Guy Martin: At the Roots of French Cuisine

Who are French farmers? How do they grow premium produce? And above all, how should it be cooked? On his weekly show Epicerie Fine on TV5MONDE USA, chef Guy Martin – who owns the Grand Véfour restaurant in Paris – meets with lovers of terroir and gastronomy in a return to the roots of what really makes a great dish: high-quality ingredients.
© Michel Langot

France-Amérique: What message are you trying to communicate on this show?

Guy Martin: I am from an agricultural background; my grandparents were farmers in the mountains of Savoy. I therefore found it interesting to showcase this world, while also presenting the people who work in it. They provide us with the best, and give chefs access to exceptional products so that they can create dishes that reflect these high standards. Without them, we would not even exist. With this in mind, each episode starts with an agricultural story about farmers, fishermen, or winegrowers, who work in what can often be a challenging environment. There is also a section on the history of a product, a recipe, a tradition, a place, and sometimes even a celebration.

The show has been running since 2011. Do you still discover new products and ways of growing them?

Of course! Over the last ten years, some people have stopped working and others put farms back in business. I am constantly discovering things, as each product is the soul of the person who grows it. There are also new arrivals. For example, saffron was grown in Savoie until World War II, and a group of young people have recently decided to take up the torch. A ricegrower and a mozzarella producer have also just started working in the Cathar country of Southwestern France. We also find products that we would not expect to have in France, such as the Japanese herb shiso.

Has your show changed in light of today’s environmental issues?

In the “Ecology in Action” section, we look at local initiatives to save biodiversity, and others supported by organizations and researchers. We have traveled to the Maures Mountains, between Hyères and Fréjus, with naturalist Vincent Blondel, and to the Vercors Mountains in the Alps to film the endangered black grouse. We have also been working with local food networks and products grown using organic or sustainable farming practices for many years.

Each show finishes with a recipe that you make using the products that you have presented. What is your creative process?

Sometimes I start by sketching. When I see a product, it speaks to me; it tells me what it wants to be served with! The recipe has therefore already been prepared and tasted before I start making it – I know all the flavors and textures. Is there enough bitterness? Does it need more acidity? How long will it linger on the palate? What about the finish, or the crunchiness?

Is it difficult to demonstrate these skills in ways that enable anyone watching to copy them?

I have written lots of books, some aimed at professionals and others for the general public. In the latter, you have to be as instructive as possible. I have also taught cooking classes in Japan. Even when you teach chefs, you have to explain certain techniques that they may not understand. Making things simple so others can learn seems natural to me. That does not mean that you should cut corners, but rather add more of them in order to explain the process.

You started working as a pizza maker at the age of 17. What changes in French cuisine have you witnessed throughout your career?

French cuisine, much like art, is constantly moving. We have become aware of certain things and we now try to source our ingredients as locally as possible, to recycle, and to produce less waste. We have also realized how rare products are, as the human population is bigger than ever. This global shift in thinking naturally has an influence on how we work. In addition, Escoffier’s leading classics have evolved. For example, the sauces are now lighter and are made with vegetables. Using more vegetables is not a problem, of course, as they are already the cornerstone of my cuisine. They are products in their own right, just like meat, and I have been creating vegetarian meals for Air France’s first-class passengers for the last fifteen years!

How do you view your profession?

Titles are not a purpose in themselves. The real goal is finding enjoyment in a profession, keeping the customer in mind, and communicating a passion. Being a chef is a job you share, a language. When I prepare fish, I think about the backwash of the sea and smell the salty aroma. I ask myself whether it comes from the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, or the English Channel. In the late fall, I think about all the people who have hoed the potatoes with their hazelnutty scent from the Alps. I travel through both space and time every time I cook.

The show Epicerie Fine is broadcast twice a week on TV5MONDE USA.