French Chefs On Street Food

by AFP/Mark McCord, Jan 16, 2006 | Destinations: Hong Kong / China

HONG KONG, Jan 16, 2006 - He's among an elite coterie of chefs who command the sort of respect usually accorded royalty, but when Thierry Marx comes to Hong Kong there's only one place you'll find him searching for a meal. "I hit the street as soon as I come here," says an excited Marx.

"There is nothing like street food, especially in Asia. It is so very important to the development of different cuisines -- I get so much inspiration from the street."

For Marx, named 2005 chef of the year by gastronomic bible Gault Millau, there is no such thing as "slumming it" when it comes to food.

"You cannot ignore what is on the street," says the two-and-a-half star Michelin chef, in Hong Kong for a brief spell in the kitchen at the plush Sheraton Hotel's Oyster Bar. "That's where new ideas are tried and tested. Wherever I go on my travels I make sure I know what is being eaten by the ordinary people."

The motivation behind The Chateau Cordeillan-Bages in the heart of the Bordeaux region, Marx cultivated his love of the Asian street during a four-year spell in the Tokyo kitchen of Japanese star chef Kiyomi Mikuni. "In Japan, some of the best food is found in the small cafes and stalls that spring up throughout the city -- it's good, spontaneous, cheap and above all healthy food," enthuses the bull-headed but soft-spoken maestro.

Marx is among a lengthening list of top French chefs that have looked to Asia for inspiration and to take advantage of the region's growing wealth and demand for French haute cuisine. Once dubbed the greatest chef of the 20th century, Michelin three-starred Joel Robuchon has three eateries in Tokyo and one in Macau alongside his Paris, Monte Carlo and London restaurants and as his worldwide L'Atelier chain.

Nine-starred super chef Alain Ducasse has extended his SPOON franchise to Hong Kong and Tokyo to complement his top-rated businesses in Paris, Monte Carlo and New York.

And Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who spent years working in Singapore, has lent his name to restaurants in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Although Marx has made a name for himself with robust hearty dishes like his Pauillac lamb creations, he is renowned for incorporating many of the techniques he picked up while working in Asia. "Japanese cuisine is very similar to French cuisine in the use of ingredients and in the importance of presentation," he explains. "There is a similar passion for food among the two as well. So it has been quite easy for me to bring the two together."

Among his Asian-styled signature dishes are translucent slow-cooked eggs in parmesan cheese and broth, which he adapted from a Japanese dish, and his pan-seared sea bass with oriental onion compot, which also makes liberal use of sesame oil, a popular accompaniment to many Asian cuisines.

While the variety found in Asian street food nourishes Marx's muse he also believes it could point the way to a solution for a growing gastronomic crisis in his European home.

"Street food in Europe now means fast-food -- and that usually means bad food," he says. "If all the youngsters are going to eat is beefburgers with cheese, then the obesity problem we have will only get worse."

He believes that if he can harness the essence of Asian street food and transplant that back to France then the younger generation may grow used to better and more healthy dining. "Good street food is good food," he says. "If we can get fast food that young people eat to be better food -- using fresh ingredients and not too much fat -- then maybe we can produce a healthier generation of youngsters."

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