Granted, dishes such as his lobster Belle de Mer can look outrageously decorative today. Yet on sheer flavour and technique, he ruled the early 1990s. At the same time, Alain Ducasse, having caused something of a sensation by becoming the youngest French chef to win three Michelin stars at Le Louis XIV restaurant in Monte Carlo, was rising fast. Some critics decried his use of olive oil and love of Mediterranean flavours, but he was too busy de-toxing French cuisine, and the forces of change were with him.So who is the greatest chef in the world today? According to the Wedgwood World Masters of the Culinary Arts Awards, recently announced at the Hotel Inter-Continental in Paris, it is Thomas Keller, chef patron of the French Laundry, a sophisticated country restaurant in California. Keller, who was up against Raymond Blanc of Le Manoir au Quat' Saisons, France's Guy Martin and Australia's Neil Perry, bases his cuisine on classic French cooking, into which he has inserted a number of clearly American twists and turns as part of the process he describes as "striving towards perfection".
He takes the classic French tuile, for instance, rolling it into a tiny cornet for his salmon tartare, and puts "coffee and doughnuts" on the menu in the form of a hot-and-cold cappuccino semifreddo.Not everyone agrees with Wedgwood's choice, of course, with other favourites ranging from Ducasse to Michel Bras of Laguiole to Guy Martin of Le Grand Vefour. And some are starting to look outside France, to Spain, where a handful of chefs have blazed a new trail through conventional cuisine. Many claim it is the ground-breaking Ferran Adria of El Bulli, a hard-to-get-to, and even harder-to-get-into restaurant on the north Catalonian coast. Adria deconstructs food in much the same way as his fellow Catalan Pablo Picasso deconstructed art. His cooking is so post-modern it is practically post-food, resulting in a giddy succession of culinary intellectual exercises. A typical meal could include any number of Adria's signature whipped foams; iced ravioli (made with frozen apple juice sheets and a filling of caramel); cuttlefish injected with coconut milk; caramelised trout eggs; and iced polenta with Parmesan custard.But I have a new nomination – that of Santi Santamaria, whose long-established El Raco de Can Fabes restaurant in Sant Celoni, near Barcelona, has been winning three Michelin stars consistently since 1994. Like Adria, Santamaria is Catalan, but unlike Adria, he is little known outside Barcelona and Madrid, where he has achieved cult status.Originally trained in industrial design, Santamaria is a completely self-taught cook.
He has never worked in any restaurant other than his own, and has never formally studied cooking. When he and his wife, Angels, first opened El Raco more than 20 years ago it was little more than a humble bistro built into his childhood home, where he would cook local Catalan dishes learned from his mother and father.While his cooking has become far more sophisticated, and now accommodates all the trappings of the modern chef's repertoire, including sous vide techniques, cappuccino sauces, and even the odd oriental influence, his food is still deeply and inextricably entwined with his roots, which are planted deep in the soil of Catalonia.He believes that the best meal in the world consists of ingredients that have been grown and raised within close proximity to his restaurant, and brought to the kitchen in the quickest possible time.Wild food rates highly on his shopping list. "It is important for my guests to taste the wild asparagus, line-caught fish and wild mushrooms," he says, "because they will soon disappear."While Ferran Adria cooks to challenge, test and tease, Santamaria cooks to please, comfort, and feed. With Adria, the challenge is to work out what you are eating. With Santamaria, the flavours are so generous and natural, it is blindingly obvious.Having survived a day in the "laboratory" with Adria, I was expecting another exercise in surrealism and existentialism when I first tasted Santamaria's cooking late last year.