Two-star Michelin chef Alain Dutournier was in Hà Nội recently to rejuvenate the menu at La Table du Chef – his first fine dining restaurant outside of France, showcasing the art of haute cuisine. The French chef, who was granted the Knight of Order of Academic Palms, spoke with Thúy Hằng about his inexhaustible passion for designing culinary creations aimed at "bringing people happiness when they taste good food".
Inner Sanctum: What led you to become a chef?
I was born in Landes region in south-western France, into a family where my grandmother and mother dedicated most of their time to cooking. Ever since childhood, I learned to respect and appreciate authentic local products. The imposing landscape of the Pyrenees mountain range in my region, the ocean and forest, instilled in me a passion for "gathering real taste" and becoming a chef.
Tradition is my first source of inspiration. Bringing people happiness when they taste good food is my second source of inspiration.
I opened my first bistro Au Trou Gascon when I was 24 years old. Today the bistro is a Michelin 1-Star Restaurant in the 12th District of Paris. My Le Carré des Feuillants is a Michelin 2-Star Restaurant. I also run the casual chic papas Pinxo restaurant and Mangetout, featuring French cuisine with Aquitaine's flavour.
Inner Sanctum: Why did you open La Table du Chef in Hà Nội – your first-ever restaurant outside France?
I started travelling in Asia in the 1970s and discovered my great passion for these countries. But last year I decided to present my cuisine beyond France. I chose Việt Nam because it is widely known by many French people. Friends often ask about my trips to Việt Nam and about the people I work with in this country. I always tell them about the charming beauty of Hà Nội, with its French-influenced buildings such as the Opera House – and about traditional ancient architecture, such as the One-Pillar Pagoda.
By opening the La Table du Chef, I get to share my culinary passion with more connoisseurs, especially local ones. At La Table du Chef, we always use the best local products which are delivered daily for our French-style dishes.
Inner Sanctum: What Vietnamese ingredients are you most comfortable working with? Do they satisfy your quality requirements for high-end creations?
I like creating dishes with prawn and lobster, which are popular in Việt Nam. It's unfair to compare Vietnamese prawn and lobster with their relatives in France, Italy and Spain, where ocean water helps to create the extraordinary texture and flavour of the regional seafood.
During this visit, I would like to present my new creations to connoisseurs, using ingredients from both Việt Nam and France, such as prawn in tender cabbage mille-feuille with bottarga, beef marrow and sweet garlic nougatine. The succulent Vietnamese prawn, buttery bottarga, and creamy beef marrow create a harmonious flavour, which is a nice treat for the taste buds of foodies.
I visit Hà Nội every three months to inspect seasonal products and create a suitable menu for each season.
Inner Sanctum: What about Vietnamese spices and herbs, which give Vietnamese food its distinctive flavour and make it stand out from other cuisines?
We aim to highlight Vietnamese products. We use a wide range of local spices, such as Sa Pa honey and Phú Quốc pepper. I have special interest in Vietnamese spices and herbs, which offer a fresh taste for my new creations.
I am always learning more about local spices and herbs, with the help of my talented Vietnamese resident chef Đào Văn Sơn.
My love affair with Việt Nam began 30 years ago when I had my first lesson about Vietnamese cuisine, thanks to a friend of mine. My friend, who is also a Vietnamese chef in France, showed me the aromatic and heart-shaped lốt leaves used in some Vietnamese dishes. I was favourably impressed by this herb. I use these leaves for some of my dishes which foodies love.
Inner Sanctum: Some say that Vietnamese cuisine has been influenced by the French through their presence here for more than a century. What do you think?
The two countries share several commonalities in cuisine. One example is the famed Vietnamese phở noodle soup. I believe that this dish was inspired by the traditional French pot au feu, which also requires simmering beef bone with vegetables for hours to get a clear broth. I think the French influence diversified the local cuisine.
Inner Sanctum: You finally presented your debut book Ma Cuisine (My Cuisine) in 2000, after decades of working in the food industry. Can you reveal a bit about this book? Do you plan to write another one?
I wrote my book myself. It took six years to complete. It's a book about my cooking journey. Each recipe is accompanied by a personal anecdote. I wrote the recipes of my childhood, added recipes for classic dishes I learned as a chef on the job, plus my own recipes. The book doesn't feature any pictures. But it won the 2000 La Mazille prize – an annual international prize for cookbooks.
I'm not planning to write another book yet. But if I pen another book, it will be about pairing wine and food. Food and wine are life's greatest pleasure. — VNS