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Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Presence of Absence: Dinner at the Residence with Michel Roux

The Chinese has a saying, "Monks who come from afar know the scriptures better (外來的和尚會念經)." Hotels and restaurants in Taiwan have fully embraced this idea. These days one cannot open the local newspapers without reading about a foreign chef coming to Taiwan to cook for a few days. Usually the invited chefs are decorated with Michelin stars. Maybe because Taiwan doesn't have a Michelin Red Guide, the residents here are eager to engage the jet-set star chefs. In this day and age, chefs are like rock stars and there is apparently no limit to their rise in popularity and status.

The best hotel in Taipei, Mandarin Oriental, has introduced a parade of guest chefs. Since last May the hotel has invited Yoshiaki Takazawa from Tokyo, Oliver Dabbous from London, Peter Gilmore from Sydney, Thierry Marx from Paris, and Bruno Menard from Singapore. Less than three months into this year, Mandarin has already been visited by Nicola Portinari from Lonigo, Italy, and Michel Roux from Bray, England. There seems to be a guest chef at Mandarin every other month.

The idea of inviting star chefs to Taipei to cook special dinners is not new. Back in 1998, the relatively new local hotel, Sherwood, invited Michelin three-star chef Alain Ducasse. In the following year, Sherwood invited the Michelin three-star Pourcel brothers. It was during that visit the young cook at the hotel, Andre Chiang, met the brothers and subsequently decided to leave home and go work for them in France. The rest, as the saying goes, is history (in the making). Without the fateful encounter with the brothers, Chiang's career would be completely different. Clearly, inviting foreign chefs to demonstrate their ideas and skills is a good thing for the local hospitality industry.

Overseas events are beneficial for the visiting chefs as well. They get to see new places and explore unfamiliar cuisines. Beside the financial reward for the events, they can promote their brands and develop new customer base for their ever expanding business. The trips are also a form of reward for the staff who travel with the chefs, a chance to expand their knowledge and experience.

However, can the same be said for the paying customers? What do customers get out of the experience with the guest chef besides a nice meal and a selfie? Meals with the guest chefs are usually more expensive than meals at their restaurants back home. For instance, at Peter Gilmore's Quay in Sidney, the tasting menu plus wine pairing is 340 Australian Dollar or around NT$8,300. When Gilmore was visiting the Mandarin Oriental in Taipei, the eight-course dinner with wine pairing was NT$16,500 ($15,000+10% service charge), almost double the price. The premium partly has to do with the extra cost of transportation and logistics. Some hotels and restaurateurs have stated in public that while the prices are high, the costs are also high. Let's just assume that people in the hospitality industry are all generous and would never gouge the customers. The customers are still paying a premium. The only justification is the premium is still cheaper than the airline tickets to fly to the chef's own restaurant. But can the guest chefs replicate their restaurants away from home for the customers? Does money buy the same experience of a Michelin three-star restaurant that's "worth a special journey" without the journey?

A few nights ago I was invited by my friends to a dinner with Michelin three-star chef Michel Roux at the Mandarin Oriental. Of all the guest chefs that Mandarin has invited so far, Roux is by far the most accomplished. In England, there is no bigger name than the Roux family. Michel Roux and his brother Albert established the standards for fine dining in England and many of the Michelin three-star chefs in London, Pierre Koffman, Marco Pierre White, and Gordon Ramsay, passed through their kitchen. Michel Roux's restaurant, The Waterside Inn, has maintained the unbroken status of Michelin three-star since 1985. The Waterside Inn is said to be the Queen of England's favorite restaurant, where she and her husband celebrated their birthdays. Besides the restaurant, Roux attained the coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) for patisserie in 1976. He also wrote a number of cookbooks, all of which aim to pass on his knowledge. Roux is simply a legend in the industry.

I have a cookbook by Roux in my library that I purchased more than ten years ago. I have watched Roux numerous times on Youtube, mostly to learn his techniques for pastry. While I have never been to the Waterside Inn nor met Roux, I feel a sense of familiarity. His baritone French accented English is especially memorable. Needless to say I was very eager to meet Roux and to taste his signature dishes.


The Roux dinner was held at the Chairman's Residence of Mandarin Oriental. The Residence may sound like a home with two main rooms called the Living Room and the Library, but it is essentially a private event space under the auspices of the owner of the hotel. The Residence is located on the seventh floor of the hotel. The doors of the elevators open to a rectangular foyer with bookshelves tastefully decorated with books and objects. The design of the interior is nicely done and I assume by Tony Chi, who also designed the other three restaurants at the hotel. Some of the design and decorative elements of the Residence are the same as the restaurants on the lower floors. For example, one of the walls at the sitting area consists of a grid of tilting mirrored planes, a design Chi used for the ceiling at Café Un Deux Trois on the fifth floor of the hotel. It is interesting to note that particular design idea was actually recycled from Chi's earlier project: the South Gate Restaurant in New York City.

For the Roux dinner both the Living Room and the Library were set up with 8-person square tables. The tables look nice except they are not weighted properly. If one pushes down on one corner the table has a tendency to tip a little. My table was in the Library which was more intimate but not necessarily in a good way. The room had two adjacent tables for two parties, but only one set of sitting area. Realistically the room only works well if there's a single party. Instead we shared the cozy space awkwardly with total strangers. I arrived early to an eerie empty room and took a seat on the sofa instead of the table. Seeing I'm alone, the sommelier kindly invited me to go visit the open kitchen on the other side of the floor. However, when I returned I had lost my seat at the sofa. The other party inside the room took over the entire sitting area. Someone even removed my personal belonging (Michel Roux book) from the coffee table to another table. I suppose this is no different from being on the subway at rush hour in New York City. If you stand up from your seat, don't expect to get it back, and make sure you take your belongings with you. Since the Residence doesn't have a dress code, there's nothing from preventing people from dressing sloppily. While one would think dinner with an elder Michelin three-star chef demands a little respect in terms of wardrobe, sadly not everyone thinks the same way; certainly not the people from the other party in our room.

The visual discomfort was further exacerbated by the LED TV screens on two of the four walls of the room. As we were eating, the TV showed the direct marketing material for dinner. Since I'm sold and present already, why do someone need to remind me that I am at a Michel Roux dinner? After finishing the first course I couldn't stand it anymore and asked the staff if the TV could be turned off. He acquiesced but only turned off the screen facing me but not the one behind me. The server just didn't get it or perhaps having the TV on is the standard operating procedure of the Residence. But who in their right minds at the hotel think the guests want to eat while looking at a still image on a bright TV screen? The atmosphere felt more like a high end karaoke room than a Michelin three-star dinner.

The Chairman's Residence feels strange in other ways. The atmosphere appears very exclusive and private, yet not quite enough. For instance the private rooms of Ya Ge, the Chinese restaurant three flights down, have private bathroom inside. At the Chairman's Residence, the public bathroom is on the other side of the floor. The walk from my room is long enough to feel that one is at another restaurant. The way to the bathroom passes through the open kitchen, which is similar in design to the kitchen at Bencotto (Italian restaurant one floor below) but at a smaller scale. At the front there's a stone countertop with large rectangular lampshade above. But unlike the light fixture at Bencotto, the one at the Residence is without a glass enclosure, which actually makes it less opulent. The kitchen of the Residence is confined to a separate small space with no direct visual connections to the diners' tables. If diners cannot see the cooks preparing the food, why have an open kitchen at all?

When I walked by the front of the kitchen, the cooks were busy preparing the canapés. All of them were superb. I was particularly happy to see the anchovy straws because I've seen the recipe for them in the book that I own. The sommelier poured each of us a glass of Ruinart champagne and we were off to a great start.



The first course was a duo of ceviches with salmon and tuna marinated in olive oil and yuzu juice. Also on the plate was a slightly spicy guacamole with chips and lamb's lettuce. I like to start a meal with some raw fish that's light but flavorful. Paired with a glass of 2012 Riesling Heissenberg from Domaine Ostertag, this was a nice dish.


The second course was a warm escalope of foie gras with a slice of caramelized orange. The foie was cooked perfectly and simply delicious. The fruit and the fried capers provided a nice balance to the flavors. The wine pairing was a classic one with Sauternes, in this instance from Château Suduiraut 2008. I would have preferred a wine that's less sweet but it was fine.



The third course was a piece of sautéed scallop with slices of octopus. A touch of coriander provided an elegant flavor profile. The use of the tamarind sauce and the coconut emulsion gave the dish a south Asian twist that was refreshing. The wine selected to go with the dish was a 2012 Burgundy produced by Louis Jadot from the Chassangne Montrachet appellation.


The fourth course was Roux's signature dish, pan fried lobster with white port sauce and ginger flavored vegetable julienne. I was fascinated by this dish because, besides the port sauce, the technique and the use of ginger seem to have some affinities with Chinese cooking. As the waiter placed the dish on the table, it looked beautiful with the different shades of red. The lobster was cooked a little more than I preferred but it was still very good. The sauce was simply divine. The ginger provided a little heat that was just great. A glass from Domaine de Chevalier Blanc from 2012 was poured to accompany the dish.



For the final savory course there was a choice between beef tournedos Zingara style or roasted local duck with fondant potatoes. I asked our server what is Zingara style and he didn't know. I suppose we should have just googled the word together. Since no one seems to know, I chose the duck. The duck was first presented whole on a platter and then expertly carved tableside by Roux's manager. Each plate has a few thin slices of duck breast, a piece of the skin, braised baby fennel, and potato fondant. This was served with a wonderful truffle jus. The breast was tender and the skin with a little fat underneath was especially flavorful. The wine was a glass of Le Clos Saint Jacques 2008 from Louis Jadot. This was a great way to end the savory part of the dinner. The only downside was six of our party ordered the duck and there was only one person carving the two ducks. Hence, four of us were served first instead of everyone together. I also find it strange that Roux decided to serve the duck on plates with Restaurant Ya Ge's name on them. Why not use a more neutral plate? It felt like the Residence ran out of plates and had to borrow from the restaurant three-flights below. At the Waterside Inn I don't believe they would use plates with the name "Fat Duck" emblazoned on them. Even more bizarre was Roux would use the same Ya Ge plate for the dessert later on.



After a short break Roux came to our room with the pre-dessert, coffee creme brûlée. Roux explained that they roasted the coffee beans themselves and then infused the milk with the grounded powder. The flavor was very elegant and I thoroughly enjoyed this simple concoction. The dessert was paired with 1998 Gewurztraminer Selection de Grains Nobles from Hugel & Fils.



The last course was a yogurt dessert with raspberry and lime marshmallow and yogurt ice cream. This was the biggest disappointment of the night. Of all the desserts in the repertoire, I don't understand why Roux decided to serve this one. While he was in our room he actually said he couldn't serve the soufflé but he didn't explain why. It's probably not hard to guess. The soufflé is cooked a la minute and less predictable. The yogurt dessert can be made ahead of time and is easy to do. I had hopes of eating his famous raspberry soufflé, the favorite of the Queen of England. I'm not a royalty but my friends were spending a king's ransom on this meal. Moreover, Roux served soufflé as the dessert when he was a guest chef at the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok and the Four Seasons in Hong Kong. So why not let the people in Taipei have soufflé as well?

In Roux's guest appearances elsewhere, he always served different desserts for lunch and dinner. Part of the reason was lunch was usually much cheaper and a little simpler. In Taipei, the lunch was half the price of dinner. But, inexplicably the desserts for both lunch and dinner were essentially the same. At lunch the yogurt dessert was served together with the creme brûlée as a set on a rectangular plate. At dinner the two were served sequentially with perhaps a slightly bigger portion. I respect Roux's decision for not making a soufflé, but I would have preferred to see more effort put into making different desserts for dinner. For instance, since all the tables at dinner were parties of eight, why not make some large format desserts that could be cut table side? Better yet, why not go old-school and make an omelette à la norvégienne and flambé it table side. If it was another chef, perhaps my disappointment wouldn't be as great. But Roux is a pastry MOF and dessert is a major part of the meal at his Waterside Inn.

Besides the choice of dessert, my disappointment was extended to the appearance of the dish. When the server placed the dessert in front of me, the ice cream had slipped off from the setting. I surmised someone forgot to put a piece of cookie under the ice cream. The server didn't notice the error, and I didn't want to cause a fuss by sending it back. The pistachio marshmallow was also placed slightly off the center of the cookie. The dessert was just a plate of sloppiness. I can't imagine that Roux would ever allow this to happen at his restaurant back home.

At Roux's Waterside Inn, meals would end with a dazzling array of mignardises: palmier, custard tart, canelé, nougat, madeleine, and chocolate. In Taipei, Roux simply didn't bother with making the mignardises and just served ready-made chocolates and treats from the hotel's Cake Shop on the ground floor. The dinner started so nicely with the wonderful canapés, yet ended in a dissatisfying manner.

At the beginning of the dinner, Roux came to our room to introduce himself. He said for this dinner he brought four senior people from the Waterside Inn and assured us that it was the A team. Instead of being assured, I actually thought it was a bit strange. With the cost of the dinner being much higher than at the Waterside Inn, I expected nothing less. I didn't doubt Roux's word. In fact, in my brief encounter with Roux's manager I can attest that he was top notch – professional yet relaxed and warm. Perhaps Roux brought his A-team but did he bring his A-game? For the savory dishes, yes, but for the dessert, it was a resounding no. 

Besides the dessert the night was also slightly marred by the service. For instance, the server laid down the utensils for the last savory course very early on; it was just strange. As the night progressed, whenever a new dish was served the server would lay down another set of knife and fork outside of them. In other words for several courses I had two sets of utensils. In another instance, I asked for an espresso and was instead served a double espresso with no crema on top. Finally, at the end of the night the server laid down the plate of mignardises, but he mysteriously didn't explain the flavors of the chocolates. Perhaps it was meant as a test? Was one of them whiskey? These were perhaps minor infractions but I am sure they wouldn't meet the exacting standards of a Michelin three-star restaurant.



From the onset it was obvious that a Michel Roux dinner at the Mandarin Oriental would be very different from the one at his Waterside Inn. Sitting in an enclosed private dining room with a party of strangers was never going to be the same as enjoying the view of River Thames. Setting aside the physical constraints, I still had hopes that Roux and Mandarin Oriental would deliver a Michelin three-star experience. Sadly, this did not happen. In one of Roux's visits to our room during dinner, he talked about the idea of perfection as a goal and the impossibility of reaching it. I heard this idea expressed by other Michelin three-star chefs. I just didn't realize on this night, perfection was that far away.

Instead of a Michelin three-star dinner, I felt like I was participating in a promotional event under the watchful eyes of Mandarin's marketing team. Roux now carries the title of the Global Ambassador of the Waterside Inn. This event was certainly a promotion of the Roux brand. The dinner was interspersed with several talks by Michel Roux with a translator. Not once did Roux nor anyone else asked how we like the food or how we were enjoying the night. I supposed everyone just assumed we would be in awe. Besides the aforementioned promotional material on the TV screen, the console table in our room was lined with cookbooks written by Roux. At one point, Roux and a staff of the hotel made a soft sell of Roux's cookbooks. I didn't buy a book because I brought my own; Roux gladly signed the book after dinner. My friends had their pictures taken with the chef. During the dinner we all took enough photographs of the food to fill a weekend worth of our Instagram feed – proof of our presence at the event.



But what exactly did we experience? Michel Roux is one of the world's greatest living chefs and Mandarin Oriental is the best hotel in town, yet even they delivered a weak facsimile of a Michelin three-star meal. I have come to the realization that events with guest chefs are simply not worth the significant premium over the prices at the chef's restaurant at home; paying more but getting less. The irony is if one travels to the Waterside Inn to eat, one actually might not see Michel Roux. He lives in Switzerland and is only in England less than three months a year. His son Alain and his long time maitre d'hotel run the three-star restaurant. It is actually rare to see Roux running the kitchen, but he can't replicate his restaurant elsewhere. As Roux said at the dinner, he relies on a team to produce his best work. Unfortunately most members of the team are back home. In Taipei, he didn't do his best work. Roux may be present himself but we only saw the shadow of the Waterside Inn. 

Michelin defines a three-star restaurant as "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey." To experience the real thing, one needs to leave home and visit the chef's restaurant. The customers and the chef cannot both be the guests at the same time. The journey to visit the chef might be far and costly in terms of time and money, yet there are no short cuts. As the Chinese proverb says, "True scripture is hard to find (真經難取)."