A Michelin chef’s fine art of using pepper

In the seaside town of Trouville-sur-Mer in Normany, France, a Michelin chef uses pepper in innovative ways to create healthy food magic. Sathya Saran chatted with him

black green red pepper

Executive Chef Johan Thyriot believes that to be both tasty and effective food must be pure and as close to Nature as possible. His recipes based on this premise have won him a Michelin star, making him the pride of the Cures Marine Hotel in France which draws tourists and locals for his dinner service.

Flavourful nutritious food

Trouville-sur-Mer is a town known for its sea water massages and algae treatments since the 18th century. Little wonder, Chef Thyriot wishes to continue the wellbeing theme. His mantra for all his recipes, he says, is freshness. He visits the markets early every morning, picking his fruits, vegetables and fish for the day. Speaking in French, with a few English words thrown in, he explains his food philosophy. “I only use natural products,” he emphatises, “I ensure that all the fruits and vegetables I pick are organically grown. And the fish has to be bio-certified—and local, so I am sure it is fresh.”

“I respect the seasons,” he adds, “I will not pander to the whims of my customers… no, no. I will not serve strawberries in January.” His menu, thus, is an everchanging scene, depending on the availability of produce. To ensure the rich original flavours come through in his cooking, Chef Thyriot also holds back on seasoning.” I never use taste enhancers,” he says. “Most are bad for health, and many mask the real taste of good cooking.” His tone implies that taste enhancers are for lesser beings not blessed with culinary skills and preferred by those with undeveloped taste buds. He sees salt as a taste enhancer too, and “uses just a little,” enough for the body’s need.

Pepper can do no harm

However, he does have a favourite seasoning that comes high on his list leaving behind other natural seasonings derived “from aromatic plants of natural origin” that he uses, like star anise and cinnamon. Pepper, Chef Thyriot believes, is a do-good spice, and using it freely can do no harm. As such, he uses pepper in many forms. “Black pepper, white, green and red pepper,” he intones, counting them out on his fingers. Seeing my confusion over whether the red and green peppers are actually capsicum, he quickly explains that they are different stages a pepper goes through in its evolution. The green is of course pepper in its fresh form, known also to India as a pickle doused in brine, and the red is its last stage, if it is not dried but allowed to ripen. Each, he says, has its own taste, with white pepper being a milder version of the dark variety that is more popular in India.

Chef Johan Thyriot, Cures Marine Hotel, Trouville-sur-Mer, France
“I will not pander to the whims of my customers” — Chef Johan Thyriot. Photo credit: Shiv Saran

His passion for pepper has helped him find 45 different varieties sourced from India, South America and elsewhere. Even more enterprising is the fact that he has helped to create Gatelier pepper, a variety of pepper that grows in the local climate. “Pepper was so precious that it was used as payment at one time,” he explains, “so the thrifty French learnt to grow French pepper.” His version is even milder, “but rich in flavour,” he adds triumphantly.

Of course, the ways he uses his peppers are varied. “I rarely cook the pepper, as it breaks the taste,”  he says, “but sometimes a dish requires it. I prefer to infuse the pepper whole, for a rich flavour, but of course it must be in heat less than 85 degrees to ensure the flavour is maintained.” When he uses ground pepper, it is mostly at the end of the cooking, and he will pound the seeds with a mortar and pestle to get the maximum out of the spice. “Pepper has curative qualities and these are preserved when it is neither cooked not ground rashly,” he says.

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The magic of honey

Also high on his list of condiments is honey. The hotel ensures there is a fresh and organically guaranteed supply. “There are two major hives on the roof of the hotel,” he says,“and two queens in the two hives. The honey from the hives is flavoured not just with the scent of local flowers but sometimes the bees go 30km away to bring pollen from the acacia trees in the woods, so we get honey with that flavour too.” The hives are the hotel’s way to help preserve a vital Natural resource that is being threatened by development and progress. “Bees are disappearing around the world,” he says, his hands moving eloquently to express despair.

As part of his additional duties as F&B Manager, Chef Thyriot also keeps an eye on all purchases for the kitchens in the hotel, ensuring they are in line with his philosophy of wellness. His days he says are busy. Divided into four parts, from procuring of fresh products every morning, when he chats with the fishermen to know what they have caught and “learn from them about the product,” to teaching younger chefs the important aspects of good cooking. He is not very happy with the third aspect of his job, “the marketing part, where I have to talk about what I do,” but enjoys the past part of the day’s duties, wherin he interacts with his customers over dinner,  the only meal his restaurant serves. “I like to get their feedback, to know what they liked more; to explain to them—if they ask—about the dishes they have ordered. It gives me great satisfaction. And that”, he adds conclusively, “ensures I sleep soundly at night.”

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