Chef Jacques Barnachon brings his seasonal food philosophy to Hong Kong
Chef Jacques Barnachon has come to Hong Kong to set up French fine dining restaurant La Saison and bring the city an environmental message. Barnachon says that we should be eating seasonal, locally produced food cooked very simply, a message strongly tied to his menu of traditional French ingredients such as frogs legs, snails and foie gras.
The chef is also an active member of Euro-Toque, a 2,800-strong European chefs' organisation that aims to promote healthy eating while preserving Europe's small farms. Small farmers are being squeezed by supermarkets, he says but he believes they can be saved if they work with chefs to produce high quality ingredients. The group makes representations to the European Parliament on issues such as food safety and farming. He is the first member of the group to set up shop in Hong Kong.
Barnachon grew up in his parents' hotel on a lake near the Swiss border just south of Alsace. L'Etang du Moulin is where he now does his one-Michelin-star cooking while his sister runs front of house at the hotel which also features a brasserie. He started work aged just 14 and quickly got used to the 11-hour days, which led to him working for noted pastry chef Philippe Gobet and then Joël Robuchon. He complains now that French youngsters only want to work an eight-hour day - unrealistic for a commercial kitchen.
He also owns a restaurant called Jacques Alexandre in the nearby town of Morteau that also offers his simple style cooking.
L'Etang du Moulin is most famed for its frogs legs. Barnachon will only sell them in season but when it is the season he sells 30,000 to 35,000 pairs of legs in four or five weeks. Barnachon calls his regular customers in Paris, Brussels and Geneva in early March who then come to stay at the hotel just to eat the speciality. At the height of the season, Barnachon says he cooks 800 pairs of legs an hour. "I kill them in the morning for lunch and in the afternoon for dinner," he says. He cooks them simply with butter and salt and pepper so that the flavour of the frog comes through. Although Barnachon could sell imported legs all year round, he refuses as they are neither in season nor local. "If there are no more, there are no more," he insists.
Chefs find it quite hard to stick to such stringent guidelines because they are used to giving customers what they want but "you can't eat cherries all year."
Is it really so bad to eat cherries out of season? "It's not so bad," says Barnachon. "But they will have to be cherries from Chile that are three times more expensive with the transport and flight."
Ideally, everyone would respect the rule that if you want something, you sometimes have to wait for it.
Simplicity, he claims, is everything in his cooking - the quality of the main ingredient should come through rather than be masked by cooking he describes as gimmicky.
Barnachon's cooking with one of his other favourite ingredients - foie gras - has earned him the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France (leading French craftsman). While Barnachon refuses to bring frogs legs to Hong Kong, or buy them locally, he is working with foie gras from Rougie at La Saison. He may bring the product in from Frederic Masse, his supplier in France, at some point too. At the Tsim Sha Tsui restaurant the foie gras will be served pan seared with roast apples and with a sauce made from a fortified wine called macvin on the à la carte. A set dinner menu offers the delicacy in a terrine with morel mushrooms.
The French hotel sits on a 27-hectare lake (Hongkongers who have stayed there have told him they find it difficult to sleep the first night as it's too quiet) and Barnachon is a big fan of its freshwater crayfish - not only for their flavour but because they help keep the water clean. In Hong Kong he uses langoustine instead in dishes such as ravioli in shrimp broth or roasted in lobster broth.
Barnachon will visit regularly, but has appointed Florian Muller, a former apprentice at L'Etang du Moulin, as head chef in his absence. The pastry chef is Loic Poitou, formerly of the Royal Garden Hotel.
Barnachon is open about the fact that it will be difficult to stick to his principles in Hong Kong. He says he will be aiming for a balanced menu and one that encourages children to eat properly. "There will be no French fries," he says.