It has begun, the biggest week for students on TAFE hospitality courses in Launceston. Under the captaincy of one of the world’s best chefs Alain Passard, they are prepping lunch for eighty at Josef Chromy Winery, and a fifteen course degustation for one hundred and twenty diners at the college’s restaurant.
Monsieur Passard had gone for some lunch when I got to the kitchens at TAFE yesterday, and who can blame him. After service at L’Arpege on Saturday night, he got straight on a plane and flew to Launceston, doing a meet and greet with the students a few hours after arriving and getting on with examining the fresh premium produce being trucked in from all over Tasmania.
‘They don’t want things refrigerated, it has to taste how it did when it came out of the ground,’ says Robert Atkins, head of the kitchens at TAFE Launceston. He points out the tragic supermarket strawberries which are going back to where they came from, while a grower of real strawberries from the east coast beetles his way through the byways of Tasmania to bring proper, tasty ones to the party.
These will be plated with other summer fruits and a hibiscus infusion, Manon Poisbeau tells me. One of the two sous chefs to accompany Monsieur Passard from Paris, she is now keeping an eye on the contents of two mammoth pots into which her diminutive form only just allows her to see. Hibiscus flowers was one of the surprise elements on the order sheet that winged its way from France a couple of weeks ago, but it has made for a heady scented floral broth. Next to it is a pot filled to the brim with rooibos tea, orange juice and peels, and more hibiscus. ‘This will be served with the wallaby,’ Manon tells me. This instantly seems like a brilliant idea, that marrying of citrus fruit and lean, read wallaby. Furthermore, I’ve got rooibos tea and oranges at home and can get my hands on wallaby easily. Which begs the question, why do we often have baked potatoes for dinner?
This corner of the kitchen is particularly fragrant and I’m reluctant to leave it but there is magic everywhere you look. At a central station, two of the students are cooking, macerating and generally pulverising crabs into a bisque with the help of the other Parisian sous chef Marine Hervouet. It’s a noisy, industrial process. I handle my kitchen whitegoods with respect and a dash of fear, but these guys bully them into life with everyday pragmatism. The Thermomix is the new wooden spoon.
Even though the finished plate will depend on the refined gestures and poised touch that Passard has developed over his working life to present dishes of high splendour and beauty, the making of what’s on them must rely upon machines, especially for so many diners. ‘It makes the texture different,’ says Marine. ‘If you want a nice texture for a puree, you need a machine.’
Marine herself has a whirlwind, productive quality about her. Just 23 years old, she is already a veteran of the kitchen, having worked for Passard for two years, and in two other restaurants previously, one of them Michelin starred. She strides around the kitchen with confidence and Parisian aplomb, her arms a festival of cuts and ink, already fully in command of the equipment and the people after just one morning. In France, one has the choice of learning to be a chef working two weeks and studying one alternately. This means early entry into the restaurant trade, learning on the job and potentially for the best. Passard’s kitchen is all about a ‘nice connection to the produce, a bit of emotion, and a bit of technique,’ she tells me. Although the food is extraordinary, the sensibility behind it is quite simple, of complete respect for the produce and understanding of seasonality. I ask her what is her favourite dish or thing to work with, if that’s allowed when you’re a chef. ‘Yeah yeah, you can,’ she says. ‘Mostly working with vegetables. I love meat but with vegetables you can show your emotion. With meat and fish, it’s like a big fist on the table, there’s less experimentation.’ I picture the dishes I’ve seen Passard’s kitchen prepare, courtesy of Netflix, and the delicacy with which they’re assembled, like small works of art.
Like the paint and canvas for an artwork, the ingredients for a great dish must be painstakingly prepped, and students Shelby Lennox and Carissa Hack are at a vegetable station doing just that. Carissa is chopping spring onions with millimetre exactness, and Shelby is cleaning several hundred Mexican cucumbers, each the size of a cumquat, individually and by hand. In their fourth and second year of a Certificate III in Hospitality, they’ve both taken a week of work to be here.
In just a few hours Shelby has seen new things, she says: new ways of treating vegetables, a new awareness of the knife skills required for precision work in a kitchen where everything has to be done to exacting requirements. ‘And you wouldn’t normally think of making an ice cream out of celeriac and mustard,’ she adds. But they have done just that, and she retrieves it from the fridge so I can try some. Not yet fully frozen, it still has the consistency of a sauce. The flavour punch it packs is almost overwhelming, but in my home-cook’s mind I’m thinking that by the time it’s frozen, that fullness of flavour will be needed to deliver on the palate.
It’s the first of what we all expect to be a week of out-of-the-box conceptual cooking. I ask the two women whether it is hard to go home and cook for themselves when they spend their days surrounded by such incredible scents and flavours. ‘When you go home your fridge just looks boring,’ says Carissa with some feeling.
No danger of that here. While what’s on the benches is recognisable as the everyday ingredients we might all use, what’s coming out of the machines, the smokers, the ovens and the pans is clearly of another culinary world. Can’t wait for it to arrive in front of me.