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 La chef étoilée Virginie Basselot, élue Cuisinière de l'année 2018 par le Gault & Millau Suisse.

Virginie Basselot

  • “Reassuring cooking”

03.2019

As the Negresco's head chef, she's sensitively interpreting France's great gastronomic tradition in Le Chantecler, the hotel's historic 2-Michelin-star restaurant. Interview.

Tell us about your first culinary childhood memories?
I remember the kitchens of the restaurant my parents ran until I was five years old. My father loved receiving at home too; he made a particularly good tarte tatin and I loved his fish with dieppoise sauce. In Normandy, where I was born, we also eat a lot of scallops, we stuff ourselves with them! [laughs]

I heard you initially wanted to be a fighter pilot, is that true?
Yes, because I love adrenalin sports; but I was led to believe it wasn't a job for women so I turned to what I was familiar with. When I arrived at the Hôtel de Crillon, one of Paris's first palace-class hotels, I discovered the world of award-winning restaurants and great chefs. That turned what I'd embarked on into a passion. I went on to spend nine years at the Bristol Paris on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, working under Eric Fréchon and his assistant Franck Leroy, two Best French Craftworkers [MOF] who taught me so much, especially to love excellence in cuisine.

So you became the second woman named a Best French Craftworker for gastronomic cuisine.
Yes, but I don't see that as meaningful, it makes no difference in the kitchen! People say it's a male profession yet the first inns were run by women, and although men have long been hogging the limelight, these days there's greater parity. The complicated part isn't gourmet cooking, it's running an entire brigade, together, with understanding and one goal. Actually I took management classes, which helped a lot.

What does an accolade such as MOF mean in terms of tradition?
For me it's essential to uphold France's culinary heritage and pass it on to the next generations. You have to know the history of the cuisine, its foundations and evolutions, because techniques change very fast. For example, sous-vide cooking is very recent and we're now working with steam ovens and planchas. France has a vast reservoir of knowhow, unique cooking methods such as in a pastry-sealed pot, and a whole art of flambéing and carving at the table.

Are you seeing new trends now, compared with when you started out?
There are more and more cereals and vegetables on the plates, reflecting a desire for more thoughtful, healthy cooking. That's coming from the customers but it's also a chef's duty to show we can feed ourselves with local produce. So in winter we use citrus fruits, one of our region's musts, and in summer melons, watermelons and figs; as for vegetables, here we grow broad beans, courgettes, aubergines, peppers and so on. The back country is rich in agriculture and the small market gardeners bring their produce to us – our eggs come from a farm an hour away! These days there are always vegetarian and gluten-free dishes on menus as well.

Tell us about your signature dishes in the Chantecler.
One is the sea bass and oyster tartare with lemon cream and Sologne caviar. I adore everything briny and this is a very elegant dish. Then there's the cod fillet with seasonal vegetables and lemon-balm butter, a simple dish but so tasty. In winter I also like pot-au-feu because it's hearty and speaks of home cooking and sociable meals around a family table. My cooking is reassuring, with recognisable flavours that can bring back memories. I hate it when you don't know what you're eating! [laughs]

How do you surprise your diners? Do you draw inspiration from other countries?
I'm open to all flavours so long as our heritage is preserved. I'm presently working on foie gras with a spring-onion and ginger broth, a dish that evokes Asia but with a traditional twist. Similarly, I like doing Swiss chard as a carbonara and serving it with smoked swordfish. I feel really lucky to be here between the mountains and the sea, with wonderful produce. Our founder Madame Augier, who passed away recently, would have liked to see us keeping the traditions alive.

www.hotel-negresco-nice.com

Par Ève Chatelet