What Happens When the World’s Best French Chefs Cook a Dinner Together?

By
The master chefs. Photo: Mark Von Holden for the James Beard Foundation

Shocking but true: French master chefs Jol Robuchon, Guy Savoy, Alain Ducasse, Jean-Georges Vongrichten, and Franois Payard have never spent a night in a kitchen cooking a meal ensemble ... until last week. On Wednesday, the longtime friends gladly joined forces to raise money for the James Beard Foundation's annual benefit gala and auction at The Four Seasons, which was being labeled as a "historic" meal. Keep reading for a report from the dinner, interviews with the chefs, and a look at everything they served.

The chefs Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud both were invited and had scheduling conflicts, by the way have all eaten each other's food; whenever they're in town, they usually stop by each other's restaurants. (Savoy and Robuchon are particular fans of Le Bernardin, and Ducasse always likes it when his French brothers gather at DBGB.) But cooking with each other and collaborating on a menu with that many egos was something new. "Everybody has his own specialty and wants to showcase his best dish ever," said Vongerichten. "I wanted to do fish and they said, 'You can't do fish. You have to do meat.' And I had to say, 'Okay.' " Vongerichten's acquiescence likely has a lot to do with him being one of two "spring chickens" of the group. (Payard is the youngest.) As a sous-chef in Paris, he'd stayed up late nights studying the books of the elder three. "That was my goal, always, to be one of them. I've always admired them, since I was learning the craft," he said. "So today to be with them is, 'All right!'"

Savoy, Ducasse, and Robuchon seemed less intimidated. "It's a team," said Savoy. "It's a team for good food. It's very joyful. It's not a competition tonight. It's like a sport, a team that play a match for a good time."

Robuchon was up first with an elaborate starter made of potatoes with shaved white truffles and a foie gras carpaccio. Speaking through a translator, he told Grub Street that as soon as he found out the event would be in November, he knew he wanted to use white truffles since this is the best month for that delicacy, and he liked the idea of pairing one of the most expensive ingredients in the world with humble potatoes. The dish was so complex, he moved his team of French Culinary Institute students to the basement, where they could plate with plenty of space and plenty of quiet.

Following him would be Savoy with his signature artichoke soup with black truffle and a layered brioche with mushrooms and truffles. Payard had tasted it and was gushing already: "It's so incredible, even if it's a soup. This one, it give you an excitement that you never have. And it's not about crazy things. You think, 'Wow! That was artichoke? I can't believe it.'" Next was Ducasse with a dish of braised eggplant with smoked ricotta and a gratin boulangre of porcini mushrooms and fall vegetable that he'd crafted through visits to the Greenmarket just before menus were printed. Then came Vongerichten's grilled rack of lamb with a glaze of smoke ancho and Thai chiles, king oyster mushrooms, and broccoli rabe, or as Vongerichten called it, "a very sexy dish." And finally, Payard, with Greenmarket pears roasted in brown butter and glazed in maple syrup atop a thick layer of pastry and topped with vanilla ice cream, almond cream, and salted pecans. Payard, too, had aimed to please his fellow chefs. "They are always making fun of pastry chefs, that we are making chocolate mousse," he said. He wanted to make the kind of simple dessert that non-pastry-chefs like to make for themselves, something that was less of a show-stopper than a natural end to the meal and fit in with the others' sensibilities. So he made several trips to the Greenmarket and just happened to find ripe pears a rarity in New York. "I was trying to make a dessert more on their line than just making something extravagant and then they don't relate to it. We wanted to show them that it was all about the ingredients, and that even a simple pear can make an incredible dessert like tonight," he explained. "And now they can't make fun of me for chocolate decoration."

Soon, they headed off to the kitchen to help each other out and watch and taste. (Ducasse, declaring that there were too many cooks in the kitchen, opted only to taste.) Robuchon needed extra hands, as did Savoy, while Payard insisted that only those with a delicate touch do his plating. "Pastry is delicate and cooking is more rough," he said, laughing. "I need somebody with two right hands and no left hands."

The next day, they would go off on their own. Savoy wanted to get a "big, big steak" and baked potatoes from Mesa Grill. "I love Bobby Flay!" he said. And Robuchon wanted to hit up electronics stores; he admitted that he loves an In-n-Out burger, but that shopping is his real guilty pleasure. He has a dozen cell phones, five computers, and a handful of iPads. "Today, I went to look at the new Samsung Tablet. It was fascinating! The new Windows cell phone as well."

As for the post-meal festivities, that was one area in which Vongerichten didn't feel intimidated. "We're going to ABC [Kitchen] first, and then, who knows?" he said, explaining that he was automatically in charge of all after-parties when it comes to this group. "I wouldn't take those guys to any other restaurant or any other chef. They would yell at me. They would never talk to me for the rest of my life. But maybe we take them to the Boom Boom Room. After all, it is my town."