French chef Lucas Felzine chases umami across continents
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Chef Lucas Felzine has twinkling eyes and a kind smile. He's a chef that uses words like soul, emotions and feelings when talking about how he cooks, a cook who is constantly after the elusive umami taste and takes pleasure in mixing the unexpected to bring new sensations to his customers
When he was a chubby three-year-old, Felzine used to drag a chair next to the stove where his grandmother was cooking, climbing on top of the chair to add whatever took his fancy to the pot and instructing his grandma to taste his concoction.
Even as a little boy, Felzine had a predilection, coupled with the confidence, for experimenting with food. His Parisian Mamie never discouraged him, even though she did not lie to little Lucas about how the food tasted.
Thirty years later, Felzine set up his own restaurant, Uma, in the heart of Paris, not far from the Tuileries Garden and the Louvre Museum. A restaurant that explores Nikkei cuisine with a French touch à la Felzine. Nikkei cuisine was born in Peru, a fusion between the Japanese cuisine brought in the 19th century with the first migrants and the local Peruvian food.
The name is a word used on both the Asian and American continent.
It means horse in Japanese and water in Quechua, an indigenous Latin American language. Uma is also short for umami, the fifth taste after sour, bitter, sweet and salty, named by chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. Umami is also that elusive taste that combines all flavours. Felzine says it is difficult to pinpoint exactly and describes it as something one is irresistibly attracted to. Similar to a child’s taste for ketchup.
Cooking with soul
“I want, when people taste my food, that they have a lot of sensation. I want to touch their soul,” says Felzine
The chef believes in making almost everything himself, from smoking fish to making various condiments and curries, sometimes with as many as 30 ingredients, like his black Peruvian curry inspired by the Chef Pascal Barbot.
Felzine works with a few suppliers around Paris for fresh produce and one in south-western France, a biochemist who upped and left Canada with his anthropologist wife and now grows, among other exotic curiosities, huacatay. That is a herb from South America “between basil and mint with a bubble gum taste at the end”. The biochemist is also growing papaya trees in Samadet.
Felzine is constantly exploring new ways of preparing food, even deconstructing what he has created to build something different or totally new. So, even though the menu of the restaurant does not change continually, there might be some alterations in the kitchen. Boredom and routine are words he abhors.
“I like to discover something new, all the time, everyday,” he says.
Explosion of flavours
In his kitchen, one will find mostarda from Italy, aji panca from Peru, tamarillo from the Andes, to name but a few of an array of ingredients he enjoys experimenting with.
His preparations involves a high number of ingredients and often result in a wealth of flavours exploding on one’s taste buds. Felzine’s skill lies in striking the right balance so that they all play their part harmoniously in a composition concocted by the chef.
“When you follow your instinct, it’s OK,” says Felzine, “If you use all your senses, you see all, you know all.”
Chef William Ledeuil, whom he worked with, once told him that he liked his sensitivity. At that time, an inexperienced Felzine was taken aback by such a comment. Now he understands that his instinct and his feelings are what set him apart and drive his creativity.
“Every dish is different, you transfer your sensitivity, your emotion, angry or happy,” he explains.
Gyozas have it all
Gyozas, the Chinese-origin dumplings now popular around the world, are Uma’s signature dish. They allow Chef Lucas Felzine to write a culinary partition fusing Japan, Peru and France in one bite. He says it is the best representation of Nikkei food.
“I can put all that I want in a gyoza, all that I imagine. It is a really a fusion between all influences, all ingredients,” declares Felzine.
He says that obtaining a Michelin star is not of paramount importance even though he admits it would be flattering. But what he cares most for is the “star in the eyes of my customers when they are eating my food”.
“I want to make this food because I want to stop time” says Felzine.
Whether he has succeeded in that aim or not, his food is a culinary voyage for your taste buds.
Follow Chef Lucas Felzine on Facebook UMA
Follow Zeenat Hansrod on Twitter @zxnt
Sound editor: Alain Bleu