Chef Damien Duquesne Wins Le Menu de Cannes Cook-Off

The Parisian cook took home the highest honor at the festival's first-time culinary competition.

The Palme d’Or race wasn’t the only contest at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. This year also marked the inaugural Le Menu de Cannes cook-off, which came down to a showdown between Gallic flavor and a taste of Russia. And the winner was Parisian chef Damien Duquesne, whose website www.750g.com, boasts more than 40,000 French recipes.  
 
Just as Sundance spawned ChefDance and Berlin birthed Culinary Cinema, Le Menu de Cannes trained its spotlight on international chefs in a cooking face-off, this one staged at the Electrolux-sponsored Agora Lounge adjacent to the Palais. The winner got to prepare lunch at the lounge for Robert De Niro and the rest of the Cannes jury, when they met for their first deliberation meeting May 16.

At the cooking competition, Agora's cavernous space, appointed with stylized Phillip Starke tables and chairs, was bustling with food stylists, designers, young culinary students and two master chefs -- Duquesne and his Russian counterpart Denis Krupenya, director of Moscow's Culinary School.

Their two teams were given two hours before four judges tasted and then announced the winner of the four-course meal.

Duquesne's menu was designed around a light and flavorful meal. “The jury keeps a busy schedule, and I don't think De Niro would like something too sweet,” he said of his mascarpone raspberry dessert accompanied by a fresh basil granita. Similarly, his main course was fillet of salt cod, lightly grilled and finished in the oven. It was served floating on a light algae broth with asparagus, artichokes and peas.

The piece de resistance of Duquesne’s menu was its potato gallette (pebble) appetizer. A small oval-shaped boiled potato was dipped in a gray-ish sauce made of clay, lactose and squid ink to resemble a pebble. Encrusted with crushed pistachio nuts, the potato was served atop seashells and an actual pebble cradled in a small bowl. Aioli for dipping was served in a small accompanying shell. Judges cautiously worked around the real pebbles. The second course offered a lobster-stuffed squash on a bed of caponata.

While the French food and tablescape was all about romance, Russia's Krupenya chose the abstraction of artists Kandinsky and Malevich as his inspiration for his traditional dishes. His homemade vodka flavored with dark berry fruits kicked off the first course of a brilliantly deconstructed Borscht. The painted plate was awash with different sauces -- tomato, basil, beetroot, carrot and meat sauce. The bread roll was used not only to soak up the sauces but also so that “each guest can create his own art,” Krupenya said. A chilled strawberry soup flavored with fresh basil, champagne and honey followed as a palate cleanser. Tenderloin of beef in red wine chocolate sauce served as the main course and dessert was berry sponge with carrot jam and Russian jelly.

The competition was the third and final in a cook-off that began a few months ago in Paris. The first two themes of the challenge were “Lunchtime Bites on Cote d'Azur” and “Cocktails and Canapes in Cannes 1955.”

The judges for the final competition were Chicago chef Sandra Suria; celebrity stylist Joann Black; chef Phillip Joannes, regional director of L'Enotre; and Marcelo Palmiero, vp of Electrolux Europe.

“It was a very close call,” Suria said.

Both the chefs were equal in their delivery of technique, textures and visuals. The French tablescape inspired by New York's Greenwich Hotel displayed a small photo of a painting done by De Niro's father. The original painting hangs in the hotel. “That was a personal touch,” Suria said. And the use of mascarpone and basil sorbet she thought was a nostalgic touch De Niro could appreciate. “That was a nice ending,” she added.

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