The French Master Chef With a Weakness for Gefilte Fish

In Israel for a program sponsored by the French Embassy, the Jewish-French chef Thierry Marx talks about not only the molecular gastronomy for which he is known but also about his love for pastrami and and other Jewish foods. And he wants to open a restaurant in Tel Aviv.

Social activism, combat in Lebanon and extended stays in the Far East are only some of the highlights in the life of the French chef Thierry Marx. Marx, 51, is a pioneer of molecular cuisine; he works by deconstructing the ingredients and reconstructing them in a futuristic way, in his personal style and with the help of technology developed for him in advanced culinary laboratories.

In addition to being the chef of the two-Michelin-star restaurant Sur Mesure, at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Paris, he is also a judge on a French version of the reality cooking show competition "Top Chef," on which he is described as a “culinary alchemist.”

In France Marx is known as "the Bruce Lee of French Cuisine." It is a nod to the black belt he holds in judo and his parallel career as a judo teacher, in some cases to people who are unaware of his culinary career.

As Marx tells it, his route toward cooking began as an attempt to deal with the horrific scenes he witnessed while serving with the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon during that country's civil war. The young paratrooper was injured both physically and mentally, and after an initial period of recovery he began to experiment with cooking. At the time he was living at home with his parents in their home in a remote suburb of Paris.

He still finds it difficult to talk about his time as a "blue beret."

"No one likes to talk about that. I was posted to a Christian neighborhood in Lebanon during the war. We saw a ruined and chaotic country. We were only 19, very young. After we returned from Lebanon the memories from there confused and upset us a lot. In combat I thought about nothing except my fellow soldiers. Everyone looks after the person next to him at that moment.

"There is one thing I know for sure: Perhaps there are just wars, but there are no clean wars. It’s hard for me to forget the noise that was with me during the whole period of the war, or the horrible smells. When you’re in action you can be a hero and you can be a coward – in any case everything can turn upside down in a moment. The scenes from Lebanon kept surfacing, and they are still coming back. It is very hard for me to talk about this.

"I assumed no one would believe what I would tell them, so I kept it all to myself. For 10 years I didn’t talk about it with anyone. To this day I don’t talk with my children about the war, because I prefer for them not to know. It was a very difficult experience. Every Christmas my buddies from those days sent me a postcard on which they write that Lebanon will always haunt us."

Have you returned to Lebanon since then?

"Several times, but it’s a sensitive subject, and when I get there everyone talks to me about it and they remind me of that period. I also have Israeli stamps in my passport, so I always get stopped at the airport for long questioning. To this day I haven’t seen the Israeli film ‘Waltz with Bashir’ straight through from beginning to end. I had to stop after the first part and then go back later to see the second part. And after that I didn’t want to see it again."

Marx signed up for a few cooking lessons but left, restless. He found work as a security guard and saved up to go abroad, just as many young Israelis do after completing their mandatory army service. He went to Asia, where he was exposed to the street food, martial arts and philosophy of the region. His stay affected him profoundly, and since then he has returned frequently to the region. Marx now spends several months every year at a Buddhist monastery in Japan.

After his first visit to Asia Marx continued on to Australia, where he found work at the Four Seasons Hotel in Sydney. He was put in charge of the entire kitchen, despite not having any real training as a cook, apparently on account of being a French-speaker. Marx accepted the challenge, relying heavily on a small cooking guide that never left his back pocket.

After returning to France, Marx began a dizzying whirl of professional training, internships at the finest restaurants and aspiring to excellence and innovation. "After you come back from war, you try to find yourself, to rebuild yourself," he says, adding, "I had friends who went toward arts, music. I went into the kitchen."

Marx trained at such restaurants as Robuchon Ledoyen and Taillevent. His first official recognition came in 1998, in the form of the Michelin star that was awarded to Roc en Val, in Tours, where he was the chef. Three years later Cheval Blanc, in Nimes, earned Marx his second Michelin star.

After returning from an extended stay in Singapore Marx settled in Gironde province, the capital of which is Bordeaux. For 12 years he was chef of Relais et Château Cordeillan-Bages, in Pauillac, which was awarded two Michelin stars under his hand.

Marx is in Israel this week for "So French So Good," a week-long culinary event organized by the Institut Francais. He is one of 11 storied and Michelin-star-studded French chefs participating. These include Guillaume Gomez, the chef of the Elysee Palace, and Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch, the inspiration for the movie "Les saveurs du Palais" ("Haute Cuisine").

Fights and Food

It was a family tradition of fighting and resistance that led him to enlist in the French army, Marx recalls. He notes that one of his grandfathers, a Jew, was a Communist who came to France as a Holocaust refugee.

"The Jewish kitchen is at the base of my cooking," Marx says, adding that he grew up on Rue des Rosiers in the Jewish Quarter of Paris, surrounded by Jews from all over: "Tunisians alongside Ashkenazim from Poland," where he "discovered gefilte fish very early on and fell in love with pastrami. Over the years I have maintained an emotional connection to this culture," Marx says.

"Culinary curiosity and the joy of food can attract everyone to this cuisine. In France they mistakenly think kosher food is only for religious Jews," Marx says, adding that Jewish cuisine is very suprising: "An Italian who enjoys pasta will also enjoy eating pastrami in a Brooklyn deli," he says, adding, "growing up I absorbed flavors and smells, knowledge and stories from all the cultures that flourished around me, and I have melded that foundation with the culture I absorbed in the Far East."

In previous interviews Marx has said that his first food memory was the smell of fresh bread. In the suburb to which his family moved while he was still a boy, Marx would press his face to the window of the busy neighborhood bakery every day, fascinated by the goings-on.

His mother, who specialized in putting meals together from leftovers and who made and sold sausages and French fries at the local stadium during major soccer games, always made sure there were always pickles and pastrami in the refrigerator.

As a child Marx was estranged from classical French cooking. At 16 he became an apprentice pastry chef, but it was more to as a way to avoid getting into drugs and violence, like his friends from the neighborhood, than about any passion for food.

Later on, he says, "I had to learn the fundamentals of French cooking from zero, just as someone from Mexico or Japan" might.

Giving back

Marx founded a nonprofit organization, Kitchen: A User's Guide, whose aim is to give residents of his childhood neighborhood the vocational skills to work in a professional kitchen.

"The neighborhood hasn’t really developed in the past 40 years, because the education there is terrible. The residents don’t have the networking connections to help them to develop and to find work," Marx says by way of explaining his motivation.

When he was growing up in this neighborhood, he says, “Arabs, blacks, Jews and immigrants lived side by side. We would play soccer together, get into fights and then eat, and everything was fine."

He also gives cooking workshops at a prison that, he says, suffers from "serious problems, a lot of complicated intrigue" among people of different faiths and ethnic backgrounds, and that has a significant number of inmates who subscribe to fundamentalist schools of Islam.

"At first no Muslims would come to my kitchen workshops but gradually they realized it’s interesting and they joined. Training in the kitchen leads not only to an understanding of cooking; the cook learns physics and chemistry and of course history, culture and geography.

"When two people sit down to eat together, an immediate connection is created. The last time I was in Jerusalem I filmed a documentary series. I sliced roasted peppers onto bread and scattered salt on top, and everyone came over to taste, Arabs and Jews. In a few seconds a precious moment of intimacy and trust was born."

Does your cooking represent France? Molecular cuisine? The future of the Jewish kitchen?

"The French cling to the traditional cuisine and are suspicious of the innovative molecular technologies. That’s a pity, because molecular cuisine is only a means, a new technique for making a cake.

"Molecular gastronomy is only a tool aimed at a deeper understanding of cooking, at emphasizing the characteristics of the ingredients. It isn’t the content, it’s the subject of the research. To this end we have established the Centre Francais d’innovation culinaire at Orsay University.

"Using the new methods that are the product of molecular research I can take fruit and freeze it immediately into a sorbet. A traditional dessert chef would add sugar to the fruit – he doesn’t know there is no longer any need for it. Even soda is molecular cooking, putting carbon dioxide into water. In molecular techniques the ingredient remains clean, its flavors are emphasized and it can change form into a mousse or a jelly but nutritionally it is still very healthy.

“Let’s take a simple principle: A combination of grapefruit juice and clam sauce turns the juice into a gel – the calcium in the bivalves causes this process. When I transmit information like this to the lowest social classes in society I explain to them that if they study they will become free people.”

Next year in Tel Aviv?

Israeli chef Yair Feinberg studied with Marx in France for a week a few years ago and has hosted him in Israel several times. Feinberg says Marx has always taken an interest in local culinary innovations and has a strong connection to Israel. Marx confirms Feinberg's comment that the French chef tried to start a restaurant in Israel, with massive capital from investors, but has put the project on hold.

Marx says he wants to open a restaurant in Tel Aviv because it is an advanced, fast-moving city. "The young chefs here are open to international ideas and at the same time they respect the Jewish cooking tradition. In the future the entire world will enjoy the development of Israel; it will not serve only as a country of refuge for the Jews of France, it will be the place to grow and flourish," Marx says.
Dorit Sharon assisted with translation from French.

Eyal Toueg
Nir Kafri