What if The Fat Duck closed and nobody cared?
Restaurant closes. No one cares.
The news was barely reported. It made the diary columns of the French press - just. A few old lags in the foodie world commented. A couple of chefs mourned.
After over forty years in the highest echelons of French Gastronomy, the name of Alain Chapel was no more.
It wasn't always like this.
In the 1970s Alain Chapel was at the forefront of French gastronomy. If Bocuse was the Ferran Adria of the day (i.e. Chef Most Likely To Be Profiled In The In-Flight Magazine), then Alain Chapel was the Heston of the era. Operating out of his dolled-up auberge on the outskirts of Lyon, he was the mad scientist creating weird dishes with strange ingredients (stuffed pigs ears! braised chicken tripe!). It's no wonder that even today, Heston has a dish the menu named after him
At the height of his powers, with three Michelin stars and restaurants in France and Japan, Chapel was a man in demand. He flew Concorde to New York to cook for millionnaire customers. The Morocco royal family hired him to run a week-long pop-up in Fez (and you thought pop-ups were something new...). For people in the know, the greatest chef in the world wasn't Paul, it was Alain.
Then Alain dropped dead in 1990 - heart attack at the age of 53.
The culinary world mourned, but swiftly moved on. The restaurant endured under his trusted number two Phillip Jousse, losing a one macaroon but keeping a respectable two stars until the end. The master's two sons Romain And David (seven and ten when he died) went away, apprenticed and returned to take up the mantle. But unlike at Troisgros or Bise or Azak, a glorious second act was not to be. In February 2012, as L'Express noted, "Restaurant Alain Chapel closed in indifference".
Looking for Alain
Alain Ducasse is one. After all, he trained at Mionnay and acknowledges that "Alain Chapel taught me to taste". Flick (okay, crowbar) your way through his Grand Livre de Cuisine and "facon Alain Chapel" is a recurring subtitle - here applied to a roast veal chop, there on a lobster and pigeon salad. And finally on a ragout of cockscombs, crayfish and mushrooms.
Then of course there's Heston. In the Big Fat Duck Cookbook he talks about how he was awed by Chapel - first by reading his books (problem - they were only in French and Heston only spoke English), and later by a sublime meal at Mionnay. And it was Chapel's signature pigeon jelly which inspired his Jelly of Quail which sprawls across eight pages in the centre of the book.
For a more personal angle try Michel Roux Jr. His autobio-with-recipes Life in the Kitchen recounts the two years he spent as a youthful apprentice chez Chapel. Amidst the stories of teenage japes and foie gras terrines, his respect for the Master is clear: "He was an extraordinary chef, an inspiration and very formidable."
|The menu at Alain Chapel (click here for a more legible version)
There is no other menu like it... there is not a dish on Alain Chapel's menu which does not reveal an inventiveness and imagination which lift him into the rare class of supreme chefs. There is no dish which does not surprise.
And this isn't just rose-tinted-regret. Even before he died he was hailed by chefs and critics alike - just look at the galaxy of stars below who gathered in 1977 for his fortieth birthday:
|"Everyone with more than two michelin stars say CHEESE"
People still remember him, however dimly. But ask someone exactly what it was that was so great about him and a quizzical look descends. Set against today’s standards his food looks rather dated. Reading the carte today it sounds like a pretty traditional French restaurant. Foie gras with that. Truffles with this. What’s all the fuss?
You can find out though. You just need to look hard enough.
How to make a silk purse out of a calf’s ear
Let’s start with some of the recipes.
Stuffed calf's ears with fried parsley
|Dinner time! :-p
This dish is Chapel's refinement of traditional bourgeois cuisine - in essence taking a humble ingredient and making it stretch further with a bit of stuffing (albeit a truffle and veal sweetbread stuffing). It's not a dish you normally see in a three star restaurant; there are echoes here of Pierre Koffmann giving the humble pigs trotter a similar treatment. If you do want to try it though I recommend you high-tail it to Troisgros in Roanne, which has recently started serving this dish as a tribute to Chapel. Be warned however, they are charging a stonking €110 for the starter of "Oreille et ris de veau a la truffe, inspires de Mionnay".
Pigeon jelly with chicken oysters and young vegetables
Quail jelly with langoustine cream -
Heston's Blumenthal's homage
His pigeon dish had a few spoonfuls of delicate jelly surrounded by an artful arrangement of chicken oysters, mullet fillets, crayfish and their eggs - shades of pink and red offset by the glistening green of peas, spinach and lamb's lettuce, chives and chervil - bordered by a pale yellow crescent of creamy fish stock with orange zest and lemon juice. He had taken the elements of classical cooking and put them together in a very modern and innovative way that I found really exciting.
And this is of course the inspiration for Heston's Jelly of quail, langoustine cream, parfait of foie gras, truffle and oak toast, scented moss - Homage to Alain Chapel. It's a very different recipe of course but the clear jelly (quail, as he was already using pigeon in another dish) flavoured with star anise is straight out of Chapel's playbook.
What's striking to me is how modern this recipe feels (the Chapel version I mean). Its actually a dish which wouldn't feel out of place if it was served up at Noma - a melange of contrasting arranged ingredients on a plate, bound together with a textural contrast (the jelly) and sauced with a very light dressing. This is precisely the sort food being served up by modernist chefs at places like Noma, Viajante or Dabbous (albeit with a little more sous vide and parmesan snow thrown in).
Chicken tripe a notre modeThis dish (p390) is Chapel's reinvention of the classic tripes a la mode de Caen, except he started with chicken tripes, an ingredient I've never seen used elsewhere. The tripes are blanched for twenty seconds and then gently cooked, along with some veal tripe, with chicken stock, white wine and half of a calf's foot. They're then finished with mustard and Calvados (a tribute to their Normandy origins) and served in a cocotte.
Now if modern food is about getting down and dirty with your ingredients, this dish showed Chapel could mix it with the best of them. As Michel Roux Jr recounts in A Life in the Kitchen the tripes had to delivered warm, minutes after the hens were killed, and blanched within the hour. It was an incredibly difficult and fiddly dish to prepare.
The greatness of Alain
But Pigeon jelly? Calf ear? Chicken tripe?
Something strange is going on.
Then there are other hints. He had own vegetable garden (I thought that was something that started with Passard). He put Japanese dishes on the menu (long before Robuchon’s zen master act). Asian spices like star anise and ginger were turning up on the carte (at a time when Jean-George Vongerichten was still making foie gras terrines in Alsace). And this was all in the 1970s.
The simple fact is that Chapel was doing things that were fundamentally different from all of his contemporaries. I believe he was operating at least ten years ahead of everyone else. And probably more.
So what made Alain so great? I would say three things:
First, he built on tradition
That chicken liver parfait (from Michel Roux Jr's
Life in the Kitchen)
For example, one of his great signatures was a warm chicken liver parfait (which Craig Claibourne called one of the absolute cooking glories of this generation) – in many ways traditional Lyonnais bistro fare, taken to the nth degree.
Also, as we have already seen the calf's ear and the chicken tripes also had their roots in bourgeois country cuisine. Of course this was gussied up, truffled up and generally moved on. But Chapel was very much cooking with tradition, not against it.
Second he embraced innovation.
But make no mistake, no matter what he claimed, Alain wasn’t just an evolutionary chef. He was also doing things that were profoundly revolutionary:
- Ingredients: He took humble and unusual ingredients like chicken tripe and calves ears, and refashioned strange (but strangely familiar) combinations.
- Asian techniques and flavours: Chapel's work in Japan opened him up to Japanese cuisine long before it was fashionable, something evidenced in his famed Crepe Japonaise. His made unheard-of use of Asian spicing, spiking his pigeon jelly with anise and deploying ginger in his savoury courses (don’t laugh. In those days that was really wild).
- Pioneering ingredient-led cuisine: Decades before Alain Passard got religion about his vegetable patch, Chapel has his own garden (le jardin de cure) where he grew baby salad leaves and vegetables for cooking. Rather than touring the market each day so see who had what we good, he would seek out the single finest producer for each item and place all his confidence in them. Nowadays chefs make a great song and dance about being close to their producers (check out the Phaidon Noma book or the Rockpool book for examples). Chapel was ahead of the game
- Innovating with technology: Chapel was keen to incorporate space-age gadgets like ice-cream machines, ovens with different temperatures at the top and bottom (for breads and pastries) or robot-coupes for chopping fine herbes. Again with the passing of time this sounds incredibly hum-drum but in post-war France this was twenty-first century gear.
- Inventing new techniques: The frothed-up soups that were all the rage in the 1990s started with his mushroom cappuccino. And this wasn't just a fad. Remember that this underlying principle - that foaming up a sauce increases its surface area and flavour, also lies behind El Bulli's espumas and sponges in the 1990s. A more unremarked innovation was his jus perle – instead of a smooth cream- or butter-based sauce he would leave his jus unemulsified with droplets of flavoursome fat floating in the mix. This is something Heston makes a great song and dance about as “flavour encapsulation” – to Chapel it was just another everyday innovation.
Third he was the perfectionist
I don't think its a coincidence that Ducasse - who has built an empire on laser-like culinary precision, learned his trade with Alain Chapel. Contemporary accounts all point to an incredible quiet and concentration in his kitchen. As one stagiere writes:
I have been in libraries that were noisier than that kitchen, where everyone seemed so concentrated in work that an earthquake might have passed unnoticed. I do not think one single plate escaped M. Chapel's final inspection, and, believe me, he would have detected the slightest flaw.
In Great Chefs of France Crewe and Blake also remark on the incredible calm in the kitchen - different from any of the other three star kitchens they have seen:
So everybody moves, calmly and without haste; yet all is done at amazing speed. Gradually you become aware of the power of this kitchen, It is like one of those beautiful nineteenth-century pumping-engines, moving majestically and silently, seemingly without effort, yet delivering immense power, smooth and everlasting.There is a picture in the book of Chapel putting the finishing touches to a dish, the tip of his tongue sticking out in concentration. It is this intensity which made Chapel a man apart - and perhaps contributed to his early demise.
|Chapel - a study in concentration
A cuisine that changes your lifeThe result was a kitchen that blew - your - mind.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask David Kinch of the great West Coast restaurant Manresa. For him it was Chapel’s pigeon with fresh peas and braised lettuces that changed his life:
I was 23, and of course I knew everything. But after that dinner I realised that all my training was wrong, that I had completely missed the point of what makes great food. I went back to my room and cried! What this guy could do with a handful of peas and some lettuce, and how the purity of the flavours could be maintained and yet come together, was something I had never learned.
Or ask Michel Roux Jr - I emailed Le Gavroche while I was researching this post and they were kind enough to send me the following:
Alain Chapel was a great man, had respect for local ingredients and dishes such as Chicken Tripe, Crepes Japanaise, which were very avant-garde. He was using fresh ginger which was unheard of in France in the 70’s. The man was a genius, his dishes tasted heavenly and were shockingly straightforward.
Maître Cuisinier de France & Managing Director
Alain Chapel in Print
Alain Chapel's only cookbook,
now happily back in print
The only major book was Les recettes originales de Alain Chapel, originally published in 1980 as part of Robert Laffont's long-running Les Recettes Originales... collection.
(The Editions Laffont series is a fascinating endeavour in its own right - 23 volumes detailing the recipes of the major chefs of the day (Senderens, Robuchon Girardet and Guialtiero Marchesi all feature), starkly printed in black and white with the barest of illustration. It's the sort of project which would be unthinkable today in a era of celebrity chefs, publishing agents and multi-million dollar book deals.)
Toady these volumes are hard to find. Books for Cooks in Notting Hill used to stock them but haven't had then for years. Thankfully though a few of the volumes (by Chapel, Troigros and Michel Guerard) were recently reprinted in paperback, which means that for the first time in many years Alain Chapel is now only an Amazon.fr click (and a French dictionary) away.
The Recipes of Tradition...The book starts with a lengthy introduction, where Chapel expounds on a variety of topics - tasting menus, the evolution of cuisine, flavour and place... (I have to admit my French falls down a bit here - if anyone fancies chipping in with an English translation I'm all ears). A lot of it is summed up though in the subtitle of the book: La cuisine, c'est beaucoup plus que des recettes. "Cuisine is more than recipes".
After a brief section on basic recipes (stocks, sauces, pastries etc) we then pile into the heart of the piece. One of the great things about this book is that its actually two pretty much self-contained cookbooks in one. The first part Les Recettes de la Tradition is his book on traditional French cusine. He kicks off with an eight-page account La saint-cochon, which details what to do when you slaughter a whole pig. Starting with what do with with the blood, he then ploughs into recipes for faggots made with the pork rind, liver & kidney, a head-cheese incorporating the ears and feet, rillettes, saucissons, boudin blanc, pork scratchings and the belly, salted with thyme. It all feels very St John.
|Chicken kidney, cockscomb and
crayfish ragout - the Ducasse version
Bear in mind traditional does not mean boring! He also features the exuberant ragout of chicken kidneys, cockscombs, crayfish, morels and chervil - a dish repeated (and name-checked) in Alain Ducasse's Grand Livre de Cuisine. There's also a rather extravagant beef bouillon (p144) which incorporates a pound of caviar (and another quarter-pound of pressed caviar) and recipe for a roast Bresse capon flanked by ten larks and ten snipes (not recommended if your guests are members of the RSPB!). And finally I have to mention the Oeufs poeles a l'assassin on page 150 - actually quite a pedestrian dish of friend eggs deglazed with wine vinegar - but you gotta love that name.
... and the Recipes of the Imagination
More example's of Chapel's food - click to zoom
(from Great Chefs of France)
So you have the iconic pigeon jelly and the chicken tripe. Or a featherlight dish of Langouste steamed with verbana, girolles and chicory leaves (p340). Or his famous Crepe Japonaises (p454). Actually this is basically an okonomiyaki pancake (street food! how on-trend! :-p), scented with ginger and served with beef, pork, gambas and squid.
The section on desserts contains the recipe for a praline tart, much praised by Heston Blumenthal and (just to show that no-one's perfect!) a slight dubious concoction of yogurt, cucumber and tarragon supposedly inspired by Balkan cuisine.
Touched by geniusI'm left in two minds on this book. Set against the modern arsenal of chefbooks, its always going to feel dated. There are no pictures. The dishes clearly come from another era. And being in French doesn't help. If you pluck this off the shelf and read it cold you're going to be left wondering what the fuss is all about.
But having put in the time to try and understand Chapel and his cuisine, you start to see that there's so much more. The book is stuffed with iconic recipes like the pigeon jelly, the chicken tripes and that chicken liver parfait. These are historic recipes which no chef should be without.
And when you put Chapel into the context of what everyone else was doing at the time the achievement is even more staggering. He was as far ahead of the chasing pack as El Bulli was in the nineties. His only point of reference was himself.
My only regret is we don't have a good version of this book in English. The best we can do is the chapter in Great Chefs of France, but that hardly tells the whole story. Remember, this is a guy who David Rosengarten rates as the second greatest chef of his lifetime - the fact there is virtually nothing by him in English is the whole food world's loss.
Afterword - Another Chapel in London
doing an Arzak"). In that context the decision to close the restaurant must have been absolutely traumatic.
But on this side of the Channel there is some sort of silver lining, as the youngest son Romain has recently resurfaced in London - cooking as chef de cuisine as Pierre Gagnaire's two-star outpost Sketch.
So if you want a hint of the old Chapel magic do rock along and try it out (the weekday set lunch in particular is an absolute steal). The good thing is that the boy's still young, so I hope it isn't the last we've heard of the Chapel name in the kitchen.