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.
Next comes a zucchini flower that has been precisely excavated and filled with minced zucchini and caviar; an egg is cracked to reveal pillowy sunflower-yellow waves of perfectly rendered sabayon sauce. This is complemented by homemade crisped potatoes. The Burgundy served is a Mersault - Les Tillets, from Domaine Bernard-Bonin - that evokes tastes of sunlight, dampness and memories. 'This dish is extraordinary because it focuses on two ingredients; each is used to amplify the flavour of the other,' says Savoy of the zucchini combined with caviar and covered with smoked sabayon. 'I am really respectful of these ingredients. The objective is to create incredible sensual pleasure in an authentic way while being creative. It is magic. I look at food the same way I did when I was a child, with a certain sense of wonder.' It is clear that Savoy is deeply in love with his country. 'France is the country of products,' he says. 'We have the best vegetables, the best meat, the best fish, the best cheese, the best charcuterie. Is there another country that makes wine like us, in terms of variety and quality? I love to work with the farmers to find my ingredients in the ground, to work with the earth; after that, I love the work we do in the kitchen, the transformation of these ingredients into pleasure. I've been working for 45 years, and I work very hard - the equivalent of two days in one, so, really, I've worked for 90 years. Today, there are plenty of things that are automatic and instinctive. My inspiration is always life. I love life.' Savoy believes that real food is 'not about transforming or disguising ingredients, but the celebration of them'. Take, for example, the next dish. It is about only one product: tomatoes. With that, a plate with eight different types of tomatoes appears. A tomato reduction is poured on top of this and drained through small holes on the plate, onto what will be revealed is a tomato tartar - one with all the savoury power of an actual beef tartar. An intense bite of capers married with the umami kick of a Japanese seaweed grantia explodes in my mouth. I notice that my plate is littered with a comet's trail of pomegranate seeds, adding just the occasional touch of sweetness. A bottle of Josmeyer Riesling Le Dragon - a particularly lovely wine - is uncorked and poured, its reverent exhalation of sweetness intensifying the salt and acidity of the tomatoes perfectly. Then, someone brings me a tomato tart that may well be one of human culture's highest achievements. It is bereft of skin, naked and concupiscent, draped across the pastry base like Ingres's odalisque languishing on her brocaded bed. Next comes a dish that is simply called 'The Sea' because it packs the ravishing power of the ocean. Cabbage and a very special part of the sea bass are served together. 'It is the best part of the sea bass,' Savoy says. 'Sea-bass cheek and the rest of the head served on cabbage with oysters, and crowned with transcendent rivulets of sea-bass jus with cream.' The indomitable sommelier pairs this with a Boisrenard white ChÃ¢teauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine de Beaurenard, and the clean, honeyed lure of the wine combines with the delicate fish to create orgiastic waves across the palate.
'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'Following this, we enjoy the raw sexual power of field mushrooms and mussels with white wine and cream sauce and brown butter. 'You can taste the brown butter and taste the jus of the mussels - mushroom juice and mussel juice,' Savoy says. 'For me, the mussels have a dry flavour while the mushrooms have an oilier flavour, so it is the perfect marriage between them. No two ingredients combine more perfectly than this. I never want to combine more than two primary ingredients.' The sommelier brings out Cornas, an incendiary expression of Shiraz. This sets the stage for Savoy's iconic artichoke soup, an armada of black truffle floating in formation on its glistening surface. A brioche is heaped with melting truffle butter. What occurs next may be one of the most sensual experiences on earth: the truffle butter melts immediately when it comes into contact with the surface of the brioche pastry. As this transfixing surrender occurs, you are compelled to slide the brioche deep into the surface of the soup, then watch as the opaque grey-green liquid insinuates itself into every available surface. And just as the truffle butter, bread and soup are evolving into a new entity, you lift the bread from the soup and place it directly in your mouth as if you are receiving the Holy Eucharist. The combination of flavours, the earthy sexuality of the truffles, the soft surrender of the bread, the sublime creaminess of the butter and the invigorating flavours of the artichoke soup transport you out of your corporeal form and, for a few moments, you are given access to the face of God. The ushering in of a bottle of Pommard premier cru, Les Grands-Épenots, from Domaine François Gaunoux, signals the arrival of the meat course: the roasted quail with liver and black pepper. The heady flavours of this wash over you, sending waves of pleasure through your entire body and reconfiguring your entire perspective on cuisine. If this were a film, this would be the moment you would flash cut to a typical triple-Michelin-starred dining experience. It begins with you entering the establishment and being appraised coldly by the maître d'hôtel, who begins to plug the various obvious signifiers of your net worth into an algorithm that spits out the maximum amount you can be charged for your dinner, pre-dinner Champagne, bottle of vintage Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne, premier-cru Bordeaux, sauternes and so on. Throughout this experience, you will be treated with that perfect mixture of deference and condescension, complete with occasional eye-rolling that is not so much taught as genetically engineered into the wait staff, right down to the not-so-subtle palming of the cash tip before whisking you out the door. Your waiter will tut like an exploding pressure cooker, remonstrating with a wagging finger, if you should even begin to take off your suit jacket, despite the fact that the interior's climate control is set at a sweltering 30oC. By the end, you will have ingested food - and, honestly, very good food - but you will also have been left exhausted and emotionally depleted by the experience. You will not have experienced pleasure in its purest form. Guy Savoy's restaurant is precisely the antithesis to this. It is the greatest repository of pleasure on earth. It is a place where memories are created, relived and never forgotten. 'I like to think that my profession as an innately moral one, because I live to use the ingredients of our planet to give happiness to others,' Savoy says. 'In the Buddhist monastery, it is the monk who is the most wise who is the cook.' If this is the case, then French cuisine's greatest sage is also the primary proponent of its capacity to induce eternal, unforgettable and halcyon pleasure.