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featured chefschristophe megel

February 2003
The Ducasse Experience
Alain Ducasse has been a great influence in my life. I remember the first day I walked into his kitchen. I was 19 years old. From the moment my feet hit the kitchen floor, I could feel everyone staring at me - as if their eyes were screaming, "here comes the baby!" I was so scared and unsure about my future, intensity was all around me - I could feel the pressure. I will never forget that moment it has changed many things in my life.

Working for Ducasse was a vertical learning curve. He had (and still does have) a very strong passion for perfection using only the best products and the latest equipment. Everything boiled down to precision. Ducasse would never settle for second best. Ducasse was a very impatient chef - driven for excellence, he liked everything spic and span. From the moment that I arrived in the morning, I would have to focus on being ready for lunch service, ensuring that I worked in the cleanest manner. Then as now, Ducasse's greatest strength lay in his ability to drive himself to the end of what he believed in. Never stopping until he achieved what he wanted. He executed his dreams to perfection and saw no limits. He would bring me from point A to B with incredible intensity - an expert not just at the art of cooking but in coaching too.

I have been influenced by his continuous drive and pursuit for perfection. I share his respect for the product and most of all his passion for the craft. I was very fortunate to spend so much time with him in the kitchen. Certain elements of the Ducasse experience surface in my kitchen on a daily basis - organization, respect, discipline and precision are four of the most important. The Ritz is such a big operation there has to be a very high level of organization throughout the culinary division. Ducasse taught me that the race for perfection has no finish line.

Cooking In The USA
New York proved to be a great learning experience. Similar to most people I had the dream of working in America; luckily I was given the opportunity on a silver platter. What better place to be than at Le Cirque - with Alain Ducasse's recommendation? Having worked for the finest chefs in Europe I wanted to experience the finest in the U.S., getting the opportunity to work at Le Cirque was a dream.

In New York, everything I had learned in Europe was re-calibrated to fit the style of the City. The intensity to create the best food remained but I found a new challenge. In Europe, we were primarily concerned about food quality, in the U.S.; our drive for cuisine was coupled with a good, profitable business strategy and close attention to how we dealt with our co-workers. Exposure to American labor laws offered me a new form of education. In addition to the working environment being different from Europe, the New York crowd had different culinary expectations. This was back in '93 and at that time a creamy soup in Monte Carlo would be well received while New Yorkers would frown upon the thick substance. Tastes and demands varied a lot.

Working with Le Cirque's chef - Sylvain Portay was a lot of fun. It was very tough in the beginning - a big learning experience for both of us. But I had known him for several years so it made my days a little easier; Sylvain showed the same drive in New York that he had shown in Monte Carlo. He was a great support to me. I also had the pleasure of getting to know pastry chef Jacques Torres. Jacques helped me to understand the States, he was already a very successful man and his advice was always welcome.

The Asian influence followed the North American. Korea, Japan and Singapore. Korea affected me in a positive way. It gave me an understanding of Asian culture. A new set of rules had to be adapted to in order to deliver. Japan allowed me to discover the executive chef's world. I was number two at that time working with my other mentor Aloysius Bokhorst. He taught me how to plan and organize a team of chefs. He also taught me different habits - to be proactive, have an end in mind, and think win-win - he shared his many years of experience with me. Having him as a mentor is one of the best things that has happened in my life. When I started working for him I was still kind of wild, he was able to manage me and put me on the right path. I truly owe this man - he gave me the chance and the knowledge to be successful in the executive world and taught me not to loose focus on the product.

My travels have molded and shaped my cuisine - I have learnt so much from traveling. I take the best of what I see and mix it with what I already know, but the base of my cuisine is still what I have learned from Ducasse - respect for the product.

Some Advice
My advice to a chef that wants to work in Asia is get ready to change your behavioral style. One must be able to respect in order to gain respect. In Asia, you must gain the trust of your people in order to be effective.

If you are interested in running the kitchens' of a big hotel - building a team is key. This job is much bigger than just cooking; leadership is crucial and very challenging. Success equates, not just to how good you are but to how good your staff selection process is too. At the end of the day, it is almost impossible to micro-manage when you are running a banquet facility that feeds a thousand guests plus three restaurants and a hotel with over 600 rooms. You have to learn how to trust people, trust your team and to make the right selection when developing future talents.

I think, on a profound level, this is what I have learned from my mentors as they have given me their trust. Now it's time to give mine.

Seared Lamb Fillet with Tarragon & Vegetable Crepinette on Olive Sauce

Ingredients for four
240 g Lamb loin (60 g fillet each)
4 pc Pork fat net
120 g Fresh Shitake mushrooms cut into halves and sautéed
80 g Green zucchini diced and sautéed
80 g Potatoes cooked and diced
60 g Wedged tomato confit
20 ml Tomato coulis
20 g Black olives
20 g Pine nut kernels chopped and sautéed
2 pc Thai basil
20 ml Pesto sauce
20 g Roasted garlic
40 g Parmesan cheese
120 ml Lamb jus

Season the lamb with salt and pepper, sear on a hot pan with butter and cook lightly.

Skin the tomatoes and cut into wedges. Marinate with the tomatoes with the olive oil and thyme.Bake at 80 degrees centigrade for an hour and set aside.

Prepare the tomato coulis using some finely chopped tomato confit. Sauté the chopped shallotsin olive oil, adjust the seasoning and set aside.

Lay the pork fat net in a timbale mould and apply a layer of butter.

On the pork fat net, lay the tomato confit, Shitake mushrooms, olives, basil leaves followed by thetomato coulis, pesto sauce, pine nuts, garlic, cooked potatoes and diced zucchini. Cover with porkfat net and bake in the oven.

Grate the parmesan cheese finely and place a thin layer in a non-stick pan until crispy. Remove, crushand set aside.

To serve, place the timbale on a plate and top with the lamb fillet. Garnish with the roasted garlic, Shitakemushrooms, olives, crispy crushed Parmesan cheese, basil and dribble some lamb jus around.

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