VERSAILLES – The generals in crisp white uniforms plotted their strategy in the grand Hall of Battles in the Palace of Versailles. They were there not to recall the military victories of France’s past depicted in the graphic paintings lining the walls, but to celebrate the ritual of dining.
Inspired by the United Nations designation last year of the French meal as part of the "intangible cultural heritage of humanity", 60 of the world’s big-name chefs gathered at Versailles on Wednesday to help prepare a $1,270-a-head dinner for 650 guests in black tie, fancy dress and a fair amount of fur and feathers.
The dinner was a public relations extravaganza for the Relais & Chateaux hotel and restaurant group, which brought in its own chefs and paid $114,000 to rent Versailles for the night. (The cost of electricity, water, security and staff members was extra.) Les Grands Tables du Monde sent several chefs of its own.
Versailles is the most glorious chateau in the world, the place where Louis XIV raised fine dining to an art. But it is also a museum without a kitchen. A long, white marble corridor with sculptures of kings and noblemen had to be lined with 17 portable work stations, each consisting of one table, one oven and one electric burner, but no gas or running water.
“Let’s be honest,” said Patrick Henriroux, chef of the two-star Michelin La Pyramide in Vienne near Lyon. “This is not about creating in a kitchen. It’s more like cooking on a camping trip.”
As vice-president in charge of the grand chefs for the group, Mr. Henriroux was camp director. He organized his high-profile and potentially high-maintenance gastronomic greats in teams of three before deploying them to their humble work stations. With so many knives, “I had to make sure they got along,” he said.
Daniel Humm of New York’s Eleven Madison Park paced up and down the long corridor. Hélène Darroze, one of only two women among the five dozen chefs, was hugged and kissed a lot. Marc Meurin of Le Château de Beaulieu bonded quickly with his kitchen-mate, Philippe Mille of Les Crayères in Reims. “We’ve been great friends for an hour already,” Mr. Mille said. For their brief time together, three-star Michelin chefs Marc Haeberlin, Michel Troisgros, Jean-Michel Lorain, Annie Féolde, Jean-Georges Klein, Patrick Bertron, Régis Marcon and Eric Pras and all the two-stars, one-stars and no-stars worked as equals.
By most accounts, even their collective talent could not overcome the logistical hurdles. Most of the raw materials had to be pre-cooked and prepared off-site by the caterer Potel et Chabot. The chefs were asked to offer inspiration from their signature dishes, but their task was less to cook than to slice, dice, heat and accessorize food wheeled in on metal racks or stacked in white boxes.
Adding to the complexity of the meal, each chef prepared one course for about forty people. The cold appetizer chefs chose scallops or lobster; the hot appetizer chefs sea bass or morels, and the hot main course chefs duck or saddle of lamb.
One chef ranted that the 2002 Dom Pérignon Millésime Champagne was insufficiently chilled. Another searched fruitlessly for more squares of Savoy cabbage.
Guests muttered that the caviar dollops on the lightly smoked sea bass were too cold, the gelled Breton lobster claws too bland and the canard de Challans too naked. “Where were the great sauces to celebrate history and tradition?” said Jean-Claude Ribaut, the food critic for Le Monde. “Everything was a little flat, just average.”
Louis XIV might not have been entirely surprised.
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