A blog, inspired by my love for my daughter, that embraces quality food, service and experiences which make life worth living. In the words of Tennyson's Ulysses, " I cannot rest from travel. I will drink life to the lees." Seeking that incredible dining or hotel experience and writing about it.
At Chef's Table with Christian Antoine, Chef de Cuisine Giornotte - Ritz Carlton, Abu Dhabi
In the third of my monthly features on a Chef that has gripped my imagination or soul, I sit down with Christian Antoine At Chef's Table.
I have a chat with Christian, the head chef
at Giornotte, and learn so
much about the philosophy behind serving quality dishes here - to be
the best. He believes in the product on offer, and this is not just sales talk.
He genuinely strives to ensure that he and is team are producing the best
dishes from the freshest ingredients. Christian is easy going, accessible and
warm. I thank him, and continue my brunch.
are words from a review I did of Giornotte in May 2014 when I first met
Christian Antoine, Giornotte’s Chef de Cuisine at Ritz Carlton, Abu Dhabi. That
was the day I started having achat with
Christian in my head. There was a magnetism about him. Nothing pretentious or
superficial – all substance. Genuine, sincere and with a verve for life – his
laughter was infectious. The smile, oh the smile. I simply had to have him At Chef’s Table.
I start off with Scallops
with textured granny Smith apple, bacon dust on a bed of cauliflower mayonnaise.
It is a dish that plays around with textures and flavours. Scallops, with a
natural delicate sweetness, complement the acidity of the apple. He has chosen
an apple that does not dominate the scallops with its own sweetness. He wants
that bit of sourness on the plate. The bacon dust brings not only crunchiness
and contrast to the scallops in texture, but also flavour in the guise of that ‘bacony’
saltiness, if you will. Finally, the choice of china for the starter brings out
another contrast – that of colour. Serving the dish on dark china brings out
the white of the scallops, something that would have been lost on the
traditional white plate.
Chef sits back and there is a fondly nostalgic look about
him as he reflects on his childhood. There is deep emotion in his words as he
talks about growing up under the hand of his mom and aunt.
I listen to him
recall his childhood and his special bond with his mother. It is the story of a
mother who epitomized sacrifice so that her son could have a future. He spent
his formative years mostly with his aunt because of his mother’s working hours.
At an early age he understood the demands of life, and accepted that he could
see his mum for a short time every day. While under his aunt’s care, he started
making pickles for his neighbours. He was 5 or 6 at the time. A first encounter
with making food. He grew up with no real intention of becoming achef. “It just happened,” as he puts it. At
age 20 he enrolled in Mauritius Hotel School where he met the next influence in
his life, Francois Gaucin, where he was trained in classical French cuisine.
In life there are those who play it safe. The thought of
death and the non permanence of relationships are threats that live with us
every day. But how can we not love? How can the little boy not but love his
mother with the intensity that is matched only by the bond between a father and
daughter? This comes through as we talk about the influence his mother has had
on him. It is no ordinary relationship. The man I see sitting opposite me
carries with him some principle influences from his mother and most of them centre
on how to treat people and how to live life. Chefsays the values his mother gave him are still
with him. They have moulded him into the man and chef that he is. He thinks it
essential to respect, respect and respect other people. You in turn will be
resected for what you do in this life…
Next up, Chef serves Ode
to the duck in ‘Duck in three service’. This excites me personally. I think
a chef can really show his skill by cooking the same protein in 3 different
ways. It is a pretty dish. The presentation is fine and I am sure it has given
Chef immense pleasure in preparing it for it reconnects him, I believe, to his
The duck is beautifully cooked. There is a rich brown
colour, and that skin looks amazing. Baby vegetables – beetroot, carrot, baby
corn, celery root to mention a few - stand upright on a bed of pea puree. Why
pea puree I ask? The colour he says - he loves cooking with peas because of
that beautiful colour it lends to a dish. There is a surprise among the
vegetables – popcorn. I am beaming. Chef is one of a couple of chefs I have met
who privilege, in word and creation, the importance of memory in the guest’s
dining experience. The dish is a celebration of innocence and happiness.
Popcorn – childhood, fun fares, movie nights, cinema. How many sad memories do
you have of eating popcorn?
It is an apt moment to return to his reflections on
childhood. His happiest childhood memory? There is a collage of memories he
shares: playing with friends, picking fruit from trees, moments with his
mother. These thoughts lead Chef to add that in an ever-changing world of flux
and movement, he believes in the permanence and longevity of friendship.
I cut into my duck - Chef has really cooked it perfectly. The
knife goes through the lovely skin – the latter not crispy. Duck is notoriously
challenging to cook, but as I bite into this, there is a firm, juicy and tenderness
about the duck – the way it should be. The orange infused sauce has the right
balance of citrus and saltiness, and Chef puts only a little on the duck – I
like this. Sauce is often used to mask a poorly cooked piece of meat – not
here. This is about that duck!
In continuing the duck symphony, I try a seemingly simple
dish of Potato espuma with duck gizzard,
fondant aubergine ragout. I say simple because after the first duck
interpretation, there is no pizazz or visual fireworks to this – it is all about
intense flavours. This is more akin to comfort food. Chef recommends taking
bread and dipping it in the dish. There is a curry taste underneath that
surprises. It’s is an exciting dish because the espuma hides what is
underneath. It is homely and hearty!
Finally, as the duck symphony reaches its climax, I am
served Foie gras ice cream. The
success of this dish occurs on three levels. Everyone loves ice cream, and it
in itself evokes memories of happiness, but adding the foie gras flavor brings air
of sophistication. Secondly, it has a gorgeous consistency; a lovely marriage
between iciness and creaminess. Finally, the balance is perfect. The notion of
foie gras and ice cream coming together messes with the brain – already achallenge, but because of that balance of the
sweetness and the foe gras flavor, it works brilliantly.
Chef touches on the success of the Giornotte brunch. It was
about redefining brunch, he says. When you have a brunch that can cater for up
to 500 people in one sitting, as I discovered, it is a logistical challenge to
offer something beyond just the buffet. When I tried the brunch last May, I
remember the care and time taken to plate the dishes. Listening to Chef now
allows me to understand deeper what was happening at that brunch. A fine experience, he says, is about a
good product, master technique, excellent presentation and of course a
memorable guest experience. In having a brunch with 20-25 live cooking stations
he wanted to elevate the experience. In the ensuing months he would be richly rewarded
when Timeout Abu Dhabi and What’s On acknowledged the Giornotte
Friday Brunch as the best in the city. I remember speaking to him on the phone
when the What’s On winner was
announced. The little boy in him could not downplay his joy and he shared it
with me, natural and uncensored. This was another manifestation of the honesty
and display of emotion that pervades his character.
Now, having received accolades for the brunch, where to next
I ask him? His answer is simple: He wants to win it again.
What is happiness? I ask Chef. Appreciating the simple
things, the seemingly insignificant, ‘unmomentous’ things. These are values he
has received from his mother, and as I listen to him, there is a deep love and
pride for his mother, who sadly passed away last year. Why do we risk love when
losing hurts so much? I recall this line from Sir Richard Attenborough’s biopic
based on the life of CS Lewis. Because there is no other way I guess. So while
there is still a rawness of emotion in his words, I can sense a celebratory
tone too as his mother lives on in the way he lives his life now. Only Chef
would know the extent to which his dishes at times are infused with aspects of
If the foie gras ice cream was, in the words of Chef, about
leaving my culinary blinkers at home, the final dish is even more an exponent
of that. Pumpkin, Coconut and olive oil
symphony is served. It is an exquisite dish. Colourful. Black sponge
catches the eye because it is such an unusual colour in a dessert. The edible
gold leaf does not escape the eye. Nor does the centre piece, the mousse of
olive oil which is coated with a sensuous and evocative red colour. White
chocolate pearls, an olive oil capsule and a large sugar ring make their way
onto the plate. Then, there is the pumpkin puree! Yes, pumpkin. Wow. The shock
value, something Chef enjoys, is obvious here. I crack open the olive oil capsule
and allow it to run over the mousse. Balance. Balance. Nicely done. The pumpkin
puree and olive oil balance the sweetness on the plate, while its texture serves
as a foil for the crunch of the sugar. That mousse is silky smooth, airy and
just floats in my mouth. A tour de force of a dessert!
As we finish of our evening with acup of coffee,I think about my own mother’s legacy in me.
My thoughts drift to the values she has instilled in me. Those 76 year old
hands that have worked so hard over the years. The answer to these questions
are fit for another time, but my evening At
Chef’s Table has got me thinking along these lines. As Chef continues to
inspire his team of chefs and make all day dining soulful and alluring, I
imagine his mum, his inspiration, echoing Langston Hughes’ words: