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Chefs: Gastronomy or Greed?

Chefs: Gastronomy or Greed?

Gordon Ramsey has rised to become a household name and now a face attached to marketing campaigns.

Egon Ronay | Times Online

There was a time a time when the holy grail for chefs used to be achieving truly good food – perfection on rare occasions – through imagination and sheer hard graft. Theirs was an anonymous triumph that only a handful of colleagues knew about.

Chefs’ names have been unknown for centuries except for a handful, for example, Archestrat from ancient Greece, author of the first cookery book; Carème, chef of Napoleon, then Palmerston and Metternich, had a special kitchen built for him in the Brighton Pavilion; or Escoffier the immortal codifier of dishes. After 2,000 years the ancient Roman Lucullus is incessantly quoted as the legendary host, not at all as a leading politician of his time.

When I opened my last restaurant in the Fifties (the Marquee in Knightsbridge, which served classic French cooking), it soon became celebrated in the press for being “London’s most food-perfect small restaurant”. Yet the name of my chef, who I imported from Beaulieu on the French Riviera, was never mentioned. Unfair in retrospect, but then nobody knew the chef’s name at the Savoy or the Dorchester either. Absurdly enough, no chef’s name ever appeared in print.

How the situation has changed! The bottom line (net profit) has turned into the top line in importance and in too many cases became the main aim of chefs. It all started some 30-35 years ago when a number of top chefs’ main interest in excellent food turned into hard-faced, single minded concentration on money.

For a growing number of chef-proprietors fame wasn’t enough. Celebrated single restaurants opened multiple branches (an increasing trend). A growing number of money-hungry tycoon-chefs must have known that the same high culinary standards cannot be achieved by all their branches.

So the all-important “G” word has changed from Gastronomy to Greed. I was disappointed to find a chef on the Sunday Times Rich List. Surely such a list will not become more important than the culinary bibles?

It was revealing, too, when one of the owners of a new chain of restaurants (previously justly famous for his cooking) took me to his newly acquired and hitherto famous restaurant. His chat was not about the quality of the dishes we had for lunch (which I found very mediocre), but about the number of portions sold of some dish or other, in other words the cash generated.

The public’s changed attitude to choosing restaurants could be a further danger to standards. A choice can be made in just minutes through the internet – much faster than studying guides or relying on word-of-mouth, once the main sources of gastronomic information. And there are far too few guides online specialising in top-rate cooking.

Nor do the great majority of “celebrity” chefs live up to expectations, “celebrity” having lost its meaning through ridiculous overuse in gossip columns. It no longer means someone generally admired by the public for his or her professionalism. Without “celebrity” the names of half the “stars” would be unknown.

And yet, a few chefs still succeed in the quest for the original holy grail and do achieve perfection. Let me mention two at opposite ends of the price scale. One is William Drabble, 35, chef for 9 years of the Aubergine Restaurant (11 Park Walk, off Fulham Road, London) and, puzzlingly, not a partner. His charges are absurdly low, worth at least three times as much.

At the high-cost end of the scale is Alain Roux, 39, chef for 5 years at the Waterside Inn in Bray, Berkshire, and easily among this country’s three or four most remarkable chefs. His absolute perfectionism and range are not surprising – he has worked with his father, Michel Roux, for some 20 years. Alain’s cooking is certainly expensive, but given the choice of a box at the Royal Opera House and a dinner prepared in Alain’s kitchens, I wouldn’t hesitate.

© Egon Ronay

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