Why must one be so frequently reduced, even in many of the best restaurants where the chef is also the owner, to nondescript lists of wines from the most predictable and least interesting shippers?
The food may be very good but the wines totally lack charm, liveliness or personality. Half the pleasure of the meal is destroyed in the wineglass.
Three chef-restaurateurs who are exceptionally good winetasters were asked what they made of this curious situation. Alain Dutournier of Au Trou Gascon, Jean-Pierre Morot-Gaudry, whose restaurant carries his last name, and Robert Vifian of the Tan Dinh are friends precisely because of their common interest in wine and subtle cuisine. The discussion took place the evening of the Tan Dinh's reopening in an elegant new setting on the Rue de Verneuil.
Alain Dutournier: "You have to have a passion for wine. It almost has to be a personal vice. Chefs who don't know wine don't have the cult of the table in any sense. Real subtlety in cooking is as rare among chefs as knowing wine."
Jean-Pierre Morot-Gaudry: "For 25 years after the war the aim of chefs everywhere was to make the same haute cuisine to perfection. They never got out of the kitchen. Today we're looking for something else."
Dutournier: "A lot of chefs still brag about how much they drink, not how many different wines or of what quality they've tasted. On the rare occasions when they do go to the vineyards, they announce that they're from this or that restaurant as if that alone proves how much they know about wine."
Robert Vifian: "My grandfather was already interested in wine but it particularly amused me because no Vietnamese restaurateur had ever gone seriously into wine. The growers may be a little surprised when they first see me, but they don't care who you are if you know how to taste well.
"And it's fun to match wits with them because they always try to get the better of you. That's why it's more of a challenge to buy Burgundy than Bordeaux. You have to hunt around more to find a top-quality wine."
Morot-Gaudry: "I have to agree but then I'm from Burgundy myself! A few years ago Alain and I began tasting wines together. He comes from the southwest of France and he claimed there were no good Burgundies. I told him he was wrong and proved it to him in tasting sessions lasting into the early hours."
Vifian: "As a foreigner, I had to read a lot first and then do my tasting, but it keeps me objective and gives me an overall view. A Frenchman begins by tasting and then reads later."
Dutournier: "As soon as I've put together a new dish, my first question is what wine will go with it. The easy way out for a chef is Beaujolais. It goes with almost anything and it's perfumed.
"But we have two publics to satisfy. The average client will not necessarily like the wines that someone with a certain amount of wine culture does. Needless to say, I prefer the second type of client."
Vifian: "A lot of restaurants have a wine list only to justify a Michelin star. They couldn't care less if a wine comes from a good grower or through a representative selling nothing but shippers' wines so long as it has the right appellation contrôlée."
Morot-Gaudy: "I hate to sell a really good wine to some idiot who insists on ordering it when it's far too young and then tells me it was no good. We have to protect our good wines with easy ones like Beaujolais or Sancerre."
Vifian: "My aim is selfish. My cellar is as much for myself as it is for my clients. I also find it stimulating to be the first Oriental restaurateur with a great wine list. It motivates me to keep searching for new and better wines.
"You often find the same wines from the same representatives in many restaurants. It becomes boring because there are no surprises; If only more restaurateurs, chefs or not, would go to the vineyards and do their own buying, there would be more variety. Among the younger chefs more and more do try to learn wine. It's a question of education, time and laziness whether they do or not."
Morot-Gaudry: "I spend an hour or two a day on wine alone. I have to keep up with new wine articles and books, work in the cellar and receive representatives, whether they interest me or not. And taste with friends. I never taste alone."
Vifian: "Never. I always taste and buy with my brother Fred or another serious winetaster."
Does that answer why so few chefs are good winetasters? At least it shows the passion and effort required to become one. And it helps to explain the sort of cellar filled with 50,000 or so bottles from growers that each of these three chef-restaurateurs has built up.
And if you don't think Vietnamese cooking can go with the best of French wines, you have a pleasant discovery in store.