips and draped on top. The lightest of dressings had truffle in it, and was masterly.

Half way through this impeccable salad, the Lard Paysan itself appeared in great oval dishes. Oh Lordy, what a sight! The skin was crisp and the colour of rusty nails, the potatoes similarly corroded and cut into thick diamond shaped lozenges. These lucky tubers had soaked up fat from the pork as they braised transforming them into the most fondant pieces of goodness imaginable. Natural juices that had mingled with gorgeous grease was the only lubrication - as far as any `sauce' was concerned. And I hope my request for mustard did not ujjpset the frantic kitchen too much; `Qu'est-ce que c'est cette connerie!! is possibly one phrase that comes to mind.

Cheese was groaningly wheeled in [both the trolley and us] and, once more, confirmed that this is always, by far, the best value course in a three star establishment, even though it may usually cost the equivalent of 10 or 12 of our English pounds. In fact, I have often been tempted to lunch in a three star and eat [a lot of] just that, accompanied by a rare bottle of old red Burgundy; there is simply never enough room left to do the array of tip-top lactic perfection anyway near enough justice.

Crauelin Nougatine et Chocolat - moulleux et croquant was the final assault on the tummy. This transpired to be the lightest of chocolate mousse-cake confections, crusted with a frosting nougatine [nutty caramel] and melted chocolate too. To clog up any arteries that were still empty, a perfectly moulded spoon of caramel ice rested attendant, secured by a gravelly spoonful of more nougatine so that it would not spin around the plate. Now there's a practical tip for the tgerminally neat cook.

Coffee of course, was very good; the petit fours all they should be in a place such as this. However, little chocolate bars - the size and shape of a diminutive caramel wafer by Gray-Dunn - were of such utter brilliance they left me speechless.

Well, Stephen, if you managed to be inspired by seeing this tour de force cooked, as much as I did by eating it, then your sojourn would have been worth it just for that. As it was, I came away almost terrified by the quality.

I think there may have been a few moments where young Mr Love might have been terrified too, whilst dashing about demented in the upstairs kitchen Monsieur Ducasse's head chef is, I understand, a hard taskmaster who expects only the very, very hardest toil from his workers. A day for Stephen usually lasts about seventeen hours - "Sometimes eighteen" he wearily smiles. A fair chunk of that is set aside for cleaning. Judging by the operating theatre sanitariness of the kitchen [I had a quick decko soon after lunch], this must take some time [finishing at 1.30 in the morning sometimes, according to Stephen]. Well he does have all the weekend off to recover [so too does a Bromley secretary] - even though he admitted to not waking up until 5.00 pm on one particular Saturday.

Yes, this is a tough and hard business when you attend this level of dedication, professionalism and skill, combined with the discipline that may seem similar to public school and the armed forces rolled into one. But I think Stephen probably knew that before he left for Paris. After all, at 28, he is already a sous-chef at a renowned hotel in the Midlands, and his skilful cooking and intelligence won him the chance to go here in the first place. I am sure he will come home with much to his advantage once he returns to his own stoves, and, perhaps, not without having obliquely attained a modicum of kindliness and respect, when it comes to working his own team of keen young chefs in the future.

To apply for an entry form for the forthcoming Roux Diners Club Scholarship 1998, which are now available, please telephone 0181 940 4144]

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