15 October 2017

Gestes magnifiques

Alain Passard talks obsessively about gestures in Chef's table – France. It's the first time I've heard someone bring that up as a crucial element — if an element at all — in any discipline.

When I was a child, I would mimic adults in unglamorous professions: the cashier swiping a product under a scanner, then hitting a few keys from the till before punching the big one that opens a drawer of cash; or the bus conductor thumbing through a bundle of tickets (the working thumb covered in rubber), after-which reaching for his pouch for loose change.

I didn't know exactly what they were doing back then — how the tickets were counted or what the other buttons on the cash register were for; but seeing them so confident in their actions drew me in. It was their expert gestures that compelled me to imitate them.

"Slicing a shallot can be done 25 different ways. However there is that one gesture to which we can add that elegance, that love," says Passard. Apparently, he doesn't take gestures as mere embellishments in a performance; to him, it's an integral part of the art: "Either we like the gesture, either we like the hand, or we don't. Me, I love it. It might be the sense I like the most. Maybe even more than the sense of taste."

Something might've been lost in translation. The good Frenchman still sounds mystical to me, though I'd like to believe that I understand what he means. "And this hand, if we want it to be more beautiful, more elegant, we must work seven hours, eight hours, ten hours in the kitchen every day. This makes the hand more precise, more accurate and more elegant," he continues. "That's the trick."

Okay, chef.


Muriel Barbery. The gourmet. London: Gallic Books, 2009.

Last August I read The gourmet by Muriel Barbery. It's about Pierre Athens, France's most feared and revered food critic. He's on the brink of death, counting down the days with a painful struggle to recall that singular food that has brought him "raw, unequivocal pleasure".
'A dish? A dessert?' asked Anna, with a sob in her voice.

I cannot bear to see her like this. I love my wife, as I have always loved the beautiful objects in my life. That is the way it is. I have lived as a man of property, and I shall die as one, with neither qualms nor sentimental indulgence; nor do I regret having accumulated property or having conquered souls and beings as if I were acquiring an expensive painting. A work of art has a soul. It cannot be reduced to a simple mineral existence, to the lifeless elements of which it consists. Perhaps because I know this I have never felt the least bit ashamed of considering Anna the most beautiful work of all — this woman who for forty years has used her finely chiselled beauty and her dignified tenderness to enliven the chambers of my realm. (pp 16 – 17)
After reading The life of elves, I missed Barbery's comedy in The elegance of the hedgehog. Great news for me, the humor is present in The gourmet, and her flair for poetry (overdone in Elves) suits the passionately hyperbolic Pierre. And, consistent with the other two books, her characters' musings are a joy to follow.

No other contemporary novelist excites me more than Ms Barbery, who is also a philosophy teacher (it definitely shows in her works). There's the second installment of La vie des elfes to look forward to, and by the time it comes out, I'll hopefully be bold enough to buy a copy in the original French.

I'm hungry. No, hungrier — for new food, for knowledge, for travel. That's thanks to The gourmet and Chef's table. Soon I'll fly to Paris and get my hands on a bag of chouquettes.

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