8:15 am : Ecole Ferrandi. Chef Charles Coulombeau (Gravetye Manor in Sussex, 1 star) and commis chef Johanna Vakahi enter the long kitchen. He is young and self-assured, she is much younger and more reserved. The International Culinary Prize for Signature Cuisine known as “Le Taittinger” begins. Eight chefs, seven from Europe and one from Japan go head to head in this all male competition. Two events: to create a dish celebrating king scallops and a compulsory recipe, Winter Root Pithiviers.

Charles Coulombeau works on the puff pastry while the commis peels banana shallots. He  rolls out the pastry before putting it in the fridge, keeping an eye on what his commis is doing : “Use this knife instead,” showing her the right one for cutting the veins out of the green cabbage. She gets down to business. The chef has planned out each step very precisely on an Excel spreadsheet. There are two timers to monitor the progress of preparations. He highlights the finished tasks in green. Now the shells have to be opened. They are placed vertically on a rack to drain. “Don’t forget to empty your trash can from time to time.” Cleanliness and hygiene are a constant concern. He trims the shells. The hallmark precision moves of a chef, how many scallops does it take before you reach this level of dexterity? An appraising eye, a hand assessing texture, and no doubt all the while mindful of the cooking time of each scallop. Nothing is left to chance.

9 am : The mood goes up a notch. The kitchen is bustling with activity. The chefs are preparing and cooking, the commis are peeling, the dishwashers are cleaning up. You have to find your spot without getting in anyone’s way, but not fade away into the background. There is no jostling, the kitchen is a cluttered stage on which dozens of bodies intermingle. Johanna is defeated by the tough flesh of a butternut. Charles Coulombeau helps her out. He cuts the vegetable from top to bottom, with a reassuring word. She watches and then takes over. The lack of self-confidence of the commis is the most fragile and therefore the most touching element to observe.  This contest also sees two people becoming a team whose shared ambition is to produce an intense gustative experience, the fusion of their highest aspirations resulting in one dish, a blend of flavours, aromas and textures.

Beep, beep, beep. All the workstations in this vast kitchen are occupied. With his own technique and flair, each chef’s originality is taking shape: one dries Jerusalem artichokes in the oven before pan-frying them, another lightly scorches the edge of each shell with a blowtorch, while yet another scores pieces of celery to better absorb the cooking juices when he steams them over a handful of hay. This is a showcase for precision. The chefs are outdoing themselves, turning, chopping, emulsifying while supervising the commis. They’re here, there and everywhere all at once. “We’re right on schedule, it’s perfect”. Johanna concentrates, there’s the tiniest tremor in her fingertips. She’s focused on accomplishing each gesture, all the while measuring how far she still has to go.

11:15 am : the countdown to preparing the Pithiviers has begun, Charles Coulombeau dries, crushes, seasons, tastes. The 15cm disc rises slowly. In every corner something is boiling, cooling in ice, grilling under the broiler… Cooking is chemistry in action, the chef is a wizard conjuring up textures.

12:12 pm : “In eight minutes you must deliver. Beyond a five minute delay you will be penalized” announces Chef Emmanuel Renaut (Flocons de Sel in Megève, 3 stars), President of the Jury. Charles Coulombeau arranges all the elements of his surf and turf scallop recipe. The young waiters from the Ferrandi school carry the plates, displayed like framed artworks, to the jury-tasters.

And Charles Coulombeau is the winner of this highly coveted Prize. Many hopes have been dashed, it is difficult to reward so many talents. But some amazing ideas were cooked up during this challenge, you can bet the chefs will be using some of them in their cuisine from now on.  All that remains now is for you to make the journey far away from Europe, to England. Midway between London and Brighton, you will find Charles Coulombeau at Gravetye Manor and the garden will be just splendid in Springtime.

Gravetye Manor, Vowels Lane, West Hoathly, Sussex, RH19 4LJ

Official website of the Taittinger prize
The “Taittinger” on Taittinger.com
Text : Jérôme Descamps
Photos : Jean-Blaise Hall / Taittinger / Benoît Pelletier