"Good products and a dash of madness are the pillars of the catering trade."

"Good products and a dash of madness are the pillars of the catering trade."

Interview with Philippe Capdevielle, former student of Alain Ducasse at the Louis XV *** in Monaco, who, in twenty years, has become one of the star caterers in southwest France.
A telling interview.

In his laboratory near Bordeaux, this 50 year old chef with his singsong accent, adapts French gourmet food with originality and the technical nature of the trade.

You worked in a three star restaurant. What led you to set up your own business?

After the Lycée hôtelier of Talence, Alain Ducasse entrusted me with a few responsibilities at the Louis XV in Monaco by announcing the challenge that we would all need to obtain 3 Michelin stars in 3 years. Which we achieved! But I quickly realised that permanent pressure and culinary critics were not my cup of tea, and that I preferred a direct relationship with customers. You know, I cook to make people like me (laughs). Like a foster mother. I cook for my son when he comes back home or for the other son who takes an examination or for a smile from my daughter... At the age of 24 and with the help of my wife, I therefore set up my own business in my home region.

How is the catering profession today?

The profession of hotelier-caterer not only means preparing 3,000 plates in a quarter of an hour, but designing the whole reception, from the venue to the creative concept through to the furniture, decoration, service and the relationship with the customer. Although of course the kitchen is the centre of it all. So, to answer your question, the profession of hotelier-caterer is not bearing up too badly. It suffers from the effects of the crisis with a bit of a lag, and should therefore adapt to trends that are changing very quickly.

Can you explain these trends?

With pleasure. I'll even list my top 5.

1 - Getting back to quality ingredients

Customers have increasingly more requirements and that's quite legitimate. But that does not necessarily mean that they are looking for the trendiest product, but the tastiest, from the best terroir

An example: Recently, a luxury brand gave me free rein and a virtually unlimited budget for its annual event. The pressure was on. After a sleepless night, I decided to serve them extremely high quality unprocessed products, close to their natural state: in a wood, under a dovecote tent, on a table of moss, we served country pâtés and traditional bread, pumpkin soup with white truffles, magnificent Bazas meat, wild mushrooms, French toast made in real-time... they loved it.

2 - Understanding what you eat

At one point we got lost in ultra-modern cuisine: we would mix everything, everything was foam or powder... Today, people want to see the product and understand it. When I do a highly refined dessert and little lemon tart, the latter is the most popular!

An example: for the opening of a law firm in Bordeaux, I will create an avocado bar (Translator's note: "avocat", the French for avocado also means lawyer in French)! I presented the product in all its infinite varieties. I will probably call it "avocado in all its states"! (laughs).

3 - Offering a touch of madness

Not all customers ask for it, but we sense that there is a need to create an event and not simply serve great food in a beautiful venue. So I rack my brains, for the same budget or even less, due to the crisis.

An example: for a car launch, we were in a completely unusual place (for a reception), a private car park. I could not go down the classic route so I prepared buffets on the egg theme: soft-boiled eggs with baby spinach and snails in green sauce, stir-fried with a cep cream, candied shallots and wine sauce... Why egg? Why not? It was offbeat, as was the event itself.

4 - Creating a high-impact moment

The rule nowadays is to create an experience, a "wow" moment. We are somewhat helped by food programmes that have made cooking the star of the show. People like to see "live action", the commis in the kitchen, cooking their foie gras or the chef preparing a buffet... Here's a tip: with an event, everything happens on site, we work less in our kitchen so it is less expensive...

An example: several come to mind. 12-metre-long Breton shortbread that the pastry chef decorated during the meal. Octopus tentacles that we had hung next to the buffet and was cooked at low temperature with smoked paprika, to order. Or a half transparent construction tarp, behind which we set up a buffet in 4 minutes, during a song, before lifting the tarp in one go.

5- Getting people involved

In the same vein, one thing that works very well are "do it yourself" workshops. People love being put to work, especially with the help of a professional. Look at the success of cooking classes.

An example: a simple lemon tart workshop where guests work on the recipe in groups of twenty. What was awesome was that even when it went wrong their tart seemed better to them than the ones we had prepared!

Thanks for this guided tour into 2015 French catering trends

All this still requires great expertise. How do you build it?

I'm not alone in this adventure. Every year for the past seven years now, I have brought together the best catering companies in our great country, in an association called Traiteurs de France. We organise fraternal and good-humoured culinary games on a defined theme each year. It results in a short cook book which we then give to our customers. I will leave my position in the coming months: it is good to pass the torch in time.

For my own company, the most important thing is to have the right people working with me. I recruit cooks whose eyes shine, even though they are somewhat less experienced.At least that way they have not fallen into bad habits elsewhere (laughs). Aged 4, I would accompany my grandmother at 4 o'clock in the morning to the market of the Capucins, in Bordeaux, where everyone was good humouredly busy, getting ready to sell sausages, ham, prawns, cheese... I loved it. That is what I want to find in the eyes of my cooks: childhood desire.

The second is to fight for artistic content. We soon get bogged down with everyday problems: compliance with norms, hygiene, knowing what the cow grazed on, who collected the milk and how the cream was made. It can dampen a cook's ardour. Helping him look up and innovate, enjoy himself.

The last thing is to lead his troops with accuracy. In my team of 30 people, my cooks can burn thousands of euros worth of product. I'll not be happy, but I will always forgive and forget. But if they add a rotten cherry tomato in a dish and know it, they're out. For the rest, as I am lucky to be a cook myself, I lead the creative aspects and menus. But if I have to refuse a dish, I always bring a technical solution or flavour option. That is the rule. Otherwise, I put on my apron, and I rework everything with the cook until we find a way!

All of this is theoretical. It's like educating children: you try your best, you sometimes succeed, you often get things wrong, but that's already a good thing!

Do Les vergers Boiron products help you?

They do indeed! We discovered Les vergers Boiron products when we tested them a few years back at a session of Traiteurs de France. We said to ourselves "wow, we're going to do lots of things with this". And indeed, having ready to use products, prepared by professionals according to the rules. It's priceless. We save an incredible amount of time which we can dedicate to creating dishes and mastering the preparation.

You were talking about good products, original products... is that also the case?

Yes, exactly. We can smell fresh fruit and vegetables and can tell they are picked at maturity. It guarantees perfect flavour. Melon, for example, which rapidly goes off, here the flesh is perfect. The diversity of the range is amazing: I use bergamot, yuzu and lemongrass a lot to give an exotic flavour. Recently I made goat's cheese cannelloni enhanced with lemon and yuzu. Or better: a strawberry soup mixed with red peppers, in test tubes. A great success! For me, Les vergers Boiron products are like a Pantone range of tastes and colours.

October 2015