Guy Savoy Embraces Culinary Innovation in France and the World
The great chef Guy Savoy belongs to what some say is the last of the old French masters, a group that extends the line of Escoffier, who extended the line of Brillat-Savarin. Keepers of the faith, upholders of a grand and timeless tradition, they have worked tirelessly and with transcendent skill to build bridges to the diners of today, to make relevant the great and revered canon of dishes that make up French cuisine. The group is small, and also includes Joël Robuchon, Paul Bocuse and Pierre Gagnaire (Michel Richard, the dazzling and witty American transplant, passed away in August). Some chefs say that there will never be another generation like it.
But when we spoke with Savoy last month in the gleamingly immaculate kitchen of his eponymous Las Vegas restaurant, his thoughts were not much on the past, on the ponderous weight of history. He spoke with great animation, eyes twinkling, about the unprecedented changes in the world of food that are literally transforming cuisine—French cuisine, American cuisine—before our eyes. At 63, he showed no cantankerousness or dismissiveness toward the current generation, and refused to accept the complaints of some in the food world that French food has been compromised by globalization. On the contrary, he seemed fascinated to be witness to the changes sweeping his industry, and eager to learn more about what’s taking place. Savoy is blessed with a keen palate, a fanatical work ethic, and what football coaches like to call a “motor”—a drive to succeed. But it was also obvious in talking to him that his quality of extreme openness, his rapaciousness for new experiences, new tastes, and new ideas, is the je ne se quoi of his character—the certain something, the special seasoning, that helped him to become one of the greatest chefs the world has ever seen.
There seems to be a renewed interest in French country cooking in the U.S. right now. What do you think of that and what is the state of French cooking in the country?
French food in America? Now, the products, the herbs—the gastronomy—everywhere now, you can eat very well. French food of course, but—everything else, too. In the United States, you have now a U.S. gastronomy, with the beef, the veal, the shellfish, the lobster, and many, many different products. And now the quality of the food is better. It’s exciting. And [it’s] the same way everywhere in the world now, too. And maybe the French show the way.
Our cuisine, at least at the restaurant level, is built upon yours.
Yes, the method and the product and the sensibility. Thomas Keller, a lot of other American chefs, will tell you their gastronomy comes from the French gastronomy. And now the same with England. England 40 years ago was a gastronomy desert—a desert, nothing. Ten years ago, Vegas, the same.
Tell me about coming out here for the first time—coming from Paris, this city of great sophistication and culture, to the American desert and Vegas, a Disneyland for adults.
My first trip was in 2003. Caesars had only one restaurant. Now? Nobu, Joël Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, Thomas Keller, Pierre Gagnaire. Amazing! And all over Asia, it’s this way. The whole world. Ten years ago in Vegas, you had only buffet at $4.95. Now you can find Italian food, French food, Mexican food, Thai food, Japanese food; it’s amazing. And when the cuisines do better and better, the products do, too. It’s not the opinion, it’s the reality. And I think the best example in the world is Vegas. In only 10 years! It’s amazing.
Forty years ago, French restaurants were dominant. Now, French is another cuisine in the mix. And yet French technique is what every chef learns—it’s the basis, therefore, for restaurants that aren’t French in theme or style.
The French cuisine, it showed the way. America cuisine has its own personality, its own sensibility. French cuisine has opened the eyes. That’s all.
What is the state of French cooking in the U.S.?
The French cuisine is, we can say, not only French cuisine, it’s also cheese, it’s also wine, it’s also bread, it’s also chocolate, it’s also French pâté.
In other words, it’s wrong to simply speak of French food in the restaurants.
Every country has its own cuisine. The French have the greatest diversity, we have all the fruits of the table: all the fish, and the truffles, and the cheese—all the wonderful things. I don’t know if it’s the best cuisine; I am not pretentious. I am sure it has the cuisine with the widest range. The list is long. In France, every city, every village, has its own specialty, its own cuisine.
Microcuisine. Local wine, local cheese, local bread. If you walk in France, here will be different from here. And that is beautiful. Here, in America, I can eat all the cuisine in the world. I eat many, many different cuisines in America. But in France, we have more. It’s not a dream, it’s reality. It’s not prejudice.
American food culture seems to have had a keen influence on French in recent years, with the Le Fooding movement, the rise of bistronomy, and even American-style grocery stores. What do you think explains —
Gastronomy has no passport. Gastronomy is gastronomy. It’s like music.
That’s a new thing in the world, no?
No passport. We have good food in the U.S. Music is not just for Austria, Germany, French. We can love music if you’re in America, French or Portuguese. We live on the same earth. And the influence—I’m sure we’ve influenced American cuisine. In the same way, of course, American cuisine has influenced us.
In what way?
Today in France, we have many restaurants with the influence from the U.S.A. — the beef, for example, and the spirit, the spirit of the restaurants —
The American looseness and informality.
The more casual spirit. Yes, yes. You see? We live on the same earth.
The mixing and the borrowing—it’s a relatively new thing. And the speed with which things are being shared and exchanged—the speed at which things are changing.
Yes. In Vegas, in 10 years. But in France, 30, 40 years — in 40 years, the evolution has been bigger than in all the 2,000 years before.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Are you saying that French cuisine has evolved more in the past 40 years than in 2000 years prior? I don’t want to misunderstand you.
Yeah, yeah—yes. Of course!
Gastronomy has no passport. Gastronomy is gastronomy. It’s like music. — Guy Savoy
Because of — what? The techniques, the knowledge?
The techniques, the interest, the interest of the guest. They know more. Today, more and more people from around the earth, and the interest for the food, not only gastronomy, but for the food. For the food—the cheese, the bread, the organics, the biodynamic wine. The wine, now, is everywhere—the American wine 50 or 60 years ago was... (makes a wincing face, shakes his head)
Terrible. But now? We have in America the greatest wine of the world. The evolution is incredible!
What has been more influential in the spread of French cooking around the globe? Technique? Or sensibility?
It is important to have—well, many things. Good food is good products, and after—the good technique, and after—the sensibility, the passion. And voila! The recipe of the gastronomy is all these things—products, technique, good team, and passion, passion to do something better.
What about tradition? You come from a place with such a rich culinary tradition, a place with a deep love and knowledge of terroir.
I think the cuisine here, now, it’s a blend, a blend of tradition and innovation.
Here, meaning Guy Savoy or Vegas? Or America generally?
Everywhere. The recipe of gastronomy is all of these things. Tradition and innovation. It is—OK (uses his fingers to list them): products, technique, good team, and passion. And sensibility, of course. If you have the passion and no products, no no. If you have the passion, products and not good team, no no. If you have the passion, the products, good team, but bad sensibility—zed. If you have the passion, the products, the good team, then ah …!
Can a palate be taught or is it something inherent?
No, it’s like—OK. You need to train. To train. The taste—is a memory. If you never eat banana, you can never recognize banana’s taste. If you never drink a pinot noir, you cannot recognize a pinot noir. You have to work at taste. Develop it.
Like muscles that need to be developed.
Yes, yes, like muscles. And like the music, too. Like playing an instrument.
Tell me a little bit about your palate, and how you trained it and developed it.
When I was kid, I had a great interest of the food. The morning, when I was in the school, I think about the lunch. And afternoon, I think about the hot chocolate. Yes. At the beginning, yeah. The interest. It was there at the beginning. You are a journalist—you had the interest to discover the world from the beginning, yes?
Yes. And also the interest in word. Words were my butter, my bread, my wine.
Oui! Of course. Of course. The words. You have to write with your products. And when the paper is finished—you put your whole sensibility, your passion, your tradition in it.
At this point in your career, do you see yourself as someone preserving a culinary heritage, or do you say—I am I, and I will do what interests me? Or maybe — I want to help push the cuisine toward the future?
I am French. I love France. And I love food. If your food is good but not French — I love it! It’s OK, it’s not a problem.
You, Paul Bocuse, Joël Robuchon, Pierre Gagnaire—this generation, your generation, the last, great generation of French chefs, carries forward the tradition and —
Shows the way. That’s it. Shows the way. Each generation moves. Moves. And works on. It’s like a car. You have the first car in 1880. And now! (His eyes pop dramatically.) Every generation added to the car. But for the food, the evolution, it’s the speed, now it’s the speed—the evolution is speed. And for me it’s OK, I love it, I love speed.
In Paris 15, 20 years ago, you could walk around in any arrondissement, find a simple bistro—no name place at all—and eat wonderful food. It’s becoming harder to do that, to find simple, wonderful food. I’ve heard more and more tourists, and more and more French men and women, too, complaining about the products in the marketplace, the decline in quality, the decline in standards.
Yes. Sure. Everywhere. But (he raises a finger), the new generation, 25, 35 years old, opened many, many, many new restaurants. Low price and good cuisine! Bistronomy. The proposition of the address — has never been less important. In Paris now, everywhere in Paris, a new bistro is opening by a young chef. Never before we have this. No. Never before!
Many French chefs have been talking about the regulation of products—the fact that pâtés are now under strict standards for handling, and the wines are regulated in a way they weren’t decades and centuries ago. Do you worry about the effect this is having on the cuisine, on the food? And will continue to have on the cuisine and food?
The regulation, sure. But no. No … I have a restaurant, OK? Almost 40 years. Before, only American people and Japanese people. That’s all. Now? China, India, Korea, from Norway, from Sweden … From everywhere now.
The whole world.
The whole world.