Writer: Nadine Khalil / Photographer: Elie Bekhazi
He may only be 33 but Rabih Fouany has been head chef at the Phoenicia’s principal restaurant Eau de Vie, for the last four years. So when we dared him to prepare something exclusively for us, he didn’t even blink.
As settings go, Eau de Vie is really quite regal. Elegant tableware, low lighting, luscious purple silk curtains and boundless sea views. But this isn’t really Fouany’s world. He’s more at home in the bright, shining kitchen next door, an essay in efficiency and stainless steel.
The first thing I notice is that Fouany works quickly, arranging the ingredients to form bursts of colour on the plate. As I watch, he assembles a plate of iridescent green mashed peas, fleshy pink smoked trout and bright yellow and orange capsicum flowers that are used for adornment but are aromatic and quite edible. Perhaps aware of how keenly I’m watching, he offers me a sample to nibble on as he works on the plate.
Fouany may have followed a very traditional path of culinary training – he attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris - but as a chef, he is anything but conventional. “I just love the colours of spring,” he says with a smile. Me? I like the taste of spring, especially these flowers, which are unexpectedly spicy with the hint of a pollen aftertaste.
The dish is almost ready. Offset by the stark whiteness of the plate and meticulously assembled, it has a definite flamboyancy that at once makes me think of him less as chef than sculptor, creating an installation of a minute and intricate kind, with bright dashes of dressing here and there.
Next, he tackles the trout, masterfully slicing the smoked flesh into oblique strips, picking out the thread-like veins as though he were unravelling a piece of fabric. Then he arranges the savoury slivers around a dollop of bright pea mash, which he has dribbled across the diameter of the plate in a single, clean streak. Next come two pickled plum tomatoes, one on each end of the mash and marinated artichokes, boiled quail eggs, mint leaves and an assortment of greens on the plate, the latter perfectly countering the salty smokiness of the fish and muting the creamy sweetness of the pea purée. For final effect, he dusts the dish in tarragon and Herbes de Provence.
At this point, I’m itching to eat and as I relish my first mouthful, an explosion of different flavours that come at me one by one in quick succession, Fouany explains to me that much of his passion for food comes from the pleasure of combining textures as well as tastes. “Add the creamy to the croquant and already you have something much more extraordinary than the mixing of sweet and sour,” he says. He’s right. I bite into the crisp frisée lettuce as the trout melts into my mouth. Sumptuous. I revel in the sweet and salty combination of the peas and fish, how the softness of the artichokes is offset by the firmness of the egg and finally, at the richness of the pickled tomatoes. Sooner than I would have wished, I’ve eaten my last mouthful.
But the chef is only getting warmed up. Next comes a real moment of glory. For the main course, he begins to prepare foie gras with confit de canard, a rich, unctuous combination which he tells me he plans to top with baby leaf salad – mostly wild rocca - asparagus, baby carrots, pumpkin and sprouts. The process of this creation, though, is to remain a secret. Perhaps there’s an ingredient the chef wishes to keep secret. All I know is that as I am just finishing my trout, my main arrives.
It’s presented as a three-layered pressé - one layer of foie gras, another of confit de canard and a third layer of puréed potato mixed with herbs. Comfort food, but of an elevated kind. The result was exquisite. As was its presentation. Served with a flourish, it came with an asparagus tip set on one end of the plate like a spire, a cube of the pressé on the other, garnished with an edible flower. In between, an act of vegetal acrobatics; a slice of radish balances vertically upon an asparagus stalk, two slivers of pumpkin crisscrossed by a bright raspberry vinaigrette smear lead away from the duck, while a slab of pickled garlic sits atop a bulbous baby carrot. I’d call it art.
It all might seem very sophisticated but the truth is, the essence of Fouany’s method is working with what’s available or whatever is, as the food world’s dominant fetish now demands, in season. “I like to take what’s fresh and ripe and come up with something innovative. In other words, create surprises with what’s readily available,” he told me, after I had meditated on his mille feuille for a while. “Although at the end of the day, I’m a sucker for Mediterranean food. As much as I like Ferran Adria’s molecular cuisine, my staple is as basic as olive oil. That is something I cannot do without.”
Obviously, this explained why the chef dips almost every vegetable morsel into a bit of oil before arranging them on the plate – and that’s before they are dressed. Though this might sound, well, oily, it isn’t. Nor does the olive oil – a rousing jade in colour – ever overwhelm the more delicate flavours. Magic.
Though Fouany’s creations are created in Nouvelle-sized bits and bites, each morsel is coached to maximal perfection. “This passion I have for food,” he reveals, “is more a passion for taste itself than for cooking. It’s about whetting your palate without fully saturating it. Maybe my penchant for tasting rather than eating large quantities is why I’m not fat,” he shrugs.
So the next time you’re on the Phoenicia’s eleventh floor, enjoying the plush interior and panoramic views - or even relaxing in the walk-in whiskey bar – take a moment to give thanks for the fact that part of the hotel’s recent renovations also included the transformation of Eau de Vie from a fine but quintessentially and rather classic French restaurant into a high-end Mediterranean dining experience, headed by an adventurous young chef with more than a few tricks up his sleeve.