The expression la touche Française has been popular in French media over the past two years.
Nowhere is the French touch more evident than on television programmes involving food.
My better half and I noticed this earlier in the year when we took time out from shopping and the beach on our holiday to watch Dans la peau d’un Chef (France 2) every weekday afternoon.
Renowned pastry chef Christophe Michalak presents the show and takes turns with a guest chef in showing two contestants how to make a sweet or savoury dish. They then reproduce it themselves. Michalak and the guest chef then judge the dishes. The winner wins €1,000 and goes on to compete in the next episode. Although most winners compete for three or four days, one was on for 16 episodes. €16,000 isn’t bad going!
After we watched the first episode, we looked at each other and said, ‘Paul Hollywood!’ Not in a complimentary way, either. Michalak and his guest chefs are treat the contestants courteously. They are not sneering or condescending. What they make is often far more complex than anything Hollywood could ever do. What’s more, what appears to be out of reach of the ordinary punter becomes something that the home cook can reproduce — from pastry techniques to plate presentation. Every episode amazed us.
Dans la peau d’un chef put us off Great British Bake Off, and, although we have been faithful viewers since the first series on BBC2, we will not be watching it next year. Hollywood’s manner is off-putting. We’ve also had enough of Mel and Sue, who aren’t that funny. The celebrity status accorded to certain contestants has also been tiresome.
Another programme we are unimpressed with is Great British Menu which was much better when Jennie Bond used to walk through the kitchen asking the chefs about their preparation methods. We could get a much clearer idea of the cooking involved. These days, it’s more about the repartee among the chefs. Furthermore, with a few exceptions, the food is far from exceptional.
Over the past few months, we’ve been turning to French television for our cooking shows, which partly explains my absence from this esteemed website!
If you’re equally as fed up with English-speaking food programmes and can understand French reasonably well, you might enjoy the following.
But be warned: some of these episodes are between 90 minutes and two hours long.
Qui sera le prochain grand pâtissier?
Grand pâtissier, as I call it, is another France 2 production and also features Christophe Michalak. Two other famous French pâtissiers and a MOF (Meilleur Ouvrier de France) join him in judging the work of eight pastry professionals vying for the top prize of a tour of the world’s best pastry kitchens and a cookbook contract.
The series is available on YouTube. It is not for the faint hearted. We could only manage one episode a week as the tension is palpable.
The judges set the contestants a challenge, send them out to famous pâtisseries in France whose chefs set another challenge and nominate one person for elimination. The elimination stages will have you on the edge of your seat. It’s tough. Although the judges have an occasional softer side and offer constructive suggestions, when it comes to down to the wire, they tell the contestants the truth. A finely layered cake with an insert must hold its integrity in each slice. Any filling must be evenly distributed throughout. Spun sugar must be elaborate and fine, stretched and worked for a long time under special heat lamps to keep it pliable.
The secrets to top dessert techniques are revealed. All the contestants have worked with these for years. Their precision and patience is something to behold. One can understand why so few people become pastry chefs.
This show has got me baking more elaborate desserts although I doubt that spun sugar will ever be part of my repertoire!
Series 4 is currently in production.
Le Meilleur Pâtissier
Currently showing on M6, Le Meilleur Pâtissier is France’s version of Great British Bake Off.
Now in its fourth series, the show is faithful to the British format. The tent, the music and challenges are the same. There are two judges: noted home cook Mercotte and Michelin-starred chef Cyril Lignac, who has been involved in desserts throughout his career. However, instead of Mel and Sue there is one friendly but serious presenter, Faustine Bollaert.
Whilst Mercotte’s manner is similar to Mary Berry’s, Lignac and Paul Hollywood couldn’t be more different. Lignac is enthusiastic without being over the top. He’ll tell someone when he’s looking forward to their final product. He’s free with his compliments. When he gives criticism, he addresses the contestant politely and tells them precisely why a dessert was disappointing. Mercotte will offer brief kitchen tips to contestants in trouble. She helped one rescue a ganache: ‘Stir! Quick! Keep going … See, it’s coming together now!’
Episode 1 of the new season, which began on October 14, 2015, is available for the next few days. It’s 47 minutes long. A few episodes from previous seasons are available on YouTube. Some run to two hours in length.
We are amazed to see how good these contestants are and how involved their home baking is. In Series 1, Sébastien the dustman (runner-up) regularly made macarons for his wife and children. He said he was known as the Macaron Man long before he applied to be on the show. Desserts from Thomas, a lab technician (winner), were every bit as good as a professional’s.
The present series has contestants from a variety of backgrounds, including an aeronautics engineer, a hairdresser and a military nurse.
If you prefer Bake Off without the hype and silly double entendres, you’ll really enjoy Le Meilleur Pâtissier.
La Meilleure Boulangerie de France
La Meilleure Boulangerie de France on M6 is the French version of Britain’s Best Bakery which aired on ITV a few years ago.
However, unlike the British original, the French version runs for twice as long — nine weeks — and really does explore every region of the country in depth.
We found a number of the contestants on Britain’s Best Bakery rather amateurish. By contrast, most of the bakers on La Meilleure Boulangerie have been in the profession for a long time. Even those who are new to the trade have undertaken formal training and have perfected the art of making bread, croissants and regional specialities.
Judges Bruno Cormerais, a MOF, and Gontran Cherrier, a fourth-generation baker, deliberate on the bakeries’ appearance and product variety as well as on bread and pastry. They engage well with staff and bakers. Sometimes they help make the offerings, taking instruction from the establishments’ head bakers. Their criticism is balanced and, for the home baker, helpful. I did not know that after you handle dough, you must let it rest for at least a half hour before doing anything more to it. Also, most of the bakers let their bread dough rise for 24 hours. Nearly all use sourdough.
Thanks to this series, I’ve been inspired to make my own sourdough. What a difference it has made to my bread! I’ve also successfully developed my own recipe for cheese biscuits made from homemade puff pastry (not rough puff, either). Croissants are next on the agenda.
The photography on Meilleure Boulangerie is excellent. A cross-section of every item judged is shown in close up, an essential detail we did not always get in the British series.
Philippe Etchebest’s programmes
Philippe Etchebest holds two Michelin stars and is France’s answer to Gordon Ramsay but nicer.
In fact, they both have opened restaurants not far away from each other in the heart of Bordeaux.
Etchebest seems nicer possibly because his episodes are twice as long as Gordon Ramsay’s. His version of Kitchen Nightmares — Cauchemar en Cuisine avec Philippe Etchebest (M6) — shows much more discussions between him, the owners and the chefs. It is less shouty and wittier, everything one hoped Kitchen Nightmares would have been.
One episode in particular, filmed in Fontvieille (near Avignon), was a true human interest story. A troubled chef found a new outlook on life at the restaurant thanks to Etchebest’s guidance. Unfortunately, several months later, the owner suddenly decided to close it — despite good results — leaving a hopeful chef out of work. He is since found another kitchen role — in Corsica.
Another Etchebest programme, Objectif Top Chef (M6), leaves Great British Menu and Masterchef the Professionals in the dust. The first series aired in November 2014. YouTube has most of the episodes.
In Objectif Top Chef, Etchebest auditions kitchen apprentices for Top Chef. Last year was the first time an apprentice was allowed to compete on the show. It is amazing to see how well 17- to 21-year-olds can cook. They take such great care in preparing their dishes whilst calmly explaining to the camera what they are doing and why. Their presentation is exquisite.
Even better, Etchebest goes to their homes to eat. Contestants must have one plate of food ready on his arrival. This is a great way to see how people in France live and the marvellous family gatherings Etchebest’s visits produce. We see every type of home, from council flats to houses with swimming pools. The mother normally sets the table and buys the flowers. It is not unusual for multiple generations to be in attendance, intently awaiting Etchebest’s verdict. Will their young relative be eligible for the regional final at the end of the week?
It is also common for a contestant to cut himself on Friday’s finals, held outdoors in a scenic spot. Etchebest doesn’t call for a medic, he bandages the cut himself.
It’s not just about the food, though. Behaviour also has to be top notch. Anyone who is too stressed, throws things around or uses profanity is out.
Finally, there is Masterchef France (NT1), an incredible programme.
The 2015 episodes are available on YouTube. Each lasts nearly two hours. The first one took place in Marseille, in the open by the Old Port. Three hundred people — already whittled down from thousands — were competing to be chosen for the series.
There are no John and Greg equivalents. Instead, we have a presenter, Sandrine Quétier, to guide us through proceedings and three top French chefs who judge the dishes.
Given the length of each episode, I’ve only watched the first and was highly impressed with the professionalism on display from everyone involved. Whilst there is at least one irritating contestant, when it comes to cooking and helping others, she is very good, indeed.
With all these programmes to watch, I certainly won’t be bothered by the lack of food programmes on the BBC at this time nor the endless repeats on the Food Channel!
In closing, if any OoL readers have seen these and other French food shows, I’d enjoy reading your comments.