Fresh sea scallops, tiger prawns, julienned carrots, chives, cubed pears, fresh raspberries, lime juice, red chilli, soya sauce, honey and Moët & Chandon Imperial Brut Champagne – my selection of ingredients that I instinctively gravitated towards. What was I going to cook? I lacked professional kitchen experience and all I had was an idea of the sort of flavours and edible emotions I craved for.
Before me was the distinguished head winemaker, Chef de caves of Moët & Chandon Benoît Gouez, and a jovial Executive Chef Bernard Dance, whom graciously invited me into his office – the magnificent kitchen of Trianon, the main house where the Moët family once lived and played host to a long list of luminaries from Napoleon to more recently, tennis superstar Roger Federer and his family. Views of the ornamental gardens and the expansive reflecting pool still fresh in my mind, such splendour and eloquence, it was then, that it finally hit me – I was in Epernay, France, 130 kilometres north-east of Paris, the home to the world’s finest champagnes.
Walking into a new kitchen for the first time can be extremely intimidating, and for amateurs, down right scary. Each professional kitchen has its own culture and way of doing things. I really didn’t know what to expect, but it seemed that I might’ve indulged in one too many episodes of Hell’s Kitchen in the past (I always imagined what it would be like to witness Gordon Ramsey’s wrath). On the contrary to my imagination, Executive Chef Bernard Dance and his team were a group of well-groomed, incredibly welcoming, humble and happy people (I would be too at the sight of some Kenyans and friends, delighted and simply giddy).
The hum of voices, clinking of pots and pans, and the kitchen whirr was like a pinch of reality, this was really happening…I was going to make my debut in a professional kitchen. I rolled up my sleeves, put on my new apron, and let my thoughts simply flow.
As a devoted eater, enthusiast, an admirer of food, and a self-professed good cook (my sister will vouch for my skills); I knew little of the art behind pairing food and champagne, where matching similar tastes of the grape in the wine and the flavours in the dish seemed almost amateur.
“It’s about finding a new flavour that unites all the elements,” Gouez explained.
And hopefully, I imagine, will make the mouth sing of praises.
So what does a Chef de caves, arguably the rock star of the prestigious company, Moët & Chandon believe is a good food and champagne pairing?
“I personally prefer simplicity, no more than three ingredients. Clean and refreshing,” Gouez articulates. “Champagne is elegant, fun and should bring pleasure to the occasion.”
For a man that rarely cooks, but does have it in his heart to humbly make suggestions to his wife, Gouez stays true to the refreshing purity of champagne and ultimately lets the mood dictate whether he will be sipping on a vintage, Rosé or Imperial.
As with other sparkling wines like the Italian version, prosecco, champagne has different sweetness levels. The dosage, sugar, is added at bottling for the second fermentation and left to slowly settle in the neck of the bottle, in preparation for extraction. This helps explain the freshness, clarity and easy charm of champagne, which emphasizes the balance of floral and the lifting nature of the grapes.
The kitchen continued to buzz with activity, exotic aromas filtered into the air and the sizzling sounds of searing meat hummed. I’ve never been a rock star, but when during the odd time someone raves about my food, I sometimes feel like I am. Reviewing my chosen ingredients, I hoped that I would not disappoint with my dish.
“Susan! You’re up!” An undistinguishable voice shouts.
PUTTING IT IN PRACTICE: COOKING WITH CHAMPAGNE
Ingredients already beautifully prepped, very little work was left for me – just some minor chopping and stirring. I became so engrossed in what I was doing that I had forgotten everything else. Between cooking, tactfully finding my way around the kitchen and trying to deal with the consuming heat, I noticed a couple of scallops were a bit brown on the edges. I frantically tried to rescue the rest. My heart dropped. Did I just overcook scallops? A quick poke with my finger, phew! Still good!
The pressure of delivering something adequate, let alone decent for the Executive Chef and Chef du Cave of Moët & Chandon was simply immense. But it was exhilarating because for the first time, with everything I would ever want at my disposal, I felt fearless – I could cook whatever I felt like, in an oasis of edible creativity.
Swirling a healthy dash of Moët & Chandon Imperial Brut Champagne into the fruity and light sauce, I found my stride and soothed the jangled nerves away. I plated my dish and carefully wiped away anything that seemed out of place, finishing it with a sprinkling of finely chopped chives.
Unlike at restaurants, here at Moët & Chandon, you choose the wine first, leaving the task of pairing food to the champagne in the hands of the very capable Executive Chef Bernard Dance. And creating dishes and menus around such rare champagne bottles, the creations of Gouez and his team, is one of Dance’s pleasurable challenges.
So practically speaking, did I manage to learn how to pair food and champagne in my few hours at Trianon? Well there’s really no better way to learn than to put the philosophy in practice.
My dish: Garlic butter seared Sea Scallops and Tiger Prawns with a carrot, pear, and fresh raspberry relish, and chilli, honey, soya champagne sauce – a fusion of my Chinese heritage and my new found French experiences, which focused on the interplay of textures and fruitiness of champagne.
“Hmmm….everything comes together, but one thing is missing in this dish…the salt,” Gouez noted, “When it comes to pairing dishes with champagne, don’t be afraid of a bit more salt.”
While sipping a glass of Rosé, swishing the clear pink fluid down, Gouez helped himself to more of my dish. “This would go perfectly with a Rosé.”
Next, I held my plate up to Dance. Miraculously, I managed to avoid choking on my words as I invited the respected chef to nibble from my plate. All I could think about was whether I had left the scallops on for a second or two too long – after all, overcooking scallops is a sin no matter where you are in the world!
Dance methodically ensured his fork grabbed a bit of everything – scallop, prawn, carrots, raspberries, pears and sauce.
Dance smiled and managed a purposeful nod – the look of approval, which I will remember and wear as a badge proudly forever.
FINAL KITCHEN THOUGHTS
Cooking at home may be a chore for some people, and for others, is a way to unwind; but the power of the glistening professional French kitchen, champagne and the company of culinary notables, their allure, will even entice the avid takeaway diner to try their luck in front of a stove.
Food has a way of silently shifting the spirits of just about everyone, and when paired with the right champagne, in this case Moët & Chandon, creates a rippling effect of sharing and indulging. And what beautiful feelings to leave the world’s most prominent champagne house with.
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