Rhythm and Risk in Cuisine: Chef Pierre Gagnaire

by Amanda McDougall
Antoinette Bruno
April 2010

Fast Facts

Chef most admired:
In the US, Thomas Keller—not only because of his talent, but also because of his hard work, professionalism, and great personality.

First kitchen job:
I was an apprentice in an old, tiny restaurant in Lyon where I had to run errands for the owner and carry tons of charcoal on my back! I used to look with envy at the kids my age who were on their way to college.

Most memorable food moment:
The hare terrine from Alain Chapel.

Where you’d like to go for culinary travel:
I would love to go to Peru because I hear that it is not only a beautiful country, but that the cuisine is amazing.

What is American cuisine:
The United States is such a big country that it would be impossible to describe its cuisine as a whole. It is made of several interesting and delicious cuisines, but, unfortunately, Europeans only know of hamburgers and Tex-Mex. American cuisine is also changing because buying habits are changing as well. People are more conscious of what they purchase and are concerned with their health.

Pierre Gagnaire doesn’t like to call himself an artist. “Don’t confuse being artistic with being an artist,” he said last fall at the StarChefs.com International Chefs Congress. But finding the artistry in every product Gagnaire cooks with—from red-legged crawfish to early spring asparagus—is what defines and drives the chef’s culinary mission.

Inspired by painters, music, poetry, and the seasonal products he works with, Gagnaire has always aspired to express his emotions through his food—every dish represents a specific feeling and seeks to provoke pleasure from the diner. He approaches each item on his menus with humility and describes his creative process as one that is a combination of instinct and letting the ingredients and techniques set the rhythm.

During a three-way panel discussion between Gagnaire, Daniel Boulud, and Grant Achatz at the 2009 Congress, Achatz cited spending “countless hours pouring through Pierre Gagnaire’s website.” He trolled through dish photos that were categorized by year and dish, like an artist’s work is catalogued by eras. Achatz could witness Gagnaire’s evolution over the years, something the up-and-coming chef found “amazingly inspirational.”

But artistry and creation are not the end game for this iconic French chef. This is a man with four decades of experience, a biography of both success and failure, and now 10 restaurants under his guise. The value of pleasing the customer is not lost on Gagnaire; a dish’s rendezvous with the diner could result in success or failure, pleasure from a well-made dish or none. Each plate that passes through the dining room is a risk in Gagnaire’s eyes.

At the Congress panel discussion, Gagnaire described his constant culinary evolution as centered on the love he gives his food and the fear of not serving the perfect dish. But Gagnaire’s not a chef driven by fear; rather he is motivated by a grounded understanding of the fickle nature of humans. “Humans need poetry, tenderness, and things well done,” he explains; combining five ingredients to make a dish, says Gagnaire, is taking five risks.