Although some (in Canada) bemoan the significance of the Michelin Guide, few can deny the influence the macaron has on diner interest, or the blow felt to pride and business when a star is lost. And so the story goes that at only 30 years old, Alexandre Gauthier, already recognized for his culinary talent by Alain Ducasse, restored a Michelin star (2007) to his family’s restaurant in Montreuil-sur-Mer (best known for its fictional role in Les Misérables).
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Gauthier has a unique way of featuring seasonal ingredients using French and Japanese techniques in a provocative but unpretentious manner. He calls it Cuisine Délurée (‘smart, forward, and pert’), and Gauthier’s food is exactly that, aiming to reveal things present but undiscovered. This drive to redefine perceived perceptions in an intelligent and engaging manner is the very reason that curious diners will be rewarded when they dine at l’Auberge de la Grenouillère then stay at its rebuilt inn.
Simple ingredients shine in Gauthier’s hands. Cornichons take on a new personality with smoke; Brussels sprouts are elegant when mingled with grapes, lard and egg. Cooking is precise and refined as demonstrated through tender lobster with marjoram, that's reincarnated into something even greater (can lobster taste more lobster-y? It does here) by concentrated tomato paste and chilli oil. Non-traditional presentation is minimalistic but curious and attention grabbing, manifested as the “radish in the ground” siding an incredible slice of beef short rib. While detail orientated and deliberate, Gauthier’s cooking is easy to eat and playful. Case in point, Gauthier’s off center plating, ice cream filled sugar art or rock-like centerpieces that are smashed and served as dessert.
At the heart of each course was the fundamental theme: the willingness to explore the unconventional, to push the flexible boundaries, and to create experiences at a different level. The meal begins as it ends, with revelations and wonder. On paper some combinations confuse, but on the palate they pull together and leave the diner with a new appreciation in taste and texture.
Gauthier’s cuisine was complimented by friendly and engaging service. The synergistic energies shared between chef and his front of house manager, Pascal, is noteworthy and refreshing. While our evening was spent in their hands and the students at Stratford Chefs School, it was just a glimpse of the potential to be found at La Grenouillère. No doubt the young team is set to impress with the fully integrated experience at both of the single starred l’Auberge (completed in April 2011), its inn, and his contemporary rotisserie Froggy’s Tavern.
I can't wait to visit. Until then, I will just pour over the pretty pages of his Chef, La Grenouillère.
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Interview conducted: January 2011
Gallery (full captions) : Alexandre Gauthier (Chef in Residence) at the Stratford Chefs School
Post image by Taku Kumabe of media Smaku
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For those curious about the experience: I do encourage a visit to the gallery, which is fully captioned. Much of my chat with chef Gauthier and his front of house manager is captured there. This was a special chef in residence dinner that the Stratford Chef School hosts annually, bringing in top talent to help train their students. The more I learnt about the program at SGS, the more I'm impressed with the quality education and practical experience the student get from the program. It's no wonder so many of our city's best have SGS training... and into the world. More on this to come in future Narrative posts.
To set the stage:
The evening began with our four top being seated around a linen dressed table in the quaint secondary dining room at The Old Prune.* An assortment of glassware (in preparation of the wines - this evening sponsored by 13th Street Winery) encircled the table's centerpieces: a cube of butter, candle and a porous stone, much like lava, adorned with random thyme sprigs.
Each place setting was non-traditionally set with cutlery to our upper left hand corner. I suppose we weren't the only ones faced with this dining etiquette conundrum as Pascal, the maitre d' hotel, came to our rescue and provided some friendly assistance in deciphering our place settings. According to Pascal, the arrangement we encountered was a result of the free hand he had given to the students.
Innovative? Avant garde? Crazy? Perhaps a little of each, but this encouragement to think and work outside of the box is part of La Grenouillère's unique DNA. As an outside observer, I could only imagine how fresh this concept must have been to students at Stratford Chefs School - to be trained to work within structure, then asked to look at things from a different angle, with a bit of originality - a sort of controlled chaos. This impactful lesson might have been the greatest lesson for these budding chefs.
As a diner, I was very happy to note that Alexandre brought Pascal, his front of house manager, to assist in the training and allow those normally focused on the kitchen the appreciation of the full service experience. To me, dining is more than food, presentation or decor, it's about the impressions made, details observed, and emotions elicited. Every plate has the potential to wow, but not every meal is memorable. This meal (the last in the series with Gauthier) was attempting to do just that, and although some of the students still required time to refine their art, their efforts were well appreciated and noted by this little diner.