The perfect embodiment of a Maître Cuisinier de France
WORDS TEODORO Y. MONTELIBANO | PHOTOGRAPHY JONATHAN BALDONADO
In March, 2015, Cyrille Soenen, executive chef of the French fine dining restaurant Impressions at the all-suite Maxims Hotel and Director for Culinary Arts of Resorts World Manila (RWM) was conferred Master Chef of France by the prestigious, ultra-exclusive society called Maîtres Cuisiniers de France. The title is one the most exalted that can be bestowed by chefs to a fellow-chef, and one of the highest honors in France, and no one deserves it more than Soenen.
Membership in the society is rigorously select—basic requirements aside, such as inductees having to be French citizens at least 25 years of age with a minimum decade of experience in the culinary profession—the honoree is expected to preserve, advance and perpetuate tradition of French cuisine.
Soenen, who was formally trained in culinary arts at Ecole Hôtelière de Paris – CFA Médéric, apprenticed in the kitchen of the luxe Ritz Paris when he was 16. He is the perfect embodiment of what it means to be a Maître Cuisinier de France.
“It was three weeks apprenticeship at the Ritz and one week of schooling,” he recalls. His skills developed through years of training in classic French cooking, which eventually gave him a certificate in culinary and another, for pastry-making. Soenen later on found employment in top-tier Michelin-starred dining establishments such as Le Duc d’Enghien (two stars), Drouant (one star), and L’Espadon (two stars) at the Ritz Paris, where he was chef de partie. He also had a stint preparing banquets for foreign dignitaries by working in the kitchens of the Finance and Defense Ministries.
His last place of work before he left France for Manila in 1999 was at the InterContinental Paris – Le Grand, home of two acclaimed restaurants, the historic Café de la Paix and La Verrière.
In Manila with his Filipina wife, the beauteous Negrense Ana Gaston Ascalon, and their two children, Soenen continued his professional relationship with the InterContinental hotel chain by joining InterContinental Manila in 2000. He took over the kitchen of the legendary Prince Albert Rotisserie, then a byword in top-class dining in Manila which gave not a few of us our first supremely lip-smacking taste of medium-rare prime rib deliciousness in a genuinely elegant fine-dining setting.
The five years Soenen spent as executive chef of the InterContinental Manila were also what would be regarded as the glory days of the Prince Albert Rotisserie.
Memories of fine de claire oysters air-flown from the French Atlantic coast, escargots à la Bourguignonne, foie gras aux pommes, gambas in a shrimp bisque base flambéed in Absolut vodka, the famed iconic Prince Albert prime rib in red wine jus carved from a trolley by your table and served with Yorkshire pudding, and crepes Suzette flambéed leave us with mouths watering for the past.
In December 2015, after close to half a century of operation, the Ayalas ended InterContinental Manila’s 46-year run. The hotel may have been demolished by its owners, but Soenen’s culinary saga continues. What gives much comfort, particularly to those with lingering thoughts of memorable repasts at the Prince Albert, is this: the Gallic chef, today, remains in top form, cooking up a storm and living up to the expectations of the august eponymous organization that conferred upon him the title Master Chef of France.
Those with a hankering for what they remember having at the Prince Albert can go to Soenen’s current sphere of activity, Impressions at Maxims, and sit down to such house signature dishes as duck liver, which may be poached, then seared, with oysters and leeks, in a light bath of black garlic purée, and taste-spiked with pickles and beetroot.
Or for starters, a plate of Creuse oysters from Brittany, with a flute of bubbly, before going on to the main dish, which might be the undying classic French duck leg confit, with pommes frittes, grilled leeks, and crisp garlic.
Soenen’s menu at Impressions reveals an exploration of new cuisines. During a recent visit, we had Australian lamb loin coated with a fine farce, eggplant caviar on the side, a börek —that is, savory phyllo pastry stuffed with slow-cooked lamb stew tagine with a mouthwatering waft of flavor from the lamb jus.
It was a marriage of Middle Eastern and Continental cooking which, in Soenen’s deft hands, came off rather well. It also gave us an indication of the willingness of the chef—no matter how steeped he is in the classic French culinary tradition—to experiment with dishes exuding taste and flavors he was never really known for in the past.
During that dinner, a companion at our table sported a broad smile on her face as she went through her plate on which was laid a delicate slab of lightly cooked Chilean seabass topped with mango and tomato herb salsa and paired with carrot risotto.
To end the meal, we shared an artfully plated dessert of ube declension, mille-feuille, sandwich glacée and ube macaron, and vanilla crème brûlée with raspberry pâte de fruit à la framboise.
Such new dishes notwithstanding, we are happy to report that the iconic prime rib with Yorkshire pudding from Soenen’s glorious Prince Albert dishes is very much present in his menu at Impressions.
Where classic French cooking is concerned, very apparently, few still in Manila can beat Soenen at his game. But what’s heartening to note is that while the chef continues to stay thoroughly Gallic, his repertoire of dishes has expanded to embrace flavors which bring the results of his culinary keenness to another level of deliciousness.