In Nouméa, the city’s hospitality training restaurant is a culinary gem.
Editor’s note, 26 May 2016: I make no apologies for reprising and updating this item about the Escoffier hospitality training school in Nouméa, New Caledonia. I have just browsed the 2016 menus for its restaurant, Restaurant Panoramique, and have a strong urge to jump on an Aircalin jet. New Zealanders and Australians have every reason to visit New Caledonia in droves: it’s beautiful, diverse, and French. And just 2.5 hours away.
By John Corbett. Among the many reasons to visit New Caledonia, food is high on the list. Long known for offering some of the best cuisine in the South Pacific, the New Caledonian capital of Nouméa (pop. 99,000) has a disproportionate number of restaurants for its size, with offerings from North African to Vietnamese – a reminder that France once possessed an empire that rivalled the British in global reach.
As you would expect in an overseas territory of France, there are restaurants offering specialities from regions like Gascony, Alsace and Normandy, and a range of styles from cuisine bourgeoise (home-style cooking) to haute cuisine. In recent years, a generation of local chefs has embraced farm-to-fork philosophies, with a special emphasis on the superb local seafood. On the offshore islands of Lifou, Maré and Île des Pins and in the brousse (bush), the vast hinterland of mountains and plains that stretches for more than 400 kilometres north of Nouméa, you will also find indigenous Kanak fare.
Here you can try dishes such as bougna, a hangi-like dish of banana, taro, sweet potato, yam, chicken and crab or lobster wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pit; or lobster and coconut crab marinated in coconut cream and simmered on a hot stone oven. It also goes without saying that since you are on French soil the wines in New Caledonia are uniformly excellent; the best-known locally-brewed beer also lives up to its brand name of “No.1”.
Underpinning the territory’s culinary scene is Nouméa’s Lycée Professionel Commercial et Hôtelier Escoffier, a French Government-funded vocational training school offering a range of hospitality courses to Baccalauréat Professional level. The two- and three-year programmes include “les arts de la table”, an impeccable training in culinary skills, presentation and serving. And while the directors of the 1,200-student school advise that it has no official relationship with the Escoffier Foundation in France – the name, they say, is an hommage to the great culinary master whose portrait hangs in an entrance foyer – the lycée’s graduates readily find employment in hotels, resorts and restaurants in Nouméa and overseas.
As part of the students’ training, the school’s Restaurant Panoramique is open during the two school terms for lunch (from 11.30am to 2pm, Monday to Friday), and dinner (Thursdays from 7.40pm to 10pm). Prices are attractively discounted at 2,310 CFP (NZ$32) per person for lunch, and 3,990 CFP (NZ$55.50) for dinner. Wine is extra and reservations are essential.
The restaurant’s ever-changing menus offer a grand tour of French cuisine in all its diversity, from say, Apicius de canard (spiced, honey-roasted duck) to Tropézienne (brioche filled with rich pastry cream). Some of the memorable dinner themes in 2015 included Autour des Palaces de la Riviera, with dishes evoking the cuisine of the great hotels of the Côte d’Azur such as Le Negresco in Nice and Alain Ducasse’s sumptuous Le Louis XV restaurant at the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo. Others, like Saveurs Basques and La Cuisine Bourgeoise, reflect the comprehensive training the students receive. The school also collaborates with visiting chefs from leading Nouméa restaurants such as Au P’tit Cafe.
Dining at Restaurant Panoramique is an experience on which Escoffier would smile – in the knowledge that his legacy is in excellent hands. Overseen by tutors who are all seasoned hospitality professionals, the young front-of-house staff wear smart traditional-style long aprons and often finish dishes by heating and portioning at the table in classic French style. At one dinner I attended the theme was Pays Bénélux, with dishes from Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. A delectable fish soup from Flanders was followed by a main course of pork loin stuffed and fried in dark beer, with braised chicory and chips. The beverage match was blond or brown Leffe beer, or Heineken.
While sipping, I asked a young server if I could taste an Alsace riesling I saw being enjoyed at neighbouring tables. The young man raised an eyebrow almost imperceptibly
“I think you would find, monsieur, that it would not complement your dish.”
I agreed and said I was simply curious to try the wine.
He inclined his head. “But of course, monsieur.”
I tried the riesling, which was good. And the young man was absolutely right.
Restaurant Panoramique at the Lycée Professionel Commercial et Hôtelier Escoffier is at 4 rue Adolphe Barrau, Pointe de l’Artillerie, Nouméa. Reservations: ++687 24 26 70 or 24 26 71 or 24 26 72. www.ac-noumea.nc/lpc
John Corbett travelled to Nouméa with assistance from Aircalin and New Caledonia Tourism New Zealand.
Photos: New Caledonia Tourism; John Corbett; wikimedia
FYI: THE LEGACY OF ESCOFFIER
We like to think we live in the age of the über-chef – global personalities with own-name restaurants, TV shows and magazines and all the other trappings of modern celebrity.It can come as a surprise to learn that a world-famous French chef was doing much of the above more than a century ago. Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935) isn’t well known outside of culinary circles today – but try the name Ritz. As the business partner of César Ritz, Escoffier established grand hotels in Paris, London and New York that remain benchmarks of luxury and haute cuisine to this day. (Princess Diana, you may remember, had her last meal at the Ritz Paris).
While the suave Ritz handled front-of-house matters, the detail-oriented Escoffier made everything in the kitchens run like clockwork – and a lot more besides. As well as pioneering the idea of luxury restaurants and in the process kicking off the beginnings of modern celebrity culture, the pair introduced the concept of dining à la carte, which allowed diners to choose a selection of dishes from a menu. They accompanied this with service a la russe (service in the Russian-style), the style of dining we are accustomed to today in which dishes are brought to the table in sequential order, from appetisers to desserts. Before Escoffier and Ritz’s innovation, all of the offerings for a meal were placed on the table at once.
Escoffier was even more revolutionary behind the scenes. The system of kitchen organisation he introduced, known as the brigade, assigned chefs precisely defined roles in a production line that enabled them to produce imaginative and high-quality meals with speed and efficiency. The brigade transformed workplaces that had often been slovenly and disorganised (drunkenness and knife-throwing were not uncommon) and turned cheffing into a serious profession.
As his fame grew, Escoffier opened a restaurant on a luxury liner in 1906 (take that, Jamie Oliver, Luke Mangan and Curtis Stone!), founded a glossy lifestyle magazine, wrote two famous cookbooks and created celebrated dishes like Peach Melba, which allegedly inspired the American ice cream sundae.
Escoffier’s other enduring legacy was to give French cuisine the prestigious place that it now holds around the world. Today he is remembered by a Museum of Culinary Art and Foundation in his hometown of Villeneuve-Loubet near Nice, and by culinary schools around the globe which carry on his tradition. The Lycée Professionel Commercial et Hôtelier Escoffier in Nouméa is one of them.