The Principles of Pleasure

The Rake breaks perfectly baked ciabatta with Guy Savoy – the world-renowned Parisian chef who is turning dining into a genuinely sybaritic experience. Foam lovers, look the other way…

As preludes go, it is not the most ideal run-up to my pilgrimage to one of Paris's guiding culinary lights. My plane arrives the better part of an hour late, compelling me to sprint through customs and immigration before getting hamstrung by the baggage loaders of Charles de Gaulle Airport.

After a long wait for my bag to make its highly delayed appearance on the conveyor belt, a mad dash through Paris's serpentine highway system - the Boulevard Périphérique - suddenly grinds to a halt when endless immobile traffic springs from Dante's first and most pointedly ironic circle of hell known as an 'endless limbo'.

The final arrival to my hotel on Rue Balzac is followed by the sudden disappearance of all taxis in Paris, as if the city's drivers have collectively entered into some existential fugue, compelling me to sprint to Restaurant Guy Savoy, thankfully just a few hundred metres away. As I pound Paris's cobblestones, I am convinced that I am hallucinating. Just ahead of me, on the right-hand side of a narrow one-way street, Rue Troyon, the legendary chef himself, stands calmly in front of his eponymous gastronomic temple, gazing beatifically at me. 'Monsieur Koh,' he smiles, and suddenly all residual tension flees. He calmly brushes aside my stammering self- remonstrations and guides me through the doors into one of the most revelatory experiences of my 44 years of existence.

'For me, what is extraordinary about food is that you can pass from the state of the ingredients to the state of pleasure, through the role of the chef,' Savoy explains, sitting beside me and occasionally nodding and smiling paternally at his guests. 'The person who taught me this was my mother. She taught me the emotional power of food: how to transform ingredients into pleasure.'

Asked if there's one particular moment that demonstrated, for him, the alchemic powers of the chef, Savoy recalls, 'One day, my mother was making these small cakes called 'cat's tongues'. I watched her mix butter, sugar, eggs and flour - all these ingredients that, when you taste them alone, are not particularly interesting. She placed the mixture in moulds and set them in the oven, and they developed this rich, golden colour. I recall thinking this was just magical. And when I tasted them, it was simply incredible. It was magic...

'Then, on the other side of the equation, the place where you dine, the service, the presentation - all of these are fundamental to your enjoyment of the meal, and for me, this is very much like theatre in terms of the conscious creation of a pleasurable and joyful environment.'

The environment contained within the wonderful walls of the space Savoy has created is the perfect expression of his personality. I have never before experienced a triple- Michelin-starred restaurant - or for that matter, any restaurant, regardless of its ranking of any kind - that is so warm, inviting, informally charming and filled with genuine happiness and spontaneous eruptions of joy, combined with the most flawless and genuinely kind service of our time.

What I will learn - as one of the best meals of my life unfolds over the next four hours - is that this environment is the perfect embodiment of the food that Savoy cooks. I will learn that his vision for cuisine is creative - a profound evolution of French cooking - yet, at the same time, real, comforting, nourishing and always delicious. It is devoid of an iota of the intellectual conceit or mannered artifice that has affected modern cooking so much in the last decades. When asked about the various laboratory-achieved, nitrogen- enhanced, smoked and foamed ephemera that have derailed quality cooking, Savoy explains that while he respects some of these efforts, in many instances, it is like trying your hand at modern painting techniques without having mastered the fundamentals of traditional techniques. 'So much is learned in the apprenticeship,' he explains. 'This is the foundation, the basement. Afterwards, it is our own sensibility and our own evolution that guide us. But the most important thing is to work at it, to really learn and absorb and define who you are.'

The meal begins not with food, but with the inimitable energy of one very special man named Hubert, who is German and possibly the finest maître d'hôtel on the face of the planet. 'For a chef, there is nothing more important than to form a team around you who have the exact identical spirit as you,' Savoy says. 'You cannot identify individuals as staff; they must be your team, your collaborators. Here, everybody has the same passion - no pressure, only passion.' What is extraordinary is the rich emotional resonance and tremendous, forthright coherence with which Hubert, along with every other person I will meet this evening, is able to express this passion.

'It is not necessary to create a wonderful environment using pressure, because the guests can sense this,' Savoy says. 'In the evenings, you walk in and you can immediately see people here are happy, relaxed, having pleasure and shared experiences, chatting with each other. The energy in this place is amazing - it is the energy of sheer pleasure, of joy.'

On that note, I embark on a culinary journey - one born not of an extravagant need to express imagination, but simply of the flavours and influences of one man's life. The amuse-bouche consists of a cold curry carrot soup. As you lift the vessel to your mouth, another appetiser consisting of a thin, rolled slice of perfectly cooked zucchini stuffed with lobster tartar, sitting on a single layer of ethereal filo pastry, is unveiled. A basket of 10 different types of bread is whisked towards you and, after a quick consultation, ciabatta is selected for its rich olive-oil content.


October 2015


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