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US rebuke spurs France’s top chef into action

Paris, Oct. 10 (Reuters): Piqued by a US critic’s charge that French cuisine has “congealed into complacency”, France’s top chef is out to prove his country’s food remains the best.

Alain Ducasse, one of only two chefs in the world with a total six Michelin stars, is from Monday handing over the kitchen of one of his Paris eateries to a succession of young regional French chefs whose dishes will star on its menu.

The aim is to counter the critique of New York Times food writer Arthur Lubow who charged in August that France had lost its crown as leader of creative cooking to a new generation of daring Spanish chefs led by the Catalonian Ferran Adria.

“Sure, there is competition all over the world these days and I think that is extremely healthy. The quality is very high everywhere,” Ducasse said.

“But the French are still up there. I can reel off the names of 50 chefs now. You try and come up with 50 Spanish chefs — I’ll give you an hour,” he said in the bar of Paris’ Hotel Plaza Athenee, venue of his Paris gourmet restaurant.

In his article — which came after Americans were urged to snub French goods in protest at Paris’ opposition to the Iraq war — Lubow said France had come up with nothing new in food since the “nouvelle cuisine” revolution of the 1970s and 1980s.

By contrast, he described a mind-blowing visit to Adria’s El Bulli restaurant where dishes include a pallet of seven warm gelatine blocks “that resembled watercolour paints, each with a vivid hue that proved to be a pure essence of a vegetable”.

Other El Bulli classics are a “Kellog’s paella” consisting of puffed Rice Krispies and seafood, and a whipped potato dish to be eaten while sniffing fresh vanilla.

“El Bulli’s is a very interesting experience,” said Ducasse, 47, dressed in a businessman’s suit and wearing a self-designed tie featuring a tiny “Stars and Stripes” US flag.

”Adria has this strong personality and he can pull it off.”

Ducasse has no time for food movements. He insists the best chefs draw at will on both local and exotic influences.

That comes across in the menu of the first chef featured at Ducasse’s Relais Plaza brasserie. To local produce like woodpigeon and pike perch, 33-year-old Loire Valley chef Eric Guerin has added touches of vanilla and harissa — the spicy paste used in the cous-cous dishes of Morocco.

A further five chefs will follow in the initiative dubbed “Fou de France” — a play on words meaning “Mad About France” but which to English ears sounds like “Food France”.

A primary school teacher made into a French hero by his touching performance in the internationally acclaimed documentary Etre et Avoir has started a legal battle over the film’s rights, demanding 250,000 euros in compensation.

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