Concluding a trio of interviews with London based chefs, I recently talked with Pascal Aussignac of Club Gascon (co-founded with Vincent Labeyrie), a restaurant dedicated to foods from Southwest France.
In his new book, Cuisinier Gascon (Absolute Press), Pascal takes us on a tour of the region.
Let's press the start button and let you in on our conversation:
Q: Pascal, why Gascon Food, you trace your roots in Toulouse which is not far from Gascony but more like a close cousin?
I was born in Toulouse while my business partner, Vincent comes from the Landes, Dax to be specific so it was natural that we set up Club Gascon to showcase the best of the Southwest. That is what the restaurant's name suggests. Draw a circle from Bordeaux to Toulouse then Biarritz and back to Bordeaux and you get our South.
Q: You serve Cassoulet, is it made with Tarbais Beans and all the classic ingredients or did you add a twist to it?
A cassoulet from Toulouse is made with Tarbais beans and different meats. The main difference between mine and the classic type is that ours is more moist. I am not a big fan of breadcrumbs on top.
Q: Are your homemade chips still cooked with duck fat?
Of course they are, and seasoned with Crazy Salt, a blend of Fleur de Sel and Piment d'Espelette.
Q: Club Gascon opened in 1999, you got your first Michelin star in 2002, where there ups and downs during these 3 years?
We were lucky to be super busy from the get go. The Michelin star didn't bring extra bookings but it added some polish to our professional image. Critics in the early days used to describe us as a bistro. After the star, we graduated to restaurant status.
Q: Is the whole 'concept' of Club Gascon and its various iterations built around the idea of 'comfort food'?
I do not think that we can say that Club Gascon is providing comfort food, rather a creative take on Gascon culture.
That's why we opened a wine bar next door and a bistro-deli around the corner to suit all styles and clienteles.
Q: Heartier dishes like Cassoulet are more like Fall and Winter treats to me, do you tweak the Spring and Summer menu with lighter sauces, ingredients and so forth?
Believe me or not, Londoners eat more Cassoulet in the Bistro in summertime than during winter and I have no clue as to why.
Q: You have build a small 'Gascon Empire' over the years? Are there ideas that failed? Do you feel that expansion can come at the expense of quality or should I say consistency?
I would say that we had the opportunity to expand. We opened Club Gascon before the millennium and money was pouring in all over London so in the following couple of years we set up the wine bar and the bistro-deli. The only thing that did not meet our expectations so far is Croque Gascon, our fast Good concept at Westfield Mall.
Q: Getting back to your book 'Cuisinier' Gascon, whose idea was it to include the 'tete de cochon' (pig head) in the opening pages of the book?
This head was about to be cooked but it looked so nice that I brought it to the studio and Jean Cazals, the book photographer, wanted to shoot it and there it is.
Q: Is 'Cuisinier Gascon' like some people suggested as much a tribute to the region as it is a Cookbook?
Yes. We wanted to create a book combining food and ambiance as much as possible. I think it is an invitation to discover the different flavors of the region. Call it a traveler's companion with recipes.
Q: How much influence can a food photographer like Jean Cazals have on the look of dishes in a culinary book?
A lot. Our publisher, Absolute Press had the idea to pair Jean and I and I have to say it was the best idea.
We had a great time making the book and with lots of freedom. Photos in the studio were inspired by a 'mise en scene' (staged) quite different than in classic cookbooks and it is the result of our collaboration, our duo.
Q: By that I meant to ask if it was like a band going in the studio with a producer and having their sound sculpted?
We also had our own art director-design person, Matthew Le Maistre who rounded the team. He fixed
all the little details.
Q: With the Gascon identity, how much importance do you give to showcasing Armagnac and wines from the region and its periphery whether they are Cotes de Buzet, Fronton, Madiran, Pacherenc at your restaurants?
Yes of course, we have some 300 wines from the region on our lists.
Q: Why serve the Ossau-Iraty ( Basque cheese) with Caramelized Clementines with a Pimm's sauce?
It could as well have been served with some Lillet or Red Martini but we are in England and it's much more popular to use Pimm's here. It works perfectly too.
The idea was to start with the most famous cheese from the Southwest and to promote it give it a twist that gets the attention, same thing with the foie gras popcorn.
Q: Cuisinier Gascon has a sizable section dedicated to Foie Gras, were you called on it by animal activists?
Activists have to make a distinction between good practices and bad ones. I blame chefs and suppliers who for financial reasons, cut corners and buy the cheapest foie gras. By doing that they reinforce the mass production. The ideal should be to support farmers who breed, raise animals the right way. They
Q: Mushrooms, fungi, figure prominently in your book, why?
Around Cahors, there are a lot of oak trees and the area is famous for truffles and mushrooms, plus I love Fungi.
Q: Do you go mushroom hunting?
Not any more, I am based in London and have no time left to visit the countryside.
Q: When I see Nougat, I think Montelimar, you picture it on page 220 of the book though?
Nougat is a French recipe which is not made just in Montelimar.
This is easy to do at home and kids love it.
This book is made for everyday people not chefs. Simple recipes which you can keep for a while are a good thing.
Q: Which song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers should we play while enjoying your Red Hot Chilli Berries (page 236-237)?
Something spicy in summer...
Q: Traveling back in time, you mention getting your feet wet in the kitchen originally as a way to help your mam' who was raising by herself at that time, with that experience has food since then been something that brings family and friends together, the tie that binds?
Cooking is my passion since childhood so I really that you can bring people together for a social moment around a pot au feu served with some red wine, the simpler, the better.
Q: I recently interviewed Peter Gordon. You both started working in the restaurant field in the dining room. You both had mishaps there, can the kitchen for some of us even with its hectic pace be a shelter from the up close and personal experience of dealing with customers?
When I set up Club Gascon, for the first 6 months I used to tour the dining room.
At the time also my English was poor and I had a hard time understanding people. I came to realize that talking customer's ears off was more about boosting your ego than showing your face. You end up asking the same questions over and over and sometimes disturb your customer's meal.
When I came to understand all that, I decided to stop visiting the dining room even when I am in the kitchen during the whole shift. This way if I'm not there no one will notice. People are coming for good food and consistency not the chef's profile.
Q: Your restaurants specialize in a certain field, do you stray far from it when you eat out or cook at home?
Yes a bit, i cook more Provencal food at home but it still remains French.
Q: Can you name some favorite chefs outside London, then and now?
Q: Do you have favorite restaurants, pastry shops and food stalls in and around Toulouse?
These few, Michel Sarran restaurant, Le Jardin de la Violette (a shop) and all the street markets in Toulouse and surrounding towns and villages on Thursday mornings.
Q: Who was your major inspiration and/or your mentor?
I will say the chef who trusted me and convinced my parents to let me quit school at 17 for work in the kitchen. His name is Gerard Vie from Les Trois Marches in Versailles.
Q: Would you have been able to get to where you are now in London had you stayed in France?
No sure at all, I left France because banks didn't want to take a risk with me when I was 25 even though they were very impressed by my training. A tried a few times to set up my own place in Paris and was not able to do it so I prefer my present situation in London which is more welcoming in that aspect.
Q: What is the balance of power and responsibilities between you and > your partner Vincent Labeyrie?
Fifty Fifty...The good thing is we complement each other . I am not able to do his job and neither can he do mine. I think that's what a good partnership is. Trust is still key.
Q: To conclude on a nostalgia note, your Prunes in Armagnac remind me of hearing the world Agen with local accent in the train station on my way to the Pyrenees for summer vacations? Are memories sometimes singing in your hear while you create a dish?
There are no specific moments of creation for me, First of all, I am not sure we can say we are creating new dishes. Ferran Adria has created a new language in his approach of food with new products, instruments and a lot of poetry. I just try alone or with my team to reinterpret classic dishes or cook combinations that might sound weird on paper but taste right.
C'est tout pour aujourd'hui
Cuisinier Gascon won the title for Best French Cuisine (UK) at the World Gourmand Cookbook Awards for 2009.