IF you want to talk the cuisine of Savoie with Phillipe Million, don't make the mistake of mentioning fondue.
"First of all, what the cuisine of this region is not is fondue," says the owner and chef of Albertville's Hotel Million, established in 1770 and listed in the Michelin Guide since that gourmet's bible was created at the turn of the century.
"People equate fondue with Savoie," he says, "but in fact it's Swiss."
For Mr. Million, who has worn the head chef's white coat and guided the hotel's menu for 25 years, the cuisine of this mountain region - not part of France until 1860 - has two distinct expressions: the hearty, potato-and-pork cooking of the villages, and the sophisticated cuisine refined in the kitchens of the dukes of Savoie.
"The first is typified by farcon," a dish made by frying sliced boiled potatoes with onion, pork rind, raisins, cabbage, carrots, "or any other vegetables from the winter garden," says Million. "The second uses delicacies from as far away as the sea or as near as the Alpine valleys," he adds, "but is quite honestly based on the classic French."
It's the second cuisine that interests Million, who decided to run the kitchen when he took over the family hotel because, as the restaurant's headwaiter puts it, "He realized the kitchen is the hotel's heart and soul."
Yet Million is careful to maintain a clearly Savoie flavor, using local products and indicating local dishes on the menu with Savoie's distinctive red-and-white cross.
A recent day's menu featured a consomme of escargots, escargot-stuffed cannelloni, fera (a white-meat salmon-like fish from Alpine waters), and a chestnut-cream ice dessert as local fare. For inspiration, Million digs through old recipes, one of his favorite sources being a cookbook compiling the dishes prepared by a former chef for the Savoy dukes. The book, which Million uncovered in the Geneva library, is dated 1878.
"I like to play with updating the recipes, to bring them in line with today's tastes," Million says. "But in some cases I'm really just exposing Savoie cooking to earlier influences that have been lost." He notes, for example, that as a stopover point on the historic trading routes linking Venice and Northern Europe, Savoie has known exotic spices for centuries.
"So herbs and spices such as ginger, curry, coriander, and Szechuan pepper have a past, a tradition here," Million says. "In that respect the Olympic Games and all the foreigners that come to watch them are not going to bring us anything new."