Arriving on the beautiful island of Mauritius by plane, looking down on its fields of swaying sugar cane and lush volcanic hills, its beaches and manicured golf courses, you feel as though you are about to become part of the perfect picture postcard. And if you did not know, you would never imagine that it was a culinary as well as a holiday paradise. It all seems a long way from Burgundy and the inspirational wellspring that brought me here—the Relais Bernard Loiseau in Saulieu and its daughter restaurants in Beaune, Dijon, and Paris. But that distance is part of the point.
In 2006, three years after the death of the legendary three-Michelin-star chef Bernard Loiseau at the tragically young age of 52, his widow Dominique began a highly successful partnership with the Constance hotel group, which has luxury resorts on the Maldives, the Seychelles, and Madagascar as well as on Mauritius. The admirable idea was to promote a culinary cultural exchange at the highest professional level, spanning the Côte d’Or, Europe, and the Indian Ocean. From the beginning, the centerpiece of the Festival Culinaire Bernard Loiseau has been a culinary competition in which six Michelin-starred chefs from Europe are paired with six island chefs from Constance Hotels and Resorts. But around this has grown a brilliantly entertaining and richly varied program involving other competitions and demonstrations—including the Deutz Trophy for canapés paired with one of the house’s prestige cuvées—as well as spectacular dinners for the paying guests prepared by the chef participants and previous winners.
The event this year ran from Saturday, March 25, to Saturday, April 1, and was based at the Belle Mare Plage resort, stylishly renovated in 2016, but some dinners and events were also held at its sister resort Le Prince Maurice a short distance farther round the coast. Not surprisingly, the festival has attracted distinguished and loyal sponsors, which this year included Champagne Deutz, Delas Frères, AdVini (Domaine Cazes and Vignobles JeanJean), San Pellegrino, R&O Seafood Gastronomy Group, Nespresso, Valrhona, Jars Ceramics, and Glass & Co. When I asked Fabrice Rosset, Chairman and CEO of Champagne Deutz, why he had attended and sponsored the event every year, he replied that it was because he so admired the festival’s imaginative ideals, the exemplary high professional standards it sustains, and the naturally friendly and welcoming spirit of the Mauritian people who staff it. Those ideals, those standards, and that spirit were excitingly evident throughout this year’s festival.
The festivities began on the first Saturday with a wine pairing dinner at the fabulously renovated Blue Penny Cellar at Belle Mare Plage, with Delas wines and food masterminded by Marc de Passorio, the passionate and talented chef-proprietor of the one-Michelin-star L’Esprit de la Violette in Aix-en-Provence and winner of the 2016 Deutz Trophy. On the Sunday, lots were drawn to decide which Michelin-starred chefs would be partnered with which island chefs, each duo then shopping together in the colorful and exotic local market in Flacq for ingredients such as vegetables, herbs, and spices with which they would supplement the compulsory main ingredients supplied to them at the hotel.
On the Monday the first of the competitions was held, for Constance sommeliers competing for the Peter Bojesen Trophy, named in honor of the late friend of the Festival who had helped to identify Scandinavian talent for it. The three contestants—Dany Godere of Constance Belle Mare Plage, Nelisa Octave of Constance Ephelia Seychelles, and Jaisen Pandhoo of Constance Le Prince Maurice—were set challenging tasks including opening, presenting, and serving a bottle of Deutz Champagne, a blind tasting of three wines, and a wine-pairing recommendation for a scallop dish created by Marc de Passorio. As a sommelier for most of my life, I appreciated the composure under pressure and skill that these young sommeliers showed, performing in front of a large audience as well as the panel of four judges: Fabrice Rosset, Marc de Passorio, Giuseppe Vaccarini, Best Sommelier in the World 1978, and WFW editor Neil Beckett. The winner was Jaisen Pandhoo, but all three competitors were a credit to Jérôme Faure, Constance Corporate Sommelier, who helped to train them and the more than 40 other sommeliers in his team. Faure is also responsible for the meticulously sourced and perfectly stored wine selections across the group’s restaurants, which are regular three-star winners in the WFW World’s Best Wine Lists awards.
Three other competitions followed on the Wednesday—Art of the Table for restaurant service, Nespresso Café Gourmand for pâtisserie, and a Cocktail Competition. Guests were then able to choose between two equally tempting dinners: one at the Deer Hunter Restaurant at Belle Mare Plage, orchestrated by Norwegian chef Ørjan Johannessen, winner of the 2015 Bocuse d’Or; the other at l’Archipel Restaurant at Le Prince Maurice, prepared by chef Patrick Bertron of Le Relais Bernard Loiseau, who cooked under the great chef and helped found the Festival Culinaire.
The Deutz Trophy
The two main competitions took place on the Thursday in the Blue Penny Cellar. For the Deutz Trophy, the six Michelinstarred chefs each had to prepare a canapé—including as the compulsory ingredient OSO® Daurade bio (bream) supplied by R&O—to match the exquisite 2006 Cuvée William Deutz. The chefs invited to compete were Sonja Frühsammer of Frühsammers Restaurant, Berlin; Gary Kirchens of La Villa Lorraine Restaurant, Brussels; William Ledeuil of Ze Kitchen Galerie Restaurant, Paris; Titti Qvarnström of Bloom in the Park Restaurant, Malmö; Keishi Sugimura of Le Benaton Restaurant, Beaune; and Alyn Williams of Alyn Williams Restaurant at The Westbury Hotel, London. Along with Fabrice Rosset, Marc de Passorio, Jérôme Faure, Giuseppe Vaccarini, and Neil Beckett, I was one of the judges for this fascinating contest. We had been well briefed by the indomitable Dominique Loiseau, the inspirational Dominique Grel, executive assistant manager of Belle Mare Plage, and the indefatigable Alexis Voisin, executive chef of Belle Mare Plage, who gave us our marking criteria: the presentation (5 points); the taste, Mme Loiseau adapting her husband’s famous saying, Le goût, messieurs, le goût! to Le goût, mesdames et messieurs, le goût!, noting that he had mostly male chefs under him at the time (5 points); and the perfect pairing with the William Deutz (20 points). Any one of the six chefs would have been a worthy winner, but in the end Keishi Sugimura emerged victorious.
The culinary contest
The same six chefs had collaborated closely with their island chef partners, but it was they who would cook and present two courses on the day of the competition itself. Mme Loiseau explained to me that in the early years of the Festival, all of the chefs had been given advance notice of the compulsory ingredients, but she found that they then tended to arrive with firm ideas about what they wanted to do, and they were therefore less likely to engage in the free and full exchange of ideas that was always a large part of the festival’s raison d’être. So, more recently they have been told of the compulsory ingredients only after arriving at the event. This year the ingredients for the starter were organic vegetables from sponsor Vélo Vert, including palm hearts, a healthy Mauritian staple; and for the main course, wild turbot and local sea urchin, with a spice mix prepared with a traditional roche carri (grinding stone) to be used in a sauce or the seasoning.
The six island chefs were Jereco Didal of Constance Ephelia Seychelles; Behan Sulakshana Dissanayaka of Constance Haleveli Maldives; Kevin Hook of Constance Belle Mare Plage; Phalla Lach, of Constance Lémuria Seychelles; Sourove Sarkar of Constance Moofushi Maldives; and Vishal Saulick of Constance Le Prince Maurice. On the jury, Mme Loiseau, Patrick Bertron, and Giuseppe Vaccarini were joined by Eckart Witzigmann, the first German chef to be awarded three Michelin stars, who was also named Chef of the Century in 1994 by the French restaurant guide Gault Milau; David Moore, founder of the two-Michelin-star Pied à Terre and L’Autre Pied in London, who was part of the winning team at the Festival Culinaire Bernard Loiseau in 2016; and Indonesian celebrity chef Farah Quinn.
The marking criteria given for each course included presentation (10 points); creativity, originality, and contribution to culinary culture (10 points); respect and treatment of the compulsory ingredients (10 points); and, of course, the taste (20 points). The competition was again intense, but the winning duo was Kevin Hook and William Ledeuil. One dinner prepared by Eckart Witzigmann at La Spiaggia Restaurant at Belle Mare Plage, and another at Barachois Restaurant at Le Prince Maurice, perfectly rounded off an eventful day.
The six-hand and gala dinners
On the Friday it was the turn of the pâtissiers in the Constance Pastry Competition, in collaboration with an acknowledged master of the art, Pierre Hermé, and Valrhona. In the evening there was another difficult choice for guests between two “Six-Hand Dinners,” one at l’Archipel, the other at the Deer Hunter, each involving three of the Michelin-star chefs. At l’Archipel, I greatly enjoyed the superb dinner prepared by William Ledeuil (starter), Titti Qvarnström (fish course), and Gary Kirchens (meat course). At this and other dinners we were served delicious and very well chosen wines from Deutz, Delas, Cazes, and JeanJean.
On the second Saturday, the Festival had a spectacular finale with an evening awards ceremony for the announcement of the winners and the presentation of the prizes, the striking trophies specially designed by artist Patrick Doutres. A gala dinner at the Deer Hunter followed, with four courses expertly prepared by Constance chefs, and dessert by Frédéric Bau, creative director of Valrhona. The brilliantly matched wines were Deutz Rosé, 2007 Amour de Deutz, 2000 William Deutz, 2014 Delas Côte-Rôtie Seigneur de Maugiron, and 1978 Cazes Rivesaltes Cuvée Aimé. It was a thrilling climax to a thrilling week. Which wine and food lover would not want to attend next year’s event, March 17–25, 2018?