“MOLECULAR gastronomy doesn’t exist.” So says Stephane Carrade, the 38-year-old chef-owner of Chez Ruffet, a restaurant just outside Pau, a beautiful city at the foot of the Pyrenees in southwest France. “Cooking has to be spontaneous,” he says.
Carrade received his second Michelin star this year, with a style of cooking that’s at once sophisticated and simple and with a reverence for produce that feels quite Californian (yet the chef has never visited the Golden State). It’s distinctly un-molecular, though he does serve a marvelous green crab soup in a test tube.
In any case, the second star has turned Carrade into a local hero, both here in the village of Jurancon, known throughout France as the commune that produces wonderful racy dry white wines and terrific sweet whites that are a favorite with foie gras, and in Pau, where we’ve just been to the farmers market.
Now Carrade is about to create a spontaneous lunch from the beautiful produce he found there that morning.
At the covered market, a 15-minute drive away, farmers greeted the chef with “Bonjour, Stephane!” as he inspected basil plants, inhaled the aroma of Mara des Bois strawberries, chose slender zucchini and picked up bunches of shallots held together with pink raffia. “He’s so nice to come and see me in my boutique,” said one farmer with a wide grin, a hat that looked like an omelet and with a Bearnaise accent so thick I could understand only half of what he said.
The restaurant, which Carrade owns with his partner, Marc Cazeils, a charming front-of-the-house man, is a fairly formal one. But Carrade is one of a growing number of young French chefs who have rejected age-old notions of what cooking -- and dining -- should be. To these chefs, dining should be fun; it shouldn’t be stuffy. So at Chez Ruffet, menus are odd-looking booklets that are literally an inch wide and a foot long, attached by a brad, with one dish listed on each thick-papered page. Slabs of slate from the Pyrenees serve as placemats; there’s chalk on the table too, “so diners can draw pictures or write me a note, if they want. You have to amuse people too,” Carrade says.
You won’t find such weighty classics of southwest France as confit de canard or cassoulet at Chez Ruffet. Instead, Carrade focuses on the integrity of ingredients (he goes to the farmers market every day, he says, though Saturday is the biggest), and though the methods he uses for meats can be elaborate, produce gets the simple treatment. It’s often snacke, which means cooked on a griddle (called a plaque-snack).
Which is not to say that he ignores foie gras. On the contrary, he poaches it in beef consomme and serves it on a plate painted with cherry and apple jus, and accompanies it with Parmesan tempura and green Reine Claude plums poached in eau de vie. He also sears tuna belly (a chic ingredient in France this summer) and seasons it with tarragon, lemon and Sichuan pepper. He flavors a cannon (the eye of the loin or rack) of perfectly cooked Aragon lamb with juniper berries.
Texture, something often overlooked in traditional French cooking, is important to him. And so is longeur en bouche, the way a flavor finishes and how long it lasts, a concept familiar to wine lovers. “We’ve forgotten that a bit in cooking,” Carrade says. So how do you get it? “Certain herbs,” he says. “Roots. Galangal. Smoke.”
TODAY, Carrade has some produce to attend to: our lunch. “We’re going to do a plate just with vegetables,” he says. He sticks a Roma tomato on a fork and holds it over the flame of the burner to blister the skin before peeling it. “This way, it’s not too watery,” he says. The tomato suddenly emits a loud squealing sound, a prolonged squeak.
“It’s talking to you,” I tell him.
“It’s screaming,” he says. He peels the tomato, sears a corne de boeuf pepper, which resembles an Anaheim pepper, then peels it and cuts it into a big flat triangle. He puts the tomato cut side down on the plaque-snack, then places it to finish cooking in a saute pan, which he deglazes with a little tomato sauce, adding a pinch of fresh oregano to “perfume” it.
“In my kitchen,” he says, “I season everything differently.”
He takes a big heirloom tomato and stamps out a juicy column from the middle of it using a cylindrical cutter. Heirlooms, surprisingly, are just coming to the fore in France, where they’re called vieille tomates -- old tomatoes.
Carrade now sautes a halved slender zucchini and a halved plump cepe (fresh porcini). “Cepes are usually in September,” he says, “but there’s always a little crop in July.” He slices a roasted beet (they’re still sold roasted and peeled at the farmers market, a holdover from the days when oven space was hard to come by), then cuts out two circles from it with a cutter.
“What’s good with zucchini is almonds and mint,” he says. “But fresh almonds are finished now.” He cuts some mint and places it atop the zucchini, now cut side up. He drizzles some vinegar on the beet discs -- it’s a Spanish wood-smoke vinegar, rich and sweet as balsamic. He squeezes some olive oil onto the triangle of pepper, then sprinkles fleur de sel and grates a little orange peel on it.
Now some sauce -- a vinaigrette he makes from olive oil, balsamic, lemon juice, salt, pepper and vanilla bean. “I always use vanilla bean in vinaigrette,” he says. He drags the tomato column through a dish of the vinaigrette, then does the same with the beets.
Onto a warmed white plate goes everything: tomato, raw and cooked, beet discs, pepper triangle, zucchini half and the cepe. He drizzles a little more vinaigrette over the vegetables and on the plate. He drops a sprig of young basil on the Roma tomato, a few more tiny mint leaves on the zucchini, and then, a nasturtium flower next to the cepe.
It’s so simple, and everything’s so fresh and perfectly done. And were it not for the cepe, we could be in California.