When it comes to pairing food and wine, most chefs start with the food. But in Bordeaux, the wine comes first, offering a new challenge to the Michelin-starred chefs currently flocking into the French region.
For the 2012 Fête du Vin – Bordeaux's wine festival – where Hong Kong was the guest of honor, the Chinese territory's tourism chief, Anthony Lau, flew in a team of feted chefs to cook for the crowds, estimated at half a million over the four days. "It's a new challenge, a new concept," he said at the event, which ended on Sunday. "We want them to be the rock stars of the festival."
Lau's chefs had less than a day to adapt to kitchens lent to them by local caterers and tweak their recipes to use locally sourced ingredients while observing the golden rule – never overpower the wine.
"We were told not to use too much pepper as it will affect the pairing with Bordeaux wine," said Lee Man-sing, who clinched the first Michelin star for the Hong Kong Mandarin Oriental's Cantonese restaurant last December.
There were also unforeseen glitches when playing with the nuances that make a wine and a dish work together – or not. "We couldn't find the right soy sauce. It was too strong. In Hong Kong, we have hundreds of kinds of soy sauces," said Mak Kwai-pui, dim sum specialist and owner of Tim Ho Wan, a one-star restaurant that serves meals for less than $6.
Continuing their turn in the spotlight, after stints at the festival, the Hong Kong chefs manned the kitchens at a dinner for 300 members of the wine elite, hosted by the council representing the most prestigious wines from Bordeaux, the classified grand crus.
The council has been spearheading a move to open Bordeaux up to world cuisine, including through a cookbook that matches top wines with recipes from leading chefs around the globe.
Bordeaux estates have been rushing to sign up chefs from France and elsewhere as partners to showcase new approaches to pairing food and wine, playing on textures and aromas and integrating world cuisines.
"Everyone seems to have their own Michelin-starred chef," said Miguel Lecuona, a wine consultant visiting from Texas.
One such estate is Château Coutet in Sauternes, whose young French-American owner, Aline Baly, works with a starred chef to create dishes to pair with its sweet wines. "We like to say there are only traditions, no rules," she said.
Yannick Alleno, three-star chef at the Meurice hotel in Paris, said chefs have to seek out the complexity of the wine. "For a chef, it's an absolute joy." Alleno was tasked with creating the perfect match for Château d'Yquem's 2011 vintage. "I immediately wanted to pair it with carrots cooked in parchment, with olive oil and mascarpone cream and licorice. Sometimes you have to go looking for contradictions."
While some chefs fly in for cameo appearances, others remain year-round, raising Bordeaux's profile as a gourmet destination with 14 Michelin-starred restaurants.
"For a long time, people said there was no real haute cuisine in Bordeaux, but now that's not true. We've grown extensively in terms of gastronomy," said Philippe Etchebest, two-starred chef at Hostellerie de Plaisance in the medieval wine village of Saint-Émilion. "I have clients who come specifically for the cuisine, not just the wine. They travel 1,000 kilometers [620 miles] to have dinner."
The trend goes hand in hand with the growth of Bordeaux wine tourism, which Tourist Office president Stephan Delaux said has engendered "a massive influx of top Michelin-starred chefs, often backed by investors who want to attract this kind of talent."
Nicolas Masse, one-star chef at La Grand Vigne on the estate of Château Smith Haut Lafitte, said he came for the challenge. "The restaurant didn't have the reputation it deserved with a wine like Château Smith Haut Lafitte next door, very up-market and [serving] a five-star hotel. It seemed obvious to me that it [the estate] deserved a gourmet restaurant."