A French Take on Sushi

Alain Senderens, 68, is one of the world's most renowned French chefs. He opened his first restaurant in Paris in 1968 and earned his first three-star from Michelin in 1978. After 28 consecutive years of three-star status, he renounced his coveted stars to change his restaurant Lucas Carton into a slightly simpler, less expensive establishment, which he named Senderens. He met with NEWSWEEK's Ginny Power to talk about contemporary and traditional French cuisine. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: It seems that Michelin has just named Tokyo the best food city in the world. Have you heard anything about it?
Alain Senderens: I don't think Michelin would have said that Tokyo is better. Tokyo has 35 million inhabitants. Michelin may have said that Tokyo has more three-star restaurants, which is normal, considering that Paris's population is 10 million. There will always be three-star restaurants. But it's not in the spirit of today. I wanted to have a restaurant that is more in keeping with today's spirit. Three stars is very formal, very built up, very stuffy. I wanted to have a different kind of restaurant. I no longer wanted to be chasing after first prize. Having three stars makes for very high bills. You have to have starched tablecloths, giant napkins, fresh flowers, more employees, all of which costs a fortune, and those costs get transferred to the customer. Three stars is a state of mind that requires the client to spend a lot of money, which doesn't necessarily mean the best cuisine. I no longer wanted to do that.

Is French cuisine the best in the world?
There are two kinds of cuisine that really stand out: French and Japanese. Some say Chinese, too, and though it is very good, to me it isn't in keeping with modernity. French and Japanese cuisine correspond with modernity: they're healthy, beautiful and balanced, like good art. A true chef used to be able to tell you what is good for the heart, the liver, the digestion, which was the case in Europe until the Renaissance. It was lost, but now it's coming back. It's not just about taste, but about biological and nutritional knowledge, too. Of course, taste is of prime importance, but we try to make dishes that are beautiful, seductive, light. You never get ill when you dine at a great restaurant, because the products are of exceptional quality, very healthy and dietetic.

Why is French cuisine so exceptional?
I can only make suppositions. Perhaps it is because of our geographical position, which gives us a temperate climate, exceptional wines, good produce … There is also our history. Since the Greeks and Romans, food has always been very important. We come from a culture of food. Ancient Greek writers always wrote about recipes. It's part of the history of our civilization. Good food has always been something very important in European culture. There are extraordinary old Greek books in which the author explains that one must go to a certain place at a certain time of year to get a certain kind of food, because that's when it is best. He's telling gourmets to travel to the food. Isn't that fantastic? I find that extraordinary. Transportation was too slow then. If one waited for something to arrive, the product was no longer the same. Today I can get something from Australia the next day, shipped under perfect hygienic conditions. The ancient Greeks left us with a great philosophical, but also a great culinary tradition in their books. Great cooking was as important as a beautiful painting. Lords hired artists to paint marvelous paintings then, just as they had great chefs. We had inspiration from our ancestors.

How is a great French chef different from others?
The genius of a good French chef is his or her ability to transform a recipe from elsewhere and make it unique. I was always inspired by other cuisines. I'm not talking about technique or the way we cook things. A great French chef is not approximate; when we cook something, we count the seconds. It's a search for perfection, and it's always about the love of a product. I always loved cooking and I always loved reading. My first recipes were inspired by ancient Roman cuisine I found in old books, so I had original recipes that pleased the critics. Some of my more well-known dishes, like the Apicius duck, which was cooked with spices and honey, and which was on my menu for over 30 years, was inspired by a very old recipe, which I modified and modernized. My eel recipe is inspired from one of the first printed books, which was a sort of instruction manual from a husband to his wife. It took me six months to perfect the recipe, but when I read something that inspires me I work with it. I spent one year perfecting a dessert, which I made twice a week. It's long, precise and rather scientific.

How important is wine in French cuisine?
Wine and food are like a man and a woman. Either they fight or they get along. When they get along, it's wonderful. When they fight, it's dreadful. I took classes to understand wine better, and when I began to understand wine, I realized it's not normal to choose a dish and then to choose a wine. Wine is a work of art that is corked and finished. A cook can modify his recipe up to the last minute. So we can make a dish that goes with a wine instead of the other way around. For me that is the pinnacle of gastronomy. A lot of people disagree, but I'm not afraid to say that they are ignorant about wine. If you drink a great wine with the wrong dish, the wine will lose half its value in taste. Many cheeses are eaten with red wine, but if you eat Roquefort with red wine, it's like eating soap—it's disgusting. For two centuries people mixed red wine and blue cheese. Roquefort should be eaten with sweet white wines like Sauternes. Fourme d'Ambert, a kind of blue cheese, can be eaten with Banyuls or port. I serve Fourme d'Ambert with port wine, but I also make a brioche with spices and cherries to make the port "smile." Bread is also a very important element when matching wine and cheese. The best-quality cheeses contain the most fat. If you don't eat bread with it, the tannins from the red wine make it slide and you lose a lot of flavor. It's very important to have toasted bread. Certain cheeses require rye bread, others require white, but it must always be toasted, because the toasting lends a slight bitterness, which helps the fat linger in one's mouth. A true gourmet tests and tastes until he or she finds that exceptional combination. There are not too many natural accords between wine and cheese. It's like Beethoven—or Mozart, I can't remember which—who said that making beautiful music is all about finding two notes which love each other.

You are known for inventing nouvelle cuisine. How did that start?
A few other chefs and I started nouvelle cuisine in France in the early 1970s, before my first trip to Japan. It was about shorter cooking time, less sauce, less fat, etc. A few years later I went to Japan for the first time, in the mid to late 1970s. When I went to Japan I felt I had stepped into a new world. That's when I realized our inspiration had come from Japan. When a civilization dominates the world, its cuisine is spread too. Now, it's China and Asia [which are dominant world forces]; in the past it has been the United States [and] Europe. I understood then that Japan was expanding and spreading influence. When Rome dominated the world 2,000 years ago, everyone ate Roman food. At each period in a civilization, there have been times when a dominant culture is very influential. It's a sign of the times. It used to be fashionable for women to be fat. Then it became fashionable for them to be slim, at about the same time that our cooking changed. With nouvelle cuisine, there was a spirit of lightness and slimness that corresponds with the times. In the beginning of the 1970s, when we started making "bare" dishes, we concentrated on the products. We were the first to look for farmers and ask them for fresh, good produce. A researcher takes ideas from the air and gives them to his contemporaries. If it works, it's because people want them. The world also became more feminized. We all know that women make the decisions and that they're the stronger sex, but they are kind enough to let us believe the opposite. So when a woman says to her husband, "Let's go eat here," the decision is made. Women also started having a more important role socially. They weren't just staying home taking care of the kids and their husbands anymore. Women started working outside the home. In the early 1980s I went to a conference in Rome and said that macho Latino culture was dying, that men no longer held the power. So we did everything to seduce women, and French cuisine became more feminized.

Michelin gave Tokyo eight three-stars and 140 one- and two-stars. Doesn't that signify something?
I'm not surprised about Japan's stars. As I already said, the population of Japan is [much] bigger than that of France. Also, I know Japan, which has serious chefs and gourmets who are very sensitive to quality. Japanese cuisine is all about purity, and I think that their notions about health play a role. Today everyone is thinking about health. Japan has always had quality restaurants. The Michelin guide didn't exist in Japan before. But if you search for good restaurants in Japan, you will find them.

Do the French have anything to learn from the Japanese?
The Japanese are very sensitive to the primary product. Knowledge of fresh produce is equally important in France. When you go to Tokyo's main fish market, it's ultraclean and doesn't smell. It's the same way in France. But it's not the case everywhere [in other countries]. Japanese cuisine, for me, is and always has been modern. I will say that I think that French chefs are more creative. A simple, bland flavor in Japan is considered a quality in Japan. The French don't like blandness. For a French person blandness is considered a flaw. Who is the judge? You can't compare two totally separate things. Journalists are always trying to create a polemic or put everything in the same basket, and life is not like that. There is no battle between Japanese and French cuisines. We find inspiration in Japanese cooking and vice versa. The difference is in the technique of executing a particular dish. I love tempura and I make a tempura in my own way. I also make sushi in my own way. We make a dish with our French or Japanese soul. Cultures get mixed. Why try to set cultures up against one another? Who cares? That's reality.