Some people are star-struck by athletes, actors or musicians. I, however, am wowed by chefs. This is a long-standing predilection that I developed at the age of 5 upon meeting the legendary Paul Bocuse. I may have been too young to understand his deft skill and unsurpassed classical technique, but I am not too old now to recollect fondly his regal demeanor and impressively starched white uniform.
The difference between then and now is that I can and do appreciate exceptional culinary skill. What remains the same is that I can still develop a school girl’s crush when a chef’s food is matched by his charisma and personal style. My latest crush is a talented young Frenchman, Mathieu Pacaud.
Mathieu is one of France’s new generation of talented young chefs. His talent is the product of a combination of perseverance, training and genetics. His father and mother, Bernard and Daniele Pacaud, are the co-owners of L’ Ambroisie, an iconic restaurant in Place des Vosges and a recipient of three Michelin stars since 1988. Mathieu became co-Chef as young man in his 20’s, alongside his father. Together they hosted Barack Obama on his last state visit to Paris.
For many chefs that would be enough, but for Mathieu it is merely a milestone of a career in progress. In December 2014 he opened Hexagone; in February 2016 it had earned its first Michelin star. Situated in the Trocadero, Hexagone has not adopted the glorious traditionalism of his parent’s decor or cuisine but, rather, offers exceptional food in an attractive but less imposing environment. We celebrated my son Hunter’s 20th birthday with Mathieu’s extraordinary six-course tasting menu. It was a joyous evening in every respect.
As splendid as was our evening at Hexagone, I learnt of a “secret’ place behind a hidden door. I was impertinently done with Hexagone and had moved-on to my next foody adventure. Mathieu’s secret place is called Histories and had opened five months after Hexagone. It announced itself to the gastronomic world by quickly earning 2 Michelin stars, an unheard of accomplishment for restaurant opened less than a year.
Knowing about the secret door is not the same as passing through a magic portal and getting a table, especially when the restaurant only seats 18 and it was Fashion Week. I was rebuffed initially but they eventually took pity as I raised my game from beseeching to begging, and possibly worse. What can I say? The Keeper-of-the-Book must have understood that I appreciate great food and would relish the experience far more than another fidgeting fashionista in size 0 dress.
They found me a table and I strolled triumphantly through the secret door. Like Alice I suddenly found myself in an enchantingly unexpected Wonderland. The room is stunning; my table was nestled in a small alcove overlooking the garden. Mathieu introduced himself. I was in heaven. And that was before the food came.
Being something of a self-confessed glutton I ordered the degustation menu. Far more than a hit parade of the chef’s best dishes, the eight-course affair was a truly imaginative gastronomic odyssey paired artfully with a Grand Cru wine tasting. Our first glass arrived, Taittinger Rose champagne, along with a first wave of food that included twelve exquisite “bites”. The highlights of the opening salvo were a briny dollop of caviar atop a creamy gougere, a square of impeccably rich fois gras and a delicate tart filled with fresh pea puree. That these treats were merely the prelude to the courses to come was both tantalizing and foreboding. After my histrionics to get a table I simply could not limp to the finish line with half-eaten plates.
When the meal began in earnest there were no soft openings to set the stage for future courses. Our first three courses were actually multiple small dishes of different preparations of tomato, then shrimp and, thirdly, eggs. Yes, the humble oeuf was the perfect tableau for revealing the chef’s skill with subtle flavourings and enviable technique. The presentation was artistic and the staff seemed to take as much pleasure in serving as we did in eating. Each course was accompanied by skillfully paired wines that highlighted Mathieu’s delicate yet flavourful cooking. By the midway point I had abandoned my note-taking, forgotten my obligation to retell the experience to you, dear readers, and I was in a state of hedonistic bliss.
Notwithstanding my bacchanalian blur, I can still taste two my favorite courses of the evening: the langoustine wrapped in lighter-than-air phyllo pastry and the filet of sole served in a light creamy white wine foam with chanterelle mushrooms. Both courses gave strong evidence to the assertion that great cooking occurs when impeccable ingredients are allowed to express their true flavours and textures. The chef’s mastery was evident but never self-evident.
The presentation of the food was creative and colorful, each dish a work of art as my photos can attest. The service succeeded in being friendly and formal without tripping into pretense. I was especially grateful that the staff indulged my prep-school French language skills and enthusiastic rambling. The food and ambiance set very high standards and made for a very enjoyable evening. Though Mathieu is well known in France, I cannot help but feel I have encountered a shining young star in the French culinary constellation . Next time I’m in Paris I’m going back, only this time for lunch in hopes that I can finish every bite!