Story in itself from past to present
By Lionel Leoty
Jacques Maximin (à droite) dans son restaurant Le Théâtre à Nice en 1989, où la cuisine se fait alors sur scène. © Alain Bizos
Alain Ducasse, lors de l'ouverture du prestigieux Louis XV à Monaco en 1987.© Ducasse Paris
A holiday resort and land of gastronomy, the Côte d'Azur is rich in history, culinary heritage, and unique terroir. Popular since the late 18th century, this destination has consistently innovated and reinvented itself over the decades. The French Riviera, proud of its past, still attracts gourmets from all corners of the globe, eager to discover what was once France's most Michelin-starred region. World-renowned chefs who revolutionised the industry with their boldness, philosophy, and techniques masterminded these legendary restaurants.
In the beginning…
Towards the end of the 19th century, British aristocrats wintering on the Côte d'Azur were entertained and indulged in restaurants and dining rooms in the newly inaugurated palaces (Grand Hôtel Cannes, Riviera-Palace in Menton, Excelsior Régina Palace in Nice…), with their opulent decor, exquisite crockery, and gleaming silverware. As the railway network expanded, wealthy winter visitors flocked from Europe along with Russia, America, and Brazil... People dressed up, showing off and parading around elegant establishments. The place to be in Nice was the café-restaurant on the Jetée-Promenade or La Réserve, a veritable curiosity with its suspended fishing boat clinging to the rock.
At the start of the 20th century, new Belle Epoque palaces (Le Negresco, Le Ruhl, and Le Carlton) reinforced the Côte d'Azur's aura. Visitors also travelled to the South by car, and the Michelin brothers created their famous guide in 1900, later expanding it to include good places to eat along the famous Route Nationale 7 linking Paris to the Côte d'Azur. The 1-, 2- and 3-star classifications were introduced in 1931, rewarding the best restaurants, including La Bonne Auberge in Antibes, which opened in 1938. The Baudoin family ran this Provençal farmhouse on the Route du Soleil until 1972. The land here is farmed, with everything from vines to vegetables; chickens and rabbits are reared just behind the house, and local fishermen supply the fish. There's no talk of sourced products or locavores – it's simply the norm. The late 50s and early 60s saw a return to carefree opulence, with star-studded dinners and extravagant parties for the Cannes Film Festival. Film stars and politicians love to frequent these Michelin-starred restaurants, as do gourmets touring France, red guides in their pockets. Whilst top chefs prepare to write new chapters in Côte d'Azur gastronomy...
They put the region on the international map with their innovative and reinventive use of local produce - from ‘Cuisine du Soleil’ to ‘Cuisine Riviera’ to ‘Cuisine des Légumes’. Among them, Chef Louis Outhier took his restaurant L'Oasis in Mandelieu-la Napoule to the top of the gastronomic world (one Michelin star in 1963, two stars in 1967, and three in 1969). This elegant man was one of the forerunners of nouvelle cuisine and the first to ‘fuse’ Asian and French cuisines. His travels to Japan and Thailand gave him the courage to put his “Sautéed lobster with Thai spices” on the menu, a true novelty back then. It was a runaway success. Numerous chefs have passed through his brigade: Jacques Chibois, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Christophe Bacquié, Stéphane Rimbault…
On the heights of Cannes, in Mougins, a certain Roger Vergé set up his Moulin.restaurant, which would become a world reference for ‘Cuisine du Soleil’ (first Michelin star in 1970, second in 1972, and third in 1974). Monsieur Vergé, as he was known to his brigade, brought credibility to local vegetables and Provençal cuisine. Make way for courgettes with lobster- or caviar-flavoured flowers. Even tomatoes had their place on his menu. The Moulin kitchens were home to some of the future greats... Jacques Maximin, Bruno Cirino, Daniel Boulud, Jacques Chibois, Gilles Goujon, Denis Fétisson… He opened L'Amandier in the old village, headed by the young Alain Ducasse (then aged 24), who would also become a Michelin-starred chef. Monsieur Vergé retired in 2003, leaving the Moulin in the hands of the brilliant Alain Llorca. Other restaurants opened in Mougins, and it became one of the most Michelin-starred villages in France. To this day, Les Étoiles de Mougins, the annual gastronomy festival, honours its chefs and this prestigious past.
Jacques Maximin was chef at Le Chantecler from 1978 to 1988, where he was awarded two Michelin stars in just two years. In the vein of Roger Vergé, he created a vegetable cuisine entirely devoted to the local terroir and Niçois' culinary heritage, to which he added a gastronomic dimension, as with his stuffed lamb and black truffle, vegetable tians, and Antibes-style red mullet. He was among the first to introduce less noble products into his recipes, including anchovy and cuttlefish... A far cry from scallops, lobster, turbot, and foie gras. We owe the use of pastry rings for presenting food to him – a visionary with a creative spirit nicknamed the “Bonaparte of the ovens”! Alain Ducasse describes him as “a creative, insolent, provocative genius who thrives on immediacy”. The Théâtre Jacques Maximin, which he opened in Nice in 1989 in a former theatre, is a case in point: he put customers in the place of spectators and kitchens on stage, with the curtain rising at the start of each service. It's unprecedented and the first open kitchen to put on a show!
Alain Ducasse, the world's most Michelin-starred chef, took root in this shift towards vegetables, this deceptively simple Riviera cuisine, devoid of superfluity. He made these products (now exceptional), once shunned by three-star chefs, a permanent fixture on the dining scene and ennobled the small producers, breeders, and fishermen he championed. The first chef to earn the ultimate Michelin Guide accolade for a palace, he quickly enlisted the help of Franck Cerrutti, a true Niçois gourmet with a dizzying address book filled with people who farmed discreetly in the hinterland or fished in the Mediterranean. Without them, the chefs wouldn’t be quite the same; they work together, exchange ideas and share this passion for product excellence. People travel from the ends of the earth to Le Louis XV to savour the early vegetables flavoured with unforgettable olive oil, Riviera salad, all-vegetable Jardin menu (a first), and confit petits farcis... Alain Ducasse has now entrusted the reins of his flagship restaurant to the young and talented Emmanuel Pilon, who is taking Le Louis XV into a distinctly modern ‘Naturalité’ realm.
La Côte d'Azur : un véritable laboratoire d'innovation et d'inspiration reconnu à travers le monde !
Louis Outhier avec son jeune poulain, Jean-Georges Vongerichten qui, lui aussi, va marquer l'histoire de la gastronomie.
Roger Vergé et son fameux Poupeton de fleur de courgette à la truffe noire de Valréas et son jus crémeux de champignons des bois. © Collection Roger Vergé
Jacques Chibois, l'âme et le maître d'œuvre de la Bastide Saint-Antoine à Grasse. © Maxime Pietri
Transmission and durability
Vergé, Maximin, Ducasse, Chibois... each paved the way for a collective awareness of eating better, eating locally, and respecting seasonality in their decade. Following in their footsteps, today's chefs are going even further. Mauro Colagreco, who moved to Menton in 2006 and notably trained under Alain Ducasse, is the champion of sustainable gastronomy, concerned with the planet and its biodiversity. The chef has cultivated his gardens, creating the Sanctuaires du Mirazur, using biodynamic methods to ensure maximum self-sufficiency and a near-perfect ecosystem. He has reintroduced previously extinct regional plant and vegetable species and relies on ultra-local fishing methods that respect the seasons, species, and their reproductive rhythms. He also encourages his suppliers to use only recyclable and compostable containers. His restaurant was the first to be certified “100% plastic free” and zero waste, with hard-and-fast composting.
Chefs such as Marcel Ravin (Blue Bay**) and Yoric Tièche (Le Cap*) have kitchen gardens and collaborate with gardeners such as Jessica from Terrae Green Monaco and Jardins d'Agerbol. Arnaud Donckele, the 6-star chef-poet in Saint-Tropez (La Vague d'Or***, Cheval-Blanc Saint-Tropez and Plénitude*** Cheval-Blanc Paris), trained at the Le Louis XV under Alain Ducasse and Franck Cerutti. He, too, has a passion and deep respect for nature, both land and marine, which offers so much. Arnaud Donckele fervently supports his farmers and enjoys going to sea with his fishermen. His recipes express the terroir’s authenticity, as with his complexly simple Tomato Déclinaison. “I want to create a real firework display of flavours. I sculpt products without destructuring them, without taking away their primary value,” he writes. Nor does he hesitate to make the most of sardines, transforming them into different textures.
In this vein, Emmanuel Pilon, the new chef at the Le Louis XV - Alain Ducasse, delivers his convictions with gustatory vigour, offering a Riviera en Naturalité perfectly in tune with the times: “For me, Naturalité is a philosophy and way of thinking, but above all, it's a way of doing things daily. It also means adapting to the rhythm of the seasons, sustainable and respectful fishing, not throwing away or wasting, and working with all products, even the simplest and least noble. Every one of them has a place in a three-star restaurant. Their nobility comes from preparation. It involves respecting the sourced product’s identity without ‘denaturing’ and enhancing it with subtle cooking techniques or condiments.”