Chris Watson has travelled to France many times in his search for a deeper experience of French cuisine. But of all the trips he’s taken over the years, the week he spent in Burgundy last year with Andrew McConnell – putting on a private cooking class for five couples at an enormous rural chateau – was the most enjoyable.
“We’d go to the markets every morning to have a look what was around, buy produce, take it back and spend the day preparing it with them in the kitchen,” says Watson as we sit at one of the tables by the front window at Luxembourg. Watson is the head chef at the St Kilda establishment, which opened recently on the site of what was once Golden Fields. “The guests would come back around aperitif time for some champagne and we’d prepare them some snacks, and then sit down for a five-course dinner.”
For McConnell and Watson it was a chance to gain an intimate understanding of French provincial cooking, with access to an array of local and seasonal produce. It’s the same journey that Ben Shewry took in 2014 with Guillaume Brahimi from Guillaume.
The experience, it seems, influenced McConnell and Watson greatly, because they started Luxembourg just a short time after, using principles they’d learned on their journey as inspiration for the menu, especially in desserts. “French vanilla ice-cream is an absolute classic."
In desserts at Luxembourg, he has adopted the same use of provincial produce, trying to source ingredients from the Melbourne locale, and using traditional French dairy ingredients, berries and Armagnac. “We use Armagnac from time to time when working with desserts,” he says. “But I personally find it hard to go past a great chocolate dessert. We serve a chocolate tart at the restaurant that is baked to order – it really fits the brief of what we try to do at the restaurant – it’s very simple, but we use the best chocolate – Valrhona, and cream from Saint David Dairy in Fitzroy, just barely sweetened and whipped to soft peaks, served warm just out of the oven, with a liquid-chocolate centre. It’s pretty hard to beat.”
In Melbourne, they work on organic and biodynamic principles, too, always using local suppliers and ordering seasonal produce. “It’s normal to have 10 different types of strawberries or berries available in France. The cream and milk and butter and cheese and vanilla bean they have over there is incredible,” he says. “So in Melbourne, we try to get a lot of stuff direct from farmers. They might only deliver it once or twice a week. But we order, it gets picked and packed and comes in the next day. The produce is unreal.”
In French cooking, Watson says the stereotype is that the staples are buttery and over indulgent, which is a falsehood. “I mean, I think those ingredients are really important to French cooking, but I think that’s a result of people eating bad French food,” he says. But at the core of French cooking, Watson says there are basic principles, including the use of core ingredients such as onion, garlic, shallots, cheese and bread in main courses, with butter, cheese, ice-cream, vanilla bean, chocolate and brandy for dessert. “Particularly here on the menu, we tried to pare things back and be true to the core ingredients. And you can’t serve food like that unless you’ve got really good produce. That is what French cooking is about.”
This piece was produced in partnership with the new CONNOISSEUR Empire Collection, which includes the 'King Louis XIV’ ice cream with french vanilla, chocolate flakes and armagnac.
View our entire Empire flavour exploration here.