The president of Alliance Francaise Kuala Lumpur gives a quick preview of the Le French Festival this year, as well as her favourite things about France, where she was awarded Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2017.
Options: Congratulations on the upcoming launch of the 2022 French Festival. How do you feel being able to engage Malaysians once again in French arts and culture after a two-year hiatus?
Tengku Zatashah Idris: We are finally back to hosting Le French Festival and it is an exciting and highly anticipated moment for us after a two-year lockdown following the pandemic. We had all the events, films and French artistes ready and locked in for the festival in March 2020 but, with the rising cases of Covid-19 in Malaysia and around the world, things were looking uncertain. Then Malaysia announced it was going into lockdown, as were most other countries. So, to be able to have the event this year is really special for us all. We are indeed grateful to be back!
When did Le French Festival begin in Malaysia and why?
We are in our 20th year and Le French Festival has evolved and grown, building a loyal audience and following over the years, including enthusiasts of French cinema, gastronomy and so on. It began as part of Alliance Francaise Kuala Lumpur and the Embassy of France wanting to bring and share the best of French culture for everyone in Malaysia to enjoy.
Le French Festival spans gastronomy, cinema, visual arts and more in four major Malaysian cities. What are some of the highlights you will be personally looking out for?
For me, I always love French cinema the best, so I am really looking forward to our opening ceremony to be held at GSC Mid Valley Megamall on June 7, where we shall be screening Aline, The Voice of Love. It is a fictionalised portrayal of Celine Dion’s life. Valerie Lemercier is a wonderful French actress and I am very much looking forward to this film. Also, we have Les Arts de la Table exhibition with Christofle and I will be guest of honour at the launching of the Universiti Malaya and Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia collaborative exhibition on Le Corbusier.
When did you assume the presidency of Alliance Francaise Kuala Lumpur and what have been some of the highlights to date?
I had been vice-president of Alliance Francaise Kuala Lumpur since 2010 and president since 2011. One of the highlights was in 2013, when I flew to Paris for Alliance Francaise’s 130th anniversary. All its representatives from around the world were invited to meet president Francois Hollande at the Élysée Palace. I was also on the panel, representing Malaysia and Asia, to talk about La Culture est une Fête (Culture is a Celebration) in French to 300 member delegates.
Picking up French seems to be gaining popularity among Malaysians. Why do you think that is?
I have been learning French at school since I was eight years old and took it on as further education in university. I then went on to continue my studies in Paris at La Sorbonne and did my master’s degree at the American Graduate School there. I think it’s wonderful that more Malaysians are learning French. I suppose interest grew as people were looking for something new and productive to do during lockdown. Besides, popular Netflix shows like Emily in Paris and Lupin, as well as Call My Agent, catapulted the French language into our very homes.
What are some of your favourite books by French authors?
My all-time favourite read would have to be the classic by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry — Le Petit Prince. I would recommend that everyone read this! My favourite French author, though, is Guillaume Musso. I have read all of his books in French.
What about music?
I like so many French songs and artists, but the ones I really liked while living in Paris were Francis Cabrel, Gérald de Palmas, Jean-Jacques Goldman, pop band Indochine and of course the late idol, Johnny Hallyday. My husband and I just watched the Netflix documentary on his life, Johnny Hallyday: Beyond Rock. He really led a fascinating and incredible life.
With France now open to travellers, which places would you like to visit or revisit if you could?
Paris, the Loire Valley, the South of France, Normandy, Lyon, Brittany, Carcassonne, Burgundy, Bordeaux … literally everywhere! I have had the privilege to travel to so many places in France, although the Périgord remains on my bucket list. Périgord is the cultural, historic area that is famous for delicious food like truffles and foie gras. You will find each region in France has so much to offer and is just so varied in terms of history, culture and gastronomy.
And, most importantly, French cuisine is justifiably world famous. Where would you recommend people go and what should they indulge in?
As mentioned, each region is famous for its own culinary delights. So, to make it easy, here are my Paris favourites: La Tour d’Argent, the celebrated duck restaurant where each bird is numbered. It is sublime and the most famous people have dined there, from former US president Franklin Roosevelt to Charlie Chaplin. L’Arpège by Alain Passard, who offers an incredible farm-to-table vegetarian experience that I would highly recommend. The tableware and artwork are all drawn by Chef Passard himself and are simply stunning.
I also loved lunching at Voltaire, an intimate, discreet bistro where you could be seated among French actors, like Carole Bouquet. It’s located on the River Seine and is famed for its classic French fare. Another intimate bistro is L’Ami Louis, where you must order the roasted pigeon and frites. And Le Relais de l’Entrecôte. The first restaurant of this iconic steak frites chain is actually in the 17th arrondissement near Porte Maillot named Le Restaurant de l’Entrecôte, so do try to visit the original if you can, which was established in 1959.
Desserts have been elevated to an art form by the French. What would your favourite sweet treats be?
Ah, desserts are definitely my weakness and the French are renowned for their pastries and desserts. Did you know ‘dessert’ comes from the 17th century French word desservir, which means ‘to clear the table’? My favourites are île flottante — so superb that if you see it on the menu, you must order it — cafe eclair, raspberry souffle, millefeuille, tarte tatin, crêpes suzette … you can tell I just love classic French desserts.
Le French Festival 2022 will be held from June 9 to 26 (Kuala Lumpur), June 30 to July 10 (Penang), July 7 to 10 (Johor Baru) and July 14 to 17 (Kota Kinabalu).
This article first appeared on June 6, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.