But in Bordeaux, the wine comes first, offering a new challenge to the Michelin-starred chefs flocking to the French region.
With Hong Kong the guest of honour at the Bordeaux wine festival, the territory’s tourism head Anthony Lau flew in a team of starred chefs to cook for half a million festival goers and the region’s wine elite.
“It’s a new challenge, a new concept,” Lau told AFP at the event earlier this month. “We want them to be the rock stars of the festival.”
Lau’s chefs had less than a day to adapt to kitchens lent to them by local caterers and tweak their recipes to use locally-sourced ingredients, while adhering to the golden rule of never overpowering the wine.
“We were told not to use too much pepper as it will affect the pairing with Bordeaux wine,” said Lee Man-sing, who clinched a first Michelin star for the Hong Kong Mandarin Oriental’s Cantonese restaurant last December.
There were also unforeseen glitches when playing with the nuances that make a wine and a dish work together, or not.
“We couldn’t find the right soy sauce. It was too strong. In Hong Kong we have hundreds of kinds of soy sauces,” said Mak Kwai-pui, dim sum specialist and owner of Tim Ho Wan, a one-star eatery that serves meals for under five euros.
Continuing their turn in the spotlight, the Hong Kong chefs later manned the kitchens at a dinner for 300 members of the wine elite, hosted by the CGCC, the council representing the most prestigious wines from Bordeaux, the classified grand crus.
The council has been spearheading a move to open Bordeaux up to world cuisine, including through an award-winning cookbook that matched top wines with recipes from top chefs around the planet.
Bordeaux estates have been rushing to sign up chefs from France and elsewhere as partners, to showcase new approaches to pairing food and wine, playing on textures and aromas and integrating world cuisines.
“Everyone seems to have their own Michelin-starred chef,” commented Miguel Lecuona, a wine consultant visiting from Texas.
“We like to say, there are only traditions, no rules,” said Aline Baly, the young French-American owner of Chateau Coutet, who works with a Michelin-starred chef to create dishes to pair with her sweet wines.
“We have to seek out the complexity of the wine. For a chef, it’s an absolute joy,” said Yannick Alleno, three-star chef at the Meurice hotel in Paris who was tasked with creating the perfect match for Chateau D’Yquem’s 2011 vintage.
“I immediately wanted to pair it with carrots cooked in parchment, with olive oil and mascarpone cream and liquorice. Sometimes you have to go looking for contradictions.”
While some chefs fly in for cameo appearances, others remain year around, raising the region’s profile as a foodie destination with 14 Michelin-starred restaurants so far.
“For a long time, people said there was no real haute cuisine in Bordeaux but now that’s not true. We’ve grown extensively in terms of gastronomy,” said Philippe Etchebest, chef at the two-starred Hostellerie de Plaisance in the medieval wine village of Saint Emilion.
“I have clients who come specifically for the cuisine, not just the wine. They travel 1,000 kilometres to have dinner.”
The trend goes hand in hand with the growth of wine tourism in the region.
“The development of tourism in Bordeaux has engendered a massive influx of top Michelin-starred chefs, often backed by investors who want to attract this kind of talent,” said Stephan Delaux, president of Bordeaux’s Tourist Office.
“I came here for the challenge,” said Nicolas Masse, one-star chef at La Grand’ Vigne, on the estate of Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte.
“The restaurant didn’t have the reputation it deserved with a wine like Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte next door, very up-market, and a five-star hotel. It seemed obvious to me that it deserved a gourmet restaurant.”