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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

French Chefs, Unite!




Surrounded by hundreds of bottles -- the precious contents of which cost thousands of dollars - Frank Hardy surveys his wine cellar at Le Duc restaurant. Out in the kitchen, Eric Le Provos is jotting down notes for his latest edible invention.


Across town, at the Grand Opera restaurant just behind the Bolshoi Theater, Michel Lauga darts his way through his enormous kitchen, giving orders to the dozens of cooks chopping, dicing and spicing.


Further away still, at the French Ambassador's residence, Didier Dejaiffe and Frederic Hennin are preparing the dining room for a dinner party of very distinguished guests.


They are part of one movement, one cause, with one common aim: To make sure French chefs don't get a bum rap here in the big city. Or, more officially, to unite the French chefs of Moscow to promote the knowledge of French gourmet foods and products. They've formed a group, some 27 strong, dubbed the Club of the French Chefs.


Their mission? To fight against fraud.


"Some restaurants say they have French food when there is not a French chef," said Le Provos, a chef de cuisine who, for nearly a decade, has been making the rounds of Moscow kitchens, including those of the Viking, Mirage and Actor, which he helped open.


"So what is the customer going to say? 'Oh my God, this [French] cooking is horrible!'"


"[But] when people know about us, they can go somewhere and be sure of the quality," said the Grand Opera's Lauga. "If you know it's French, you know you will get good food."


While they are wary of fake French food, the club members do not look down on their Russian colleagues. In fact, they are impressed with the knowledge of French cuisine Muscovites have picked up in just a few years.


But they believe the local chefs do not get the respect they deserve. The career of culinary maestro, they complain, is just not taken seriously.


"Some of these [Russian] cooks have so much potential," Le Provos said. "But the education they receive doesn't allow them to love cooking, to feel cooking. That's a shame."


The majority of the club members are chefs at the big name restaurants around town, such as El Dorado, The Crab House and Club-T. Into the mix is Hardy, a sommelier, or wine steward, Deijaffe, an attendant at the French residency, and pastry chef Arnaud Jacquart. "They are honorary chefs," explained Hennin.


Conceived last November, the club held its first public offering at the French embassy in March: a dinner with all the works for 170 people, most of whom paid dearly for an evening of French heaven - from aperitifs to culinary delectables followed by cigars.


The event had a humanitarian as well as a cultural goal. The money raised went to children's charities and restoration projects earmarked by Marie Helene Colin de Verdiere, the wife of the French ambassador.


During their monthly meetings - a breakfast roundtable that shifts venues - the chefs gather to plan future events. Proposals for upcoming projects that have floated around the table include an informal charity barbecue outside the city.


However, aside from having a reason to get together and talk shop, the club is still feeling its way and searching for its raison d'?tre.


"We are like a baby," Hennin said. "We are still looking for a logo. Perhaps CCCP [Russian for USSR]. It would stand for Club of the Chefs of Cuisine and Pastry.


When they do get together, the CCCP members have got plenty to talk about. Many of them came to work in Moscow in the pioneer days of the early 1990s, when the nearest supplies were, well, in Paris. It is only natural, then, that these French chefs on the front lines are happy to exchange war stories when they get together.


"Working in Moscow back then, it was like working in the forest. Ten years ago it was strange, wild," said Hennin, who began at a prestigious catering company. "It's too easy in France to work as a chef. You can just pick up the phone and say 'I want this, this and this.' While here, 80 percent of the stuff you didn't get, or you got it two days too late."


"When you call home to France, they laugh [at your problems]," Dejaiffe said.


Hennin recalled one time when the catering company's truck was pulled over for a traffic violation for having a broken side-view mirror. They were stranded on the side of the road with trays of food. In the end, they had to transport the food in a taxi.


Or there was the winter when they were preparing a spread for the Kremlin Cup ceremony and the walk-in refrigerator they ordered never arrived. Instead, they had to use the kitchen's fire doors to keep the food cold.


"The first time it's shocking, but after two or three years it's no longer shocking. If you work here long enough, you can work anywhere in the world," Hennin said.