In France, the country that more than any other seems to prize the culinary arts, chef Jacques Maximin is the rage.
But you no longer have to fly to the Hotel Negresco in Nice, where Maximin hones his art at Le Chantecler restaurant, to get an idea why: The 37-year-old, dubbed by the French press "the Bonaparte of the Kitchen," has been retained by the Hotel Meridien in Newport Beach as a consultant for its elegant new dining room, Antoine.
Maximin, who already acts in an advisory capacity for restaurants in Paris and New York, has garnered practically every honor possible for a chef in France. In Newport Beach briefly last week, he explained why he was happy to take on the additional responsibility of a restaurant in Orange County.
"The only positive thing going in France now is its food and wine," he said to members of the press. "As long as we have something good going for us, we should try to do it all over the world. One should try to project what is best about his country.
"For Japanese, it may be high tech. For France, it is our cooking."
Hotel food and beverage director Olivier Louis, who served as interpreter for Maximin, added the Meridien's reasons for retaining him: "We believe we must try to fight the (bad) reputation of hotel restaurants. To fight that fight, people like Maximin are terrific assets in helping the Meridien project a high culinary image.
"We're helping to develop Jacque's name in the United States. He's helping to develop ours."
Though he embarked on his career when he was 14, Maximin's meteoric rise to gastronomic fame really began at 31, when he submitted himself for the "Meilleur Ouvrier de France," a grueling examination for chefs held once every four years; he was the youngest ever to win the competition.
Last year, Gault Millau, one of the two most respected publications dealing critically with food and wine in France, brought together 23 of the country's greatest chefs--living legends such as Paul Bocuse, Michel Guerard, Alain Chapel, Claude Terrail and Roger Verge--and nine food writers and asked who they felt would lead the new generation of chefs in the '80s.
Maximin was named "Premier Jeune Chef de France" (The Greatest Young Chef of France), surpassing the rest of the field by an almost embarrassing margin.
Top Rating In its annual evaluations, Gault Millau awarded Le Chantecler four red toque s , its highest rating. The chef himself earned 19.5 out of a possible 20 points; 20 have never been awarded.
There are those, however, who hold to the more traditional Michelin Guide, which refused Maximin a third star because he is a chef at a restaurant in a hotel and because he does not own the restaurant himself. (Michelin assumes a chef who must oversee all the Hotel Negresco's food services cannot devote himself fully to its restaurant.)
"It is stupide, " said Maximin. "(Michelin) should judge me on my culinary achievements and not on my investments. And now it's become a bit tough for them, because Le Chantecler is one of the most well-known and profitable restaurants in France.
"You know, many of my friends are suddenly cooking in the hotels again. In the next two or three years, Michelin is going to have a problem. I think it will have to change its rules."
Maximin feels that his creative culinary life is just beginning, that the "Meilleur Ouvrier" was only a starting point.
"At that age," said Maximin, "I do not believe you can be a master. It took me 15 years to understand cuisine, and it is only in the last three years. . . . Bocuse is now 59, and only in the last 10 years do we hear from Bocuse."
Maximin, who grew up in a tiny northern French village called Rang-du-Fliers, where his mother had a restaurant, feels that for him it is not enough to make a dish perfectly.
Change Is Important "You used to have Escoffier," he explained, "and you had thousands of chefs that followed and made his dishes as well. Then you had the new generation with Bocuse, and you had thousands of chefs that followed him.
"The leader takes a step above. He does not wish only to achieve, but to change--not change for the sake of change, of course, but in order to make a difference, to express himself. He is an artist.
"I look for the new, for that one more step."
Maximin makes at least 50 new creations a year; of those, he hopes two or three will be considered masterpieces.
Despite all the accolades, Maximin is unwilling to call himself "the best."
"Who can say such a thing?" he asked rhetorically. "It doesn't make any sense.
"I would say I am like a painter or a singer. I am myself. I have a star. I dare to do the things I want to do."
Maximin, whose original recipes have been compiled in a book entitled "Couleurs, Parfums et Saveurs de Ma Cuisine" (Colors, Scents and Flavors of My Cuisine, at this time available only in French), said the menu he prepared for Antoine will differ in many ways from that at Le Chantecler.
"In France, I often do things very simply," he explained. "A good mashed potato can be an outstanding mashed potato. But people will come to Antoine expecting something above. A perfectly cooked leek soup will not be enough. Here it will have to be something more elaborate.
Keeps Regional Flavor "Also, cuisine must be regional. What you have to work with locally should determine what you create. I use Nicoise ingredients in Nice, Californian ingredients in California. But the concepts are the same. The concepts are mine. Not 'nouvelle' cuisine. My cuisine."
Maximin, whose contract calls for four supervisory visits a year, pointed out that Antoine's new chef, Bruno Cirino, worked under him in France--three years at La Bonne Auberge and briefly at Le Chantecler--before Maximin selected him for the Hotel Meridien.
"While Bruno has already created three or four dishes of his own for the menu at Antoine," he explained, "he respects the spirit of my cuisine. The people who work with me long enough learn not only my way, but that my way means also to be different. To be progressive, to be aggressive.
"We know you love lobster, we know you love veal. We combine that with Bruno's talents."
Proteges in California Other former Maximin apprentices now working in California include Max Joachim, who just opened Max Au Triangle in Beverly Hills; Jean Marc Weber at the Excelsior, also in Beverly Hills; Laurent Quenioux, who took over the 7th Street Bistro in Los Angeles when Joachim left, and Fred Halpert, soon to open a restaurant in San Francisco.
(Among chefs visiting Antoine opening week were Jean Banchet, whose restaurant, Le Francais in Wheeling, Ill., is considered one of the finest in the nation, and Joachim.)
Later, at the stove with Cirino, Maximin reflected on the master-student relationship. "There are three steps: savoir faire, faire savoir et faire faire (the knowing how, the making known--teaching--and the making done)."
Maximin dislikes such generic tags as "American," "California" or even "French" cuisine.
"How far can we go in using these sorts of terms?" he asked.
"If you look at the melting pot that is America," he said, "you will find there is a way of eating in America, not a fashion of eating. You could say, of course, the typical American way now is the microwave oven. But you have people using their grandmothers' recipes, all those people with their different backgrounds. It's still a young country with diverse traditions."
For that matter, he said, France, too, has its diverse traditions.
"If you go to Alsace in France, we have a German influence. We have the Italian influence in the south of France. There are 90 departements (provinces) in France. There are at least 90 styles of cooking.
"If you have 51 states in America, you should have at least 51 styles of cooking. Why one more than the others? If you have a California cuisine, you must also have a Texas cuisine--there are great barbecues, for instance. That can be adapted for a great cuisine."
The dish for which Maximin is best known is la fleur de courgette: steamed baby zucchini blossoms stuffed with a zucchini, cream and basil puree and, with the flowers still attached, sliced into a fan shape; a butter sauce and slices of truffle complete the masterpiece.
"One used to remove the top of the zucchini," noted Maximin with a touch of irony. "Now that it is my most celebrated dish, it seems amazing that people ever said you couldn't use it."
He hastened to add that it was not the zucchini that made the chef; he cited Wolfgang Puck, the chef at Spago in Hollywood, as an example.
One Dish Not Enough "Puck was a fine chef before he made pizza," he pointed out. "He makes pizza, but his name is not made with pizza. Is there a great chef that has made his name for only one dish?"
Maximin and Puck are but two of a new breed of chefs who have attained status as celebrities. Far from having such attention get in the way of his artistic life, Maximin--who, incidentally, noted that had he not become a cuisinier, he would have been a journalist--said that it has helped his profession.
"Now to say you're a chef is something you can be proud of. If an American wants to go to Paris to become a chef, his mother no longer tells him, 'No, no, no, try to be a lawyer.'
"To be a chef now is to be respected. That's important."