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French Chef Offers Food for Thought in U.S. : Celebrated Maximin to Be Consultant to Antoine in Newport

January 25, 1985|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN

In France, the country that more than any other seems to prize the culinary arts, chef Jacques Maximin is the rage.

But you no longer have to fly to the Hotel Negresco in Nice, where Maximin hones his art at Le Chantecler restaurant, to get an idea why: The 37-year-old, dubbed by the French press "the Bonaparte of the Kitchen," has been retained by the Hotel Meridien in Newport Beach as a consultant for its elegant new dining room, Antoine.

Maximin, who already acts in an advisory capacity for restaurants in Paris and New York, has garnered practically every honor possible for a chef in France. In Newport Beach briefly last week, he explained why he was happy to take on the additional responsibility of a restaurant in Orange County.

"The only positive thing going in France now is its food and wine," he said to members of the press. "As long as we have something good going for us, we should try to do it all over the world. One should try to project what is best about his country.

"For Japanese, it may be high tech. For France, it is our cooking."

Hotel food and beverage director Olivier Louis, who served as interpreter for Maximin, added the Meridien's reasons for retaining him: "We believe we must try to fight the (bad) reputation of hotel restaurants. To fight that fight, people like Maximin are terrific assets in helping the Meridien project a high culinary image.

"We're helping to develop Jacque's name in the United States. He's helping to develop ours."

Though he embarked on his career when he was 14, Maximin's meteoric rise to gastronomic fame really began at 31, when he submitted himself for the "Meilleur Ouvrier de France," a grueling examination for chefs held once every four years; he was the youngest ever to win the competition.

Last year, Gault Millau, one of the two most respected publications dealing critically with food and wine in France, brought together 23 of the country's greatest chefs--living legends such as Paul Bocuse, Michel Guerard, Alain Chapel, Claude Terrail and Roger Verge--and nine food writers and asked who they felt would lead the new generation of chefs in the '80s.

Maximin was named "Premier Jeune Chef de France" (The Greatest Young Chef of France), surpassing the rest of the field by an almost embarrassing margin.

Top Rating In its annual evaluations, Gault Millau awarded Le Chantecler four red toque s , its highest rating. The chef himself earned 19.5 out of a possible 20 points; 20 have never been awarded.

There are those, however, who hold to the more traditional Michelin Guide, which refused Maximin a third star because he is a chef at a restaurant in a hotel and because he does not own the restaurant himself. (Michelin assumes a chef who must oversee all the Hotel Negresco's food services cannot devote himself fully to its restaurant.)

"It is stupide, " said Maximin. "(Michelin) should judge me on my culinary achievements and not on my investments. And now it's become a bit tough for them, because Le Chantecler is one of the most well-known and profitable restaurants in France.

"You know, many of my friends are suddenly cooking in the hotels again. In the next two or three years, Michelin is going to have a problem. I think it will have to change its rules."

Maximin feels that his creative culinary life is just beginning, that the "Meilleur Ouvrier" was only a starting point.

"At that age," said Maximin, "I do not believe you can be a master. It took me 15 years to understand cuisine, and it is only in the last three years. . . . Bocuse is now 59, and only in the last 10 years do we hear from Bocuse."

Maximin, who grew up in a tiny northern French village called Rang-du-Fliers, where his mother had a restaurant, feels that for him it is not enough to make a dish perfectly.

Change Is Important "You used to have Escoffier," he explained, "and you had thousands of chefs that followed and made his dishes as well. Then you had the new generation with Bocuse, and you had thousands of chefs that followed him.

"The leader takes a step above. He does not wish only to achieve, but to change--not change for the sake of change, of course, but in order to make a difference, to express himself. He is an artist.

"I look for the new, for that one more step."

Maximin makes at least 50 new creations a year; of those, he hopes two or three will be considered masterpieces.

Despite all the accolades, Maximin is unwilling to call himself "the best."

"Who can say such a thing?" he asked rhetorically. "It doesn't make any sense.

"I would say I am like a painter or a singer. I am myself. I have a star. I dare to do the things I want to do."

Maximin, whose original recipes have been compiled in a book entitled "Couleurs, Parfums et Saveurs de Ma Cuisine" (Colors, Scents and Flavors of My Cuisine, at this time available only in French), said the menu he prepared for Antoine will differ in many ways from that at Le Chantecler.

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