Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Crafty Chef, Painter and Performer
Alison Holliday
January 20, 2009
OSPParis21 Response #1

During my cooking class at Carte Blanche this past weekend, I was not artistic at all. However, the chef, Jean-Francois Renard, with whom I made a five-course Thai feast, was one of the most intense, hard-working, brilliant, and versatile French artists I have ever met. Not only is he one of the most famous chefs in Paris, he is also a painter, a dancer, and a musician.

When we arrived, artist Jean-Francois immediately threw his smock on. “I am ready to create,” he said to me as he washed his hands, so as not to dirty his creations. Each day in the restaurant, he creates masterpieces based on whatever his mood inspires him to craft. This weekend, he was in the mood for a meaty, spicy, flavorful Thai dinner, so that is just what he created. Like all knowledgeable artists, he is also inspired by the things he has seen (in this case, he had seen and was inspired by Thailand), and he studies hard and learns from other artists who have come close to perfecting the required skill: how to peel the shrimp properly, for example, or what types of flavors taste delicious together. Of course, since the art of cooking involves much creativity, Jean-Francois added his own flair to traditional Thai cuisine and created these recipes himself.

His studio was completely set up before he began creating. It appeared chaotic, yet all instruments were in their places. There were corners designated to cleaning the utensils, fridges everywhere to store the ingredients, cups to place dirty silverware in, cooking tools hanging on one wall. The artist’s notes to himself in permanent marker on white marble covered the walls: what ingredients to mix, to buy, to measure. There were cleaning mats under each cutting board in order to clean up the mess in between preparing different courses (the chef would not want to unintentionally mix different flavors) as well as to hold the cutting board in place on the otherwise smooth and slippery surface.

The kitchen was spotless, and, like a white canvas, was about to be covered in colors. All of the colors were displayed in front of the chef: French-flag-green and -red peppers, pure white rice, light lime lemongrass, pale blond lemons, burgundy pork, the spectrum of greens in the broccoli, transparent squids, a reddish-purple beef, vibrant yellow pineapple, pearl-colored garlic, orange oranges, light-brown ginger, red and brown marble crabs, mustard yellow mangoes, and more. Jean-Francois was ready to mix some colorful flavors to create new ones, and he also wanted to some stand out more than others.

As in many successful pieces of artwork, preparation for the masterpiece can be essential to the piece’s success. Jean-Francois, for example, had to prepare the special Thai rice 24 hours before I arrived in order to refrigerate it long enough so that he could mold it more easily and thus present it in a prettier way on the plate.

There was a technique to everything that Jean-Francois did. He was a master; I was a struggling amateur without any technical skills. He knew to flip the pepper over to its softer side in order to cut it more easily. He cut using his right hand quickly, evenly, and safely, holding his left pointer finger against the knife to avoid injury while pushing the food to the right with his left thumb. This was the technique necessary to obtain the thinnest and most even pieces of food. While I spent about 15 minutes peeling one pepper, Jean-Francois peeled one in about 15 seconds, knowing just where to hold his fingers so as to shape the pepper smoothly, safely and quickly. I could not cut the lemongrass into two pieces, so Jean-Francois came and helped me, knowing just how to hold the knife in order to slice it in one clean stroke. He knew the trick to washing his hands, something that I struggled with for a few minutes. I had not realized that you have to use your right thigh in order to push on the water so that you stay as sanitary as possible. The skilled and experienced artist even knew to remove the fat from the meat in order to please the audience’s taste more. As I struggled, Jean-Francois explained to me that the art of cooking is mastered with a lot of practice (and a certain level of inherent skill, of course).

My favorite part of the lesson was when I realized that the chef was dancing. He cut up the vegetables and meats through dancing with his hands: move the knife down with the fingers, bend the wrist, extend forward and up, and repeat. While creating the soup and rice and noodle dish all at once, he soared quickly and smoothly in a constant rhythm, gliding from one side of the kitchen to the other in order to make sure that the dishes were ready and hot at the same time.

As he danced from side to side, there was music in the background. Assistant chefs threw the wok at a constant beat while the others in the room loudly chopped the peppers, cracked the eggs, graded the orange peel, and sharpened the metal knives with brittle stones. When Jean-Francois did any of the above tasks, he did so in a constant beat. The amateur assistant chefs, however, created noises that were a bit more disjointed, but music, nonetheless.
One of the great things about cooking is that, as in art, if you make a mistake, you cannot exactly start over, but you make do with what you have and rearrange. Jean-Francois cut one piece of meat too small, but then he made all of the pieces that small so that they matched in flavor and appearance.

Jean-Francois blended whatever ingredients, whatever colors, he wanted to blend together. He put each ingredient in at a certain time and for a certain duration. The artwork he created was very deliberately constructed. For example, he needed to wait 15 minutes before adding water to the peanut oil, crab, lemongrass, coriander, graded orange peels, and ginger, because he wanted the smell and taste of the mixed ingredients to be strong.

He kept working diligently on his creation, evaluating it with his taste buds, and improving it until finally he was satisfied.

And then, of course, came the final presentation, the masterpiece’s frame that, according to Jean-Francois, is extremely important. The food must be aesthetically pleasing. To accomplish this goal, Jean-Francois put a carved-out pineapple in the oven to make it dry enough to use as a dish for the rice. We ate from dark brown square plates and round bowls that contrasted beautifully with the vibrant colorful food dishes. We ate with wooden chopsticks from Thailand, and the artworks surrounding us in the restaurant were from Asian countries as well; as such, the meal seemed very authentic and delicious.

I was awestruck by Jean-Francois’ talent; he told me that Americans often tell him he “must be from outer space” because his creations are so extraordinary. He also admitted that he feels like a painter, because he can just create, and when someone asks him how he does it, he cannot explain.

Jean-Francois sat anxiously awaiting the critic’s review. “J’aime beaucoup!” I exclaimed, and he was pleased, as any appreciated artist would be.

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