A force for French flair and flavour
ADVENTUROUS diners will doubtless have spotted the red, white and blue logo of a rooster wearing a chef's hat on walls near the entrances of some of their favourite restaurants.
It is the signature of the Confrerie Francophone de la Cuisine Francaise, founded a few months ago by a group of French-speaking chefs and restaurant owners with the support of the French Chamber of Commerce and Industries of SA. It is worth crowing over if you are even vaguely committed to slow death by garlic and butter, because the association's aim is to further and preserve the culture of French gastronomy in SA.
Though he isn't wearing a chef's hat, Germain Marquis is otherwise all in white when I catch up with him at the restaurant in Sandton which bears a justifiably - if you revere good food, that is - elevated version of his name. Along with French-speaking Belgian Daniel Leusch's consistently brilliant La Madeleine and Brasserie de Paris in Pretoria, Marc Guebert's Ile de France in Bryanston and Jean-Pierre Siegenthaler's Le Chablis in Sandown, Saint Germain, formerly Sausalito, is a founder member of the Confrerie Francophone.
Marquis is thrilled to note there are now 14 members, including Sandton's Gatrile's and Girard's, Krugersdorp's Simply Chapat, Cape Town's La Colombe on the Constantia Uitsig Estate, Le Jardin at the Vineyard Hotel and La Villa near the Mount Nelson Hotel, Nelspruit's Le Gourmet and Southbroom's La Petite Normandie in KwaZulu-Natal.
"The main criterion for being elected a member," he says, "is that you either have to be French or born in a French-speaking country, that is Switzerland, Belgium, Canada or any of the former French colonies. Our charter includes enforcing the use of proper culinary terminology on menus and training young chefs and waiters in French culinary culture with a view to furthering their studies in France."
He is certainly not wrong when he notes that there are countless restaurants passing themselves off as French - in the names they choose and in the dishes they prepare and spell incorrectly - when they have chefs and owners who are not French. Adds Le Chablis's Siegenthaler: "It gives customers a feeling of security to spot the logo and know for sure that the restaurant doesn't only have a French name but also a French chef."
Marquis says "as many members as possible gather once a month to discuss advertising and promotional themes, staff, wines and so on. What we do with food is entirely up to each of us, which means we're free to be creative but doesn't mean we'd include the French owner of an Italian restaurant. However, when I have a good supply of rabbit, for instance, I'll spread the word among my confrères. But there's no chairman. I act as a secretary in that I get the paperwork done, and so it's liberté, égalité and fraternité and lots of camaraderie."
He lets on that an important part of the association's effort is to dispel the widespread myth that French food is expensive. Marquis' starters are around R20 and his main courses about R40, while some of his co-members run bistros - French Bistro in Rosebank, for one - where you can have a rewardingly authentic meal for even less.
Though it has been dealt a blow by new tariffs on imported wines, the Confrerie Francophone has been successful in promoting small ranges of bulk-bought French wines at low mark-ups. "I prefer to charge more for cheap local wines and beers so that people will be encouraged to drink better wines," argues Marquis.
The association also buys in bulk from the local estates which remain faithful to the restaurant trade - Klein Constantia, for one - and do not concentrate on the export market. And it is in talks with the French owner of Stellenbosch's Morgenhof Estate, Alain Huchon, with the view to being able to offer a house wine exclusive to its members.
That there are now 14 member restaurants - and more to come, perhaps - may also bring bulk-buying benefits on the food front. "We may eventually consider buying French oysters, duck and goose liver and other delicacies together," confirms Marquis.
But it isn't only the customer who is expected to benefit from this association of French-speaking restaurateurs. As Marquis puts it: "We also feel that we're benefiting and improving as a result of having got together."
Bon appétit, indeed. ý Linda Stafford is a senior editor of the Financial Mail.