One restaurant is hardly enough for today’s super chefs.
Something important is cooking in France, and it has reached a full boil. During the past 20 years, we have seen nothing less than a wholesale revision of what it means to be a chef. Peek behind the doors of many of the most famous restaurant kitchens, and you’ll discover a whole new world. It’s no longer a given that the chef will be at home on his or her range, now that a growing number of Gaul’s greatest cooks have become “gastro-entrepreneurs,” chefs who have morphed into culinary-consultant businessmen or women. These days, you’re just as likely to run into Alain Ducasse or Joël Robuchon in an airport lounge or a television studio as you are to find them in the kitchen of the many restaurants that bear their names.
This is a huge and historic change. Consider that 20 years ago, Ducasse had only just obtained his second Michelin star as chef of La Terrasse, the restaurant at the Hôtel Juana in Juan-les-Pins. Today, he heads a global culinary empire unlike any that’s ever existed. It includes restaurants that range from Michelin three-stars in Paris and Monte Carlo to country inns, a hotel chain and fusion-cooking tables spread across a dozen countries from Japan to Tunisia. Then there’s his school (whose placement service is leading to what some worriedly describe as the “Ducasse-ification” of contemporary French cooking), a publishing company and a boulangerie-épicerie. Similarly but on a more modest scale, Joël Robuchon, who famously retired from his own three-star restaurant at 50, is now back with two name-brand Paris establishments, restaurants in Monte Carlo and Tokyo, a television show and consulting contracts
that have his microwaved hachis parmentier de canard (duck shepherd’s pie) served on TGV trains.
Alongside the superstars and empire builders, others have found a middle way. In 1987, chef Michel Rostang pioneered the “bistro annex” movement with his Bistrot d’à Coté, a satellite eatery to his eponymous haute cuisine address. Today he runs six other Paris restaurants and serves as consulting chef to yet another in Anguilla, in the Carribbean. And Paris chef Guy Savoy, who has several bistros and the Chiberta restaurant in addition to the two-star that bears his name, is expanding his franchise this fall with the opening of a second Guy Savoy in Las Vegas.
Why have so many French chefs gone global? The troika of ego, money and power is certainly a major, if not the major factor. But you could also say that they’ve simply been responding to social and economic changes in France and elsewhere. More people dine out more often today than ever before, which has created a huge demand for restaurants in the middle of the food chain. The chef’s bistro, the first phase of the trend, made perfect sense when it kicked off in the ’80s, since these satellite restaurants allowed chefs to experiment with another culinary idiom, bistro cooking, while attracting a younger, more price-conscious clientele. In the ’90s, opening a hotel or two, even doing a bit of consulting here and there seemed like logical complementary activities. But the new century has ushered in a much more radical trend: The rise of the “virtual chef” who jets in every once in a while to see how things are getting on in Shanghai, Moscow or Mauritius.
As food critic François Simon recently wrote in Le Figaro, one of the largest French national dailies, “One observes that in France right now, chefs have diverged into different schools—those who have become entrepreneurs (Robuchon, Ducasse, the Pourcel twins, etc.) and those who are happiest remaining in their kitchens and who do not, for the moment, feel a need to duplicate themselves (Jean Chauvel, Jacques Decoret, etc.). There’s no real antagonism between these two schools, but quite sincerely, between a cuisine created by high-precision marketing and the others—lively, surprising and vibrant—one’s heart barely weighs the difference and chooses without hesitation.”
So what does the future hold? Some speculate that consumers will become bored with high-brow franchising and end up craving the sort of unique, personal experience offered by a talented, serious and passionately committed chef cooking a meal in his or her own kitchen. My personal view? Ultimately, I think that small but spectacular “local empires” like Michel Guérard’s restaurants and hotels in Eugénie-les-Bains and the splendid domaine of Olivier Roellinger in Brittany are the wave of the future. By expanding the franchise yet remaining within a small geographical area, they allow fresh creativity while allowing a higher return on investment in a country where profit margins are razor-thin.
Coup de Coeur
/ Les Maisons de Bricourt /
I’d never buy a Monet—would that I had such an option!—unless I were certain that it had been painted by Claude himself. So it is that of all the restaurants I’ve been to recently, the ones I just can’t wait to get back to are Roellinger’s two-star Relais Gourmand and Le Coquillage, both in the delightful Breton port of Cancale. Why? Not only is the food spectacular, but I think Roellinger has found one of the best middle ways of any French chef.
Since 1982, this irrepressible 50-year-old has progressively built a delectable ensemble now known as Les Maisons de Bricourt. After opening Le Relais Gourmand, he added Château Richeux—a hotel with its own restaurant, Le Coquillage—then a charming seaside inn. Along the way, he also launched Grain de Vanille (a salon de thé and pastry shop), as well as a line of spices and other products that are sold in the best gourmet shops in Paris. He even designed his own oyster knife. It’s an empire, but one that fits snugly into this tiny town on the unspoiled northern coast of Brittany.
Slip into Roellinger’s world on a spring morning, and you’ll likely be treated, as we were, to peaceful vistas of the Mont-Saint-Michel Bay dappled in a dozen shades of blue and green. On the terrace at Château Richeux, the air smells of freshly cut grass and the sea.
It would be very easy to spend a day here—this is one of the four or five loveliest hotels in France—watching the sea change color and the tides come and go, but Roellinger is eager to share one of his latest creations, vinaigre celtique (Celtic vinegar). In the coffered oak library of the magnificent granite house that French premier Léon Blum built for his mistress in the 1920s, a few brown drops of the apple-cider vinegar glisten on a saucer.
We dip our fingers into it and taste. It’s superb. Surprisingly viscous and packing a potent bouquet of flavors, this condiment, once common in Brittany (“When I was a boy we used it on everything—boiled potatoes, galettes, fromage blanc”) had almost disappeared before Roellinger decided to start producing it again. It is now available at retail through the Epices Roellinger product line that he launched last year.
The chef is understandably proud of reviving the vinegar, which has become an important new ingredient in his cooking (thinned with a little soy sauce and a few drops of lemon or lime juice, it’s fantastic on fish; as is, it’s a wonderful garnish for a plate of creamy Norman cheese). I suspect what really delights him, though, is the way this product so perfectly expresses the constellation of ideas that have guided his career ever since he shelved his pharmaceutical studies to become a chef 23 years ago.
“For me, good cooking is a question of harmony and balance,” he says. “It’s an expression of our environment and our culture—who we are, where we are, what we know and believe. It is also an expression of our emotional motivation—why are you cooking and for whom? It’s so personal, you invest so much of yourself in it that I’d never want to open a restaurant I couldn’t visit every day.
“To grow as a cook, you have to remain rooted and true to yourself,” he continues. “This doesn’t mean being parochial. I reject any interpretation of terroir that says, ‘If it’s not from here, it’s not good.’ Cooking has always been about sharing and mixing.” Indeed, much of the originality of Roellinger’s cooking comes from an audacious but perfectly mastered use of spices from India, Indonesia and other points on the trade routes once plied by buccaneering merchants from neighboring Saint-Malo.
“The Relais Gourmand occupies the ground floor of the house I grew up in. I changed it very little—the floors still creak the way they did when I was a boy, the façade is untouched aside from some maintenance, and perhaps most important, the atmosphere is the same,” says Roellinger. And lest anyone detect a whiff of Proustian pretension, this old stone house is a very special place, expressing several generations of a well-bred Breton aesthetic as well as the history of several families (Roellinger’s and those who preceded it) and that of a small Breton port open to the world with winsome curiosity.
Today, with the reputation of Brittany as one of France’s most alluring gastronomic regions growing by leaps and bounds, it may be hard to recall just how improbable Cancale was as the location for an upscale restaurant when Roellinger first opened. As he still rather abashedly remembers, “As recently as WWII, the French considered Brittany to be more or less a culinary wasteland.”
Historically isolated from France, this shaggy green westernmost province was proud but poor for centuries, and Breton cooking had more in common with the humble fare consumed in small, cold cottages in Ireland and Cornwall than it did with the menus of grand Parisian restaurants. “For centuries, the ultimate taste of Brittany was smoke—the smoke of chimney fires that cured bacon, cooked porridge and baked potatoes,” says Roellinger.
The Breton table not only spun on the axis of subsistence but was profoundly averse to seafood, an inclination that changed only with the first wave of tourism, when locals realized that Parisians and foreigners were not only desperate for oysters and other shellfish but quite willing to pay top price for them. “Bretons rarely ate shellfish because in Celtic legends, crabs and other bottom crawlers feast on the flesh of drowned sailors,” explains Roellinger.
“When I opened my place, I wanted to overcome the stigmas of provincialism and poverty. So I started doing some research and was fascinated to discover how rich and worldly Breton cooking had been during the glory days of the French West Indies Company in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Most of France’s first contact with the New World and other far-flung places was through Breton ports, and the spice trade not only put money in Breton pockets but enriched and enlivened the Breton palate.”
This research was the impetus for Roellinger’s signature cuisine d’épices. But while this cooking style was based on historical recipes, Roellinger infused it with his own extraordinary creativity and talent. What’s truly brilliant about his cooking is that it evolves not only constantly but profoundly.
I still remember with pleasure the spice-roasted lobster I ate the first time I dined chez lui in Cancale in 1987; almost 20 years later, I was even more impressed by the latest offerings from his kitchen, a superb East-meets-West repertoire of recipes, many of which are found in his recently published Olivier Roellinger’s Contemporary French Cuisine (Flammarion). How about wild salmon with raw apple, nutmeg and mace? Or lobster with sherry and cocoa?
Suffice it to say that Roellinger is in his fullest and most delicious bloom, and that his generosity and imagination show up in everything he does. In season (May to September), he and his wife, Jane, even take guests out on the Mont-Saint-Michel Bay in their restored two-rigger wooden schooner, a handsome vessel typical of this area. They’ve also opened an antique store just down the drive from Château Richeux, and what’s surprising is that the prices are not only fair but downright friendly—it’s almost as if they want you to carry off a little piece of their domain. “The next thing I’ll do is create a sort of tasting school, maybe with actual cooking lessons, maybe just with demonstrations, I’m not sure,” Roellinger enthuses. “I want it to be a lieu d’échanges (a place of sharing), where people cook and taste and learn and have a good time.
“Everything I’ve done has been a coup de coeur, something I’ve gotten excited about and really wanted to do,” he confesses, squarely aligning himself with one of the two major camps in France’s new gastronomic landscape. This multi-tasking entrepreneur remains first and foremost a cook who cooks, and quite passionately at that. “What matters most today is what motivates the person who’s cooking or making your bed or pouring your wine. When they’re sincere, caring and good-humored, even a mistake can make you very happy.”
LE RELAIS GOURMAND O. ROELLINGER A two-star restaurant housed in the handsome malouinière that was the chef’s childhood home. Lunch from €92; dinner from €112. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Annual closing: mid-December to mid-March.
LE CHÂTEAU RICHEUX A grand villa with international treasures mixed in with Breton antiques. 11 rooms from €160; 2 suites from €280. Menus at Le Coquillage restaurant are €28, €45 and €50; closed Mondays and Tuesday afternoons. Both the hotel and restaurant are closed mid-December to early February.
LES RIMAINS A seaside cottage with 4 rooms; from €160 each. Closed mid-December to mid-March.
LES GÎTES MARINS A stone’s throw from Les Rimains, these four lodgings are decorated in “beach cabana” style. €1,300 per week (7 nights); additional nights from €230. Closed mid-December to mid-March.
For more information, contact Les Maisons de Bricourt, 1 rue Duguesclin, 35260 Cancale; Tel. 33/2-99-89-64-76. maisons-de-bricourt.com