Topaz Restaurant

A philosopher’s guide to Crêpes Suzette

While French cuisine can boast a long, long list of classic dishes, some stand out even from that esteemed crowd and when it comes to dessert, few are more instantly recognisable, and adored, than Crêpes Suzette, a dish that blends simplicity with elegance, and more than a little sweet indulgence. When prepared table-side, as is the tradition, it also adds a dazzling touch of drama and anticipation to this pièce de résistance.

But more than being simply delicious, Crêpes Suzette also offer a lesson in philosophy, in particular that a positive mind-set is fundamental to creativity, especially in the kitchen where so many classics take their origins from just-averted disasters.

For example, the world’s most famous salad seems to have been created when Caesar Cardini ran out of menu dishes in his Tijuana, Mexico, restaurant during a busy 1924 Fourth of July weekend. This was the height of the Prohibition Era across the border in America, when California’s jet set would scoot down across the border for long, rabble-rousing weekends. According to the legend, forced to improvise with what he had, Caesar devised the salad that took his name, and seasoned it with a touch of theatre by tossing it all together, piece by piece, at his diners’ table. That moment of inspiration (which had no anchovies in it by the way) now surely appears on more menus around the world than any other salad.

More recently in Italy, three Michelin-starred Italian chef, Massimo Bottura, the owner of Osteria Francascana in Modena, came up with his dessert Oops! I Dropped The Lemon Tart (clue is in the title!) after his sous chef Kondo Takahiko (aka “Taka”) dropped a lemon tart on the pass, as it was on its way out to being served. It was the last one. As Bottura tells it, Taka was fit to hang himself on the spot. But Bottura saw something beautiful in the ruins of the tangy pastry dessert. And so he recreated its elements for a dish that has now achieved iconic status among Bottura fans. According to Chef Bottura himself, “this dessert pokes fun at our daily striving for perfection and pristine beauty”.

So, when in 1895 a 15-year-old waiter at Paris’s ritzy Café de Paris accidentally set fire to a dessert he was preparing for the Prince of Wales, his life must have flashed before his eyes. But the young Henri Charpentier, who went on to become one of America’s most celebrated chefs, was undeterred, especially when on testing it he discovered “the most delicious melody of sweet flavours I had ever tasted”.

“That accident of the flame was precisely what was needed to bring all those various instruments (of flavour) into one harmony of taste”, the chef later explained.

Which just goes to show that whenever you think you’re looking disaster in the face, you may in fact be looking at the broken-down elements you need for something even greater than you had before. Think Crêpes Suzette.