PARIS, France - As the clock ticks down to Christmas in the three-star kitchens of the Bristol luxury hotel in Paris, chef Eric Frechon is readying his crew like a general rallying a battalion.
"I love this season because it's the one that gives the chef the best chance to express himself," said Frechon, who opened up the kitchens of the hotel restaurant, L'Epicure, to AFP in the run-up to Christmas.
But with 50 diners signed up for a Christmas Eve menu rich in truffles and foie gras at 750 euros ($990) -- excluding drinks -- and twice that number paying 1,100 euros at New Year's, he will not be leaving anything to chance.
"Without good produce, you can't have good cuisine -- which is why we need to examine all our deliveries one by one," he said.
Frechon and his deputy vet all their supplies as they arrive: foie gras, truffles, poultry, game, fish and shellfish, all Christmas staples at the luxury end of the French spectrum.
This morning he is testing a batch of duck foie gras, taking a little slice from each liver and pan-frying it to check its smoothness, while his supplier stands by.
One fails to pass muster -- "it's bound to happen from time to time," Frechon said.
His deputy Franck Leroy takes delivery of a shipment of white truffles from the fine food supplier Faye. At 3,800-4,800 euros per kilogramme, it is worth taking time to weigh and examine each one.
"To check they are nice and round, and firm, and have the right colour on the inside," he said. For today's needs, he takes 190 grammes.
Supplies at the Bristol start rolling in from 7:30 am, from fish to vegetables and cheese, and are topped up several times a day if needed.
'We want people to get their money's worth'
Like high-end kitchens worldwide, the Bristol's are run along a strict brigade system, introduced by the 19th-century French chefs Antonin Careme and Auguste Escoffier, who took their inspiration from the military.
Once vetted, each batch of produce is dispatched to a dedicated part of the kitchen -- known as a station -- one for meat, another for fish and so on, each of which operates under a chef and his deputy.
"Back then they had these huge kitchen staffs, so like in the military you needed a ranking system to be able to tell a fresh apprentice from a junior cook, or one with experience," Frechon said.
"With 42 people in a three-star kitchen, you need this kind of rigour, for everyone to be at his station, and do what he needs to do."
For both Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, 28 kitchen staff will be on hand backstage, plus 15 front-of-house for Christmas and 36 for New Year.
Frechon comes and goes among the stations, watches, tastes; comes back two or three times to check on a sauce. His deputy Franck is keeping close watch on a potato mash even while talking on the telephone.
"I want to taste everything that goes through the kitchen -- so when I go front-of-house I know what I have served people to eat," Frechon said.
Key station chefs include the "saucier", in charge of sauces and meat dishes, the "rotisseur" who roasts and sautees meat, the "garde-manger" who runs the pantry, preparing cold hors d'oeuvres and charcuterie, the "entremetier" in charge of soups and vegetable and egg dishes, and the "poissonnier" for fish and seafood.
Seifhan, a 27-year-old butcher commis -- or junior cook -- is at work on a hefty piece of venison.
Further along, Benjamin, a 29-year-old station chef, is delicately filling cannelloni with a preparation of artichoke, black truffle and foie gras -- one of Frechon's signature dishes.
Drawers below the work surface are full of sliced and chopped ingredients, ready for use.
"Morning is the most important time for set-up -- that is when you have to move really fast," said Francois-Xavier, 25, the station chef in charge of fish that day.
As mealtime draws near, calm settles on the kitchen as the brigade awaits the first orders.
"We want people to get their money's worth," smiled pastry chef Laurent Jeannin, whose festive classic for desert is the "snowball", filled with lime-flavoured fruit and served just before the "buche", a traditional log-shaped chocolate cake.
Front-of-house, restaurant manager Frederic Kayser gives his team a final once-over to ensure flawless service.
"You can tell from people's look and the sound of their voice if they have had a truly great time."
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