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The chefs who cook for the world’s leaders usually keep a low profile, leaving the limelight to their bosses. But once a year, it is their turn to be wined and dined and treated as honoured guests in a foreign country.
Billed as the world’s most exclusive gastronomic society, the Club des Chefs des Chefs brings together the men and women who cook for heads of state to exchange ideas and — presumably — insider information on their bosses’ tastes.
They have met annually since the club was first established in Paris in 1977 and this year for the first time they are doing so in India, hosted by the president’s personal chef, Montu Saini.
“The presidents all met each other. I thought it was a good idea to make a sort of G20 of the chefs,” the club’s founder Gilles Bragard told journalists in Delhi.
“If politics divides men, a good table will unite them.”
Naturally, the tradition involves trying out local delicacies. But Saini has left little to chance when it comes to the Indian capital’s most notorious complaint.
Rather than subjecting the chefs to Delhi street food, he has had the kitchen of their five-star hotel recreate golgappas and aloo tikkis — popular fried snacks made of wheat flour and potato and served with sweet and spicy chutneys.
“I can’t take them to the street because they are foreigners. Their tummies are too sensitive,” said Saini.
“So I am creating a replica in the hotels.”
India excels in the extravagant welcome, and the visiting chefs are treated like the royalty many of them work for.
Arriving in their immaculate chef’s whites at Old Delhi’s chaotic spice market, even more crowded than usual ahead of the Diwali festival, they were showered with pink rose petals and garlanded with jasmine.
“This is fantastic,” said Bernard Vaussion, who cooked for six French presidents before he retired, as he pushed his way through the market’s packed alleyways.
“I mean it’s dirty and noisy, but who cares. It’s such an experience.”
India takes its toll though. By day three, one of the visiting chefs has fallen ill, while another is feeling the effects of Indian cuisine.
“After four days of eating spicy (food), you feel it,” said Fabrizio Boca, chef to the Italian president. “I think it’s only because you have to get used to it.”
Like most of the visiting chefs — 16 men and one woman, America’s Cristeta Comerford — Boca is eager to learn more about India’s vast range of spices.
Comerford, a Filipino-American, said she saw parallels with the cuisine of the Philippines.
“It’s not a recipe driven food, it’s more of a philosophy,” she told AFP.
“I would use the analogy of the Philippines, because each household has their own way of doing a certain dish.”
For the chefs, the annual gatherings are a chance to exchange ideas and get to know each other.
They also have a hotline known as the “blue telephone” that allows them to consult each other on their bosses’ preferences before a state visit.
None of the chefs gave away much about their bosses’ tastes, although all agreed on the growing importance of seasonality in food, and of making state dinners a lighter, healthier affair.
“Looking for more sustainable more local produce has become more prominent,” said Mark Flanagan, chef to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.
Given the move towards lighter dishes, it was perhaps doubtful whether the first recipe they tried on arriving in Delhi — the heart-stoppingly calorific Indian sweets known as jalebis, made of deep-fried batter soaked in syrup — would be recreated at home.
But Christian Garcia, the club’s current president and personal chef to Prince Albert of Monaco, said he might be tempted to ask for the recipe. Princess Charlene, he said, was a big fan of Indian cuisine.
“I thought I knew how to cook Indian food a bit, but now I realise I was completely wrong,” he said.
“Apart from curry and a few spices, I didn’t know how to cook any of the dishes that I’ve been able to discover during our stay.”