A cooking demonstration being filmed at the Omnivore Food Festival.
Perhaps it’s a sign of my philistinism when it comes to architecture, but I was surprised to learn that Le Havre has Unesco World Heritage Site status. It was bombed flat during WWII, leaving 80,000 people homeless, according to Wikipedia, and rebuilt from 1945 to 1964 by Auguste Perret, a Belgian-born architect with a thing about reinforced concrete who, according to one source, “effectively blended modern themes with Gothic form.” Unrelentingly dreary and gray it is, however, and, unless you’re an architecture buff, you wouldn’t want to go there.
Unless you’re a food buff, that is, because Le Havre is where the second Omnivore Food Festival was held on Feb. 12 and 13 in the huge warehouses along the port, empty now that Le Havre is being outshone by Rotterdam.
The acronym “OFF” is not the most fitting word to use when it comes to food, but it’s typical of the way the young bloods running Omnivore spice up their utterances with English words and phrases. The festival also included a lively wine show called Divinomnivore, attended by around a hundred producers of natural tipples, and a trade fair for restaurant professionals, Expomnivore.
Omnivore Food Festival is a good description of the event, however: “Omnivore” evokes the boundless curiosity about food of its creators, “Food” (yes!) speaks for itself, and “Festival” is exactly what it is: a two-day food party with chef after chef getting up on stage to strut his stuff during a 40-minute stint in front of the cameras and a fascinated audience of mostly food professionals. Each chef puts together up to three dishes during that time, while manfully coping with a TV-style presenter’s relentless, inane gastro-babble.
Unfortunately, “manfully” is the correct word. I would have preferred the more politically correct “personfully,” but of the 26 chefs lined up for the demonstrations, only one was a woman: Anne Sophie Pic, who runs the kitchen in the legendary Maison Pic in Valence.
During the day, after the lengthy, disorganized and patience-trying process of actually gaining entry, we managed to take in five demonstrations, sample intriguingly delicious nibbles prepared hot on the spot, slurp some interesting “natural” wines, and take a very long lunch break – not by choice but because the “Restoff”* was overrun with festivaliers with raging appetites after seeing all that food being prepared. Our 45-minute wait to be seated, and a similar wait for orders to be taken and served were, however, enlivened by conversations with food and wine professionals attending the event.
I won’t give you a blow by blow account of all the demonstrations (I do have a life), just a taste of a couple. The first we saw was Claude Bosi, who currently runs the Hibiscus in Ludlow on the Welsh borders of the United Kingdom and will soon be moving to London. He concocted a carpaccio starter of veal and cod with black winter radish, a powdering of lime zest and herbs (chervil and chives), plus a dash of a truffle vinaigrette made with smoked olive oil, the whole decorated with sprigs of borage. It looked gorgeous on the big screen above the stage where the demonstrations were being conducted.
His main dish was mackerel, rhubarb, fennel and wasabi (this last much in evidence throughout the day). The mackerel had been vacuum-cooked at 35°C and had kept its raw aspect, while the fennel had been poached in water for three hours at 70°C, with a dash of olive oil, and then quickly caramelized in a fry pan. This was served on a coulis of dill with potato added for body, and sprinkled with radish shoots, not only for effect but also to get the peppery hit that Bosi reckons sustains perceived flavors for longer. All that in 40 minutes.
Perhaps the oddest thing we saw all day was the making of what chef Alexandre Bourdas calls “massaged sugar.” He runs the Sa.Qua.Na (which stands for Saveur, Qualité, Nature, and also sounds like ‘fish” in Japanese) in Honfleur. He basically makes a light syrup and adds butter and then a savory ingredient – curry power in this case – and puts it through a sieve to get a powder that he uses for decoration or to season the likes of yogurt, cream cheese or sorbet. (Savory sweets are evidently much in vogue;a nother chef served up his langoustines with savory cotton candy.)
One of the nibbles I tried consisted of a miniature filet mignon of pork that had been rolled in roasted, crushed nuts and coffee beans; flash fried; and served with a coffee-flavored cream of foie gras. It wasn’t half bad, and gives an inkling of how this new generation of young chefs is trying to escape the constricting embrace of the great French culinary tradition.
The Omnivore people are doing a good job of waking people up to the exciting things taking place around France and have put together a guide** to their favorite restaurants, most unstarred but all serving high-flying food. It’s written in florid, hip French, of course, and the layout is unbelievably busy, but you can at least extract some addresses from it. They also have a Web site (www.omnivore.fr) and a subscription magazine ominously called oMni.
I’ll be going back next year to see if they’ve improved the basic logistics, and next time round, I’ll go and party for the whole two days instead of just one.
* The Restoff was run by Fabrice Biasiolo, who in his saner moments is chef at Une Auberge en Gascogne at Astaffort in the Lot-et-Garonne department (firstname.lastname@example.org).
** Carnet de Route: Les 200 Tables de la Jeune Cuisine. Omnivore, les Editions de l’Epure, September 2006. €24.
© 2007 Paris Update
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