Monday, 28 February 2011

Fifteen With A Future

In his book Medium Raw, Tony Bourdain branded renowned chef Alain Ducasse a "villain" because "he almost single-handedly brought down fine dining in America with his absurdly pretentious restaurant Alain Ducasse New York (ADNY, as it was known)...", which included such ultra-snobbish aspects as white-gloved waiters cutting fresh herbs at your table, and a selection of Montblanc pens for signing cheques.

But it looks like it's going to be hard for Ducasse to keep the bad guy label.

The chef with over 20 restaurants and almost 20 Michelin stars started a training programme a la Jamie Oliver's Fifteen. Called 15 Femmes en Avenir (French for "15 Women with a Future"), the programme teaches its students how to cook professionally. Those who pass have a chance to work in one of his kitchens. The number 15 represents the number of kitchens available to employ them.

When the programme will be expanded, The Guardian says that students:

...will take exams and be expected to know how to quarter a chicken, make a perfect soufflé and turn out moules marinières (mussels in a sauce of white wine and cream, with garlic and parsley) and sautéed hare. This being France, the home of haute cuisine, they are also having to learn about 200 recipes by rote and, for good measure, some maths, history and geography too.

The students in this programme are among the poorest residents of the city's banlieues, many of who are "...immigrants, or born to immigrant parents, who were previously unemployed or in a series of low-paid jobs – usually cleaning or waitressing. Most were struggling to make ends meet. Several are single mothers and some have fled abusive relationships."

If this isn't remarkable enough, the report also mentions one of these women preparing: "...tarte savoyarde au reblochon. This is as Gallic as gastronomy gets – a hearty pastry containing potatoes, bacon, onions and cream, topped with crusted raw cow's milk cheese from the Alps."

Said woman of Turkish descent, called Kébire, calls her time in the programme a "fairytale", and that:

"...it's such an enormous chance, it's hard to believe. It's the only chance we have." She adds, unprompted: "I don't eat pork, but I don't have a problem preparing it. After all, if M Ducasse has made allowances for us, we have to make allowances for him."

If one knows just how tough life is for immigrants in France's banlieues, Ducasse's efforts are noteworthy. They can't get jobs, and crime rates in these slum-like neighbourhoods are high. Tensions exploded in 2005 when youths from these banlieues rioted.

And here, our religious authorities want to bar Muslims from working in places that serve alcohol - without, it seems, a plan that includes halal forms of occupation. What will these soon-to-be-jobless people do once their jobs have been taken away?

At times, I feel that those who jabber on and on about spiritual purity and such are those who are well-off and have full stomachs - or just fanatical and stupid enough to starve for their religion. Work dignifies people, a former boss used to say. Would one care about the state of the soul when one's jobless, hungry and cold? Shouldn't one's obligation to one's family and loved ones be paramount, and how can that obligation be fulfilled when one can't even earn enough to feed oneself?

If the religious authorities are really concerned with the temporal and spiritual well-being of those they claim to shepherd, they should have put more thought into any fatwa with potentially far-reaching consequences, like rendering tens of thousands of people jobless with no other way to earn a decent living.

While I'm happy that some form of change for the better is taking place in Paris, the cultural and social baggage is still there. That Guardian article ends with the following note: The women asked for their surnames not to be used to protect their identities.

For the disadvantaged in Paris' banlieues, there's still have a long way to go.

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