Gourmet: Despite the big white hat and impressive title at the Marriott in Cap d’Ail, Norman Mac Pherson is just like us … a foreigner cooking in an unfamiliar land
Adding an American touch to the plate
From a cook's perspective, it's great. If I want to have Italian for dinner, I am literally having Italian," laughs Norman as we sit together on the terrace of the Marriott on this beautiful, sunny day.
It is one year exactly since the 44-year-old waved goodbye to the Big Apple and headed for the culinary capital of the world. He is the Head Chef of this impressive four-star hotel, with its brasserie overlooking the picturesque bay of Cap d'Ail, and he leads a team of five French cooks.
"New York is hustle hustle, you are always trying to climb your way to the top. And that's the mindset I came here with, 'Ra Ra let's go team'. But it's tranquil here, so I am getting used to that."
His comment reminds me how I felt six years ago. "You will adjust in no time," I assure him as we sip on a glass of delectable Perrier Jouet champagne. The lifestyle and culture is what keeps us all here, in the end.
A blank page
But it raises the question - how does a leading chef from the career-driven US get lured to the carefree Riviera?
"It's a maturation of the chef. I have worked with a lot of things in the States, but here it's like a clean slate. To see different produce is exciting. One of my new favourites is the pOmelo - in between a grapefruit and an orange - and it has an incredible flavour. The dressing I have with it (see recipe below) is one I have been thinking about for years; it's been in my head and I have finally found something to put it with."
As exciting as discovering new produce in a foreign land is, it can also be very daunting, for chefs and home cooks alike. But you shouldn't let that deter you, says this Jamaican-born chef.
"Yes it is a challenge, but it's all about not being shy, willing to try and willing to fail. I think when it comes to cooking, a lot of people are afraid. But if it fails, it's fine - you didn't necessarily fail, you just know you are not going to go this route next time." And it is good advice. Often we won't even try to cook with produce that we don't recognise the name or shape of.
But isn't this all part of being a foreigner in an unfamiliar land?
"Go to your supermarket, go to your butcher, and just communicate. Talk to the produce department and ask questions - what is this? How does it taste? How do I use it? Just be curious and don't be shy," advises Norman.
And then the most amazing things can happen - the fusion of traditional local products with very untraditional ideas. Norman does this perfectly. Chicken and baby leek deep fried ravioli, seared fish on a bed of ratatouille with Jamaican spices, café gourmand with banana mousse and caramelised walnuts. The results speak for themselves.
As diners, there is plenty to look forward to. In addition to a spring menu of fusion cuisine, Norman will head an American-style BBQ in the summer on the terrace, where he plans on teaching eager clients the finer points of this American classic.
"I want to play around with the theme - a Memphis BBQ, a southern BBQ, there are quite a few differences, and we'll be using fresh local produce, of course."
It is refreshing talking to Norman. Because although we may live in the 'culinary capital' of the world, you can't deny that fusion cuisine - taking the best the world has to offer - is the epitome of fine dining (and not in the luxury sense). We should all embrace this concept in our own kitchens, and not be afraid to fail.
And if you need some pointers, just come and visit Norman.