Driven by the desire to offer an experience rooted in their terroir, more and more star chefs are turning into farmers. They have the same goal: to keep up with the times by offering local and sustainable produce.
PARIS – Bee balm, savory, marjoram ... All around the terrace overlooking the valley, dozens and dozens of aromatic herbs and vegetables grow despite the first frosts of autumn. Before entering the harshness of winter, Emmanuel Renaut rubs sweet woodruff between his hands and invites others to do the same. "Can you feel the power of this fragrance? I use it in both my sweet and savory dishes." The sweet woodruff mix is one of the many that Renaut incorporates daily into the kitchen of Flocon de Sel, his three-star Michelin restaurant perched at 1,300 meters, just above the village of Megève, in the French Alps.
Since opening in 2008, Renaut has been cultivating his land with patience and unconditional love. "For some people, having a vegetable garden is a fashion statement. Here, it is the relationship with nature that dictates things. It's a process that took a long time to set up. To grow, you have to be patient and accept that at certain times, like in winter, it's harder."
Like Renaut, a growing number of chefs are combining their work with that of farmers, gardeners, beekeepers or winemakers. All over France, gastronomy and its ambassadors are tuning into one of the major challenges of the century: using nature in a sustainable way, sourcing products locally to reduce the impact of human activity on the planet. And they want to create a revived culinary tradition, rooted in its territories, far from the fixed and globalist cuisine offered in the great Parisian institutions.
For some, this approach, which requires a strong capacity to adapt to the daily rhythm of the seasons, is a life project. By leaving Paris — its worldliness and the stability of their first restaurant Haï Kaï — chef Amélie Darvas and her associate Gaby Benicio wanted to break with a model that had become unsustainable.
We work from a simple principle: using the four seasons and our five senses.
After selling their establishment, which had helped them build a good reputation, they went on vacation and fell under the spell of an old presbytery nestled on a hillside in Vailhan, in France's southern region of Hérault. That's where they set up Äponem, a starred restaurant with only 14 seats.
"It was the place that chose us," says Gaby, who is also an oenologist. "We live in a quasi-monastic way, in symbiosis with what the land offers us and we want to perpetuate this little utopia to stay focused and live in the moment."
How the garden grows
This natural approach might mean more uncertainty when it comes to what produce will be available, but it also boosts the imagination of cooks who choose to commit. Alain Passard, three-starred Parisian chef at L'Arpège, was one of the pioneers. He turned his entire menu vegetarian at the end of the 20th century and the idea of the vegetable garden took shape in 2002: "When I opened the door to vegetables more than 20 years ago, I worked with excellent farmers, but I wanted to go further. Seeing vegetables grow leads to creativity."
Now, Passard owns seven hectares of cultivated land in the western regions of Sarthe, Eure and Mont-Saint-Michel Bay. He also offers vegetable baskets for delivery and has enough demand to consider doubling his production capacity. Even though he has introduced meat and fish in his menu again, it is in his plots of land that he still draws the necessary inspiration for his art every day, punctuated by the tempo of nature: "I feel an immense pleasure when I find a product that I haven't had in my hands for months because, here, we work from a simple principle: using the four seasons and our five senses. And when I put my vegetables in a pot, I see my gardens. Without them, I wouldn't be able to do my job."
But owning your own land or becoming a farmer can't be improvised. Christophe Hay, who earned his first two stars in Montlivault in the central Loir-et-Cher region, is embarking on a new project that requires growing a much larger plot of land. Fleur de Loire, a restaurant coupled with a luxury hotel that will open next June on the banks of the Loire, will double its table capacity for guests. The vegetable garden will relocate to a one-and-a-half-hectare plot, forcing the chef to create an agricultural business: "From now on, I am also a farmer and I am proud of it!" Thanks to a conservatory of old seeds, the future vegetable garden will also be a laboratory with the objective of reintroducing forgotten varieties, such as the rose apple or the white bean Comtesse de Chambord. By using these seeds that have been left behind for decades, these new farmers propose alternative solutions to soil impoverishment.
Flocon de Sel's garden
Honoring old varieties
Stéphanie Le Quellec, a two-star chef with La Scène in Paris, has set up a vegetable garden in the Loir-et-Cher region to grow the plants she wants to resurrect: "I wanted to give honor to old varieties, such as the purple celery from Tours or the ovoid yellow beet from Les Barres. The varieties we have learned to grow up to now are sterilized species that force growers to buy new plants every year and exhaust the land." Still in its infancy, this project will provide all of the garnishes for the dishes in her gourmet restaurant by next spring.
This ambition has taken a long time to materialize and remains subject to many uncertainties, particularly when it comes to the climate. This is one of the most complex aspects to manage for chefs. Instead of planning everything, by directing their supplies with providers they know, they are now more willing to let themselves be guided by the daily offerings of their garden. An impromptu stroll allows Renaut to bring back a basket of mushrooms, which he uses that same evening for a tart.
"You can't anticipate everything; you have to know how to evolve with the weather," says the chef, who actively participates in the entire process, from turning over the soil to harvesting and sowing. "Usually we plant in early May, but it rained a lot this year. The land was flooded and we had to wait. We're always surprised by what the harvest will give us, like the abundance of peas and green beans last summer, for example."
Renaut is in the process of buying new land higher up above Flocon de Sel, but he knows he'll have to wait another three to five years for the land to produce a variety of vegetables and herbs. For now, only potatoes grow in this very rocky soil that requires special attention.
Facing the seasons
At Äponem, Darvas and her gardener have also opted for a gentle method: "We work with living soil and we don't treat it. Sometimes it works, sometimes we have problems, like with slugs at the moment. We remove them every day by hand. We deal with them without hurting the environment."
In this hilly landscape, agriculture is practiced in terraces, a complex method to manage, especially with this new approach. "We do things differently from the old farmers, so it's not always easy to fit into a community," admits Benicio.
Here, you won't see neatly trimmed rows without wild growth. The principle is to accompany nature and the richness of its biodiversity rather than trying to tame it at all costs. The change is radical and acceptance is not yet widespread.
A push toward polyculture and more biodiversity in the fields.
"A good terroir is first and foremost an ecosystem with insects, batrachians [amphibians], reptiles and birds of prey," says Alain Passard. "You also have to give the soil time to rest. When you put out celery root for months on end, it exhausts it. You have to give it something else so that it regenerates and you learn from each season."
The process also has a cost. Often much higher than staying in touch with suppliers who do all this work for them. "This activity represents a significant investment," says the chef at L'Arpège. "It's the purchase of land, the employment of a dozen employees, equipment ... But in reality it's priceless because the result is so great. It allows us to eat with confidence and to stimulate my creativity."
There is no turning back. Christophe Hay has chosen to join an association of young European farmers: "I would like to push them toward polyculture and encourage them to integrate more biodiversity in the fields. I have the feeling that the new generations are looking to work in this direction."
For her part, Stéphanie Le Quellec is looking beyond the vegetable garden: "One of my dreams is to have a vineyard to make wine. I already have a few regions in mind, but I'll also have to find a winemaker with whom to build a relationship to turn my ideas into a reality."
Chef Emmanuel Renaut working in his vineyards
Chef, grower and winemaker
Renaut became a winemaker four years ago when he bought vineyards from the Trosset family in Savoie near his home. He now owns 39 acres of Mondeuse, a grape variety that reflects the richness of the surrounding mountain terroir. Last year, Renaut harvested his first crop and plans to label the 1,500 bottles of the 2021 vintage.
"I have my winemaker's license, but I'm still learning," says the chef, who is about to publish a book on Savoyard wines. "It is Louis [Trosset] who still does everything and you have to observe him carefully. He keeps the memory of the handiwork and knows details that ensure the quality of the wine. He is one of the very last to use an old-fashioned press."
It's a serious investment. Renaut is already planning to close his restaurant for two weeks next year at harvest time. Eventually, he may even trade in his knives for pruning shears. "It's not going to happen right away, but I want to enjoy time in a different way and I like this activity." For these new explorers of French gastronomy, creating a healthy and high-level diet is worth some risk-taking.
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