Tasting Menu

Nine chefs who are revamping the Provençal region's cuisine with verve

Just as the Provençal sun blazes unmercifully in summer and the bone-chilling wind blows fiercely in winter, so the food of the South of France constructs its harmonies from extremes. Writing more than 60 years ago, Ford Madox Ford observed that at a Nîmes bullfight the onlookers would be screeching with catcalls, and then, as if a bell had sounded, they would unanimously roar with appreciation or titter with laughter. "It is the quick, disciplined habit of emotion of a people that for thousands of years has been accustomed to see at the one moment its vines shining beneath the sun with their burden of perfect grapes and, in the next, shot unrecognizably to ruin by hailstones from sudden clouds or trampled beneath the feet of pagan Aryan or Saracen hordes," he observed. Likewise, from the pure, vigorous produce here—olives, anchovies, garlic, and herbs—emerges a cuisine that resembles the local temperament: passionate but controlled, a symphony of potent flavors that compete yet complement.

If you search for the famous Provençal dishes in the best restaurants of southern France, you will find them loitering elegantly, like gnarled peasants in Armani suits. Consider a classic anchoïade, which is made by mashing anchovies into olive oil and is then spread on grilled bread that has been rubbed with raw garlic. These are pungent flavors, not relished by everyone. At the Abbaye de Sainte-Croix, a Relais & Châteaux hotel in a converted 12th-century abbey, which commands a stunning view of the rocky open plain beneath Salon-de-Provence, chef Pascal Morel remarks, "In Provence old people used to eat a raw new onion, an anchovy, bread, and olive oil for lunch." He adds, with a wince, "I've tried it." To the anchoïade that Morel serves on grilled bread (alongside a tart of chopped raw dorade, a Mediterranean sea bream) he mixes in an unorthodox ingredient—Beaufort, the nutty hard cheese from the Swiss border region of Haute-Savoie. "Because the anchovies are too strong, it is necessary to make it softer," he says. At the beautiful restaurant of the Hôtel La Mirande in Avignon 27-year-old chef Daniel Hébet starts by using a fruity olive oil, and adds green olives and basil to his anchoïade.

How chefs modify traditional Provençal cuisine depends on where they came from and where they've arrived. In St.-Tropez, Laurent Tarridec at Leï Mouscardins offers a bourride, the traditional fish soup of the South of France, served, as tradition holds, in two courses—first just the liquid, then the fish. But to another Provençal classic, brandade—potatoes, garlic, and dried stockfish that are puréed, then baked—Tarridec adds specks of black truffles, an ingredient unfamiliar to the local peasants who have dined on brandade for centuries, but reassuring to St.-Tropez habitués. Even Alain Llorca, the 30-year-old chef of Restaurant Chantecler in Nice's Hôtel Negresco, mixes a little bread and cream, a Spanish touch, into his bagna cauda—an anchovy-garlic paste that is blended with hot olive oil and butter and is used as a sauce for raw vegetables. "To make it easier to eat, less strong," he says.

There are still restaurants in southern France—La Merenda in Nice is one—where you are served such old-fashioned dishes as stuffed sardines and soupe au pistou, prepared in the old-fashioned way. Traditional Provençal food is poor man's food; it disdains rich ingredients like butter and cream in favor of strong, simple notes. At most of the best restaurants here, however, the food has been refined to suit the tastes of an international clientele. "I do a soupe au pistou from time to time, but it is different," says Noël Mantel, the 30-year-old chef at Les Muscadins, a relaxed restaurant serving delicious fare in Mougins. Although Mantel was raised in Nice his parents were Alsatian. At home as a child he would eat choucroute, the Alsatian sauerkraut-and-pork dish; he had to go to his neighbors to find soupe au pistou, a vegetable soup to which the pistou, or grated Parmesan cheese and a mixture of basil and garlic, pounded in a mortar, is added at the table. Explaining how he has altered the recipe to serve the dish in his restaurant, Mantel says, "I am concerned with the look of the vegetables. In traditional pistou you can cook the vegetables for two hours, but then the presentation is not so good. When I make it, all the vegetables that need to keep their color are cooked separately and added to the soup at the end." Although I didn't taste Mantel's pistou, I sampled his pea soup, in which a hot green broth made from pea pods is poured into bowls that shelter barely cooked peas and sliced asparagus. The soup is as fresh and as green as spring, which is when it appears on the menu. It retains all the flavor of traditional cooking yet possesses the visual appeal of nouvelle cuisine.

The pinnacle of new Provençal cuisine is Restaurant Jacques Maximin, where the eponymous and temperamental chef rules like Napoleon. Mantel, who worked for both Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo and Maximin, says, "For me, Maximin is more a Provençal personality than Alain Ducasse. He's more an artist. To create things, it is necessary sometimes to fail." Maximin is as unpredictable as the mistral. While Patricia Wells (the food critic for the International Herald Tribune and author of the excellent cookbook Patricia Wells at Home in Provence) says her experiences at his former restaurants (she hasn't been to the current one) were not positive, she adds, "From talking to many, many chefs, in France and the United States, I know he has had a huge influence on them, from working in his kitchen and eating in his restaurants." The Gault Millau guide calls Maximin "an indomitable creator, the most direct, the most intuitive perhaps of the brothers of the Riviera." This is an intuition, Maximin once told Saveur, that is born of Provence. "I make cuisine from my head," he said, "always with the flavors of the south in mind."

A veteran of the former La Bonne Auberge in Antibes and of the Negresco, Maximin now cooks in a restaurant that is attached to his home on the outskirts of Vence. On the night I visited he was off in Nîmes, racing one of his Porsches, but each shot from the kitchen still hit the bull's-eye. Even in his absence the establishment exuded his personality. It was the only place that I ate in the South of France where all the men were wearing jackets, perhaps for fear of offending the chef. Nonetheless, the haut-bourgeois atmosphere is comfortable, with art-glass mushroom lamps and two large decorative wall pieces, one composed of overlapping soup spoons, the other of forks. And that day's menu, of "typically Provençal" dishes, was unforgettably good, including, among other delicacies, a salad of artichoke hearts, tiny fava beans, and strips of squid, dressed with olive oil and lemon and served on a bed of mesclun. To this he adds penne (the various forms of Italian pasta are fully naturalized into Provençal cooking) and Parmesan. The slightly bitter, nutty flavors bounced off each other brilliantly.

Unlike the chefs at other restaurants of this class, Maximin does not send a cheese cart; he presents you with the cheeses he wants you to eat. "Monsieur Maximin vous propose des fromages," the waiter said, delivering a plate of local goat's- and cow's-milk cheeses, served with a disc of butter filigreed with shredded basil and a puddle of olive oil flavored with a roasted garlic clove and sprinkled with walnuts and raisins. It was an offer you could not—and should not—refuse.

That elegant restaurants refine rustic fare is hardly a surprise; the process goes on in any establishment where the chef is gunning for a second or third Michelin star. In Provence, however, a more fundamental question applies. Just what is Provençal food, anyway? In the course of its history Provence has been tossed back and forth like a beachball between neighboring powers. In ancient times it was a province of Rome (the name comes from the Latin provins). Later it was raided by Goths and then by Moors, falling under the control of Catalonia, Savoy, and finally France. As a result Provençal cooking (and southern French cooking in general) has always been a mélange of foreign influences and local customs. The Côte d'Azur, with its bouillabaisse of Marseille and variations—village by village—of bourride, has a cooking that is distinct from the plain roast lamb with thyme, grain dishes made with épeautre (spelt), and freshwater fish preparations of the hilly interior. However, the starring role of fresh vegetables (zucchini, tomatoes, artichokes, favas, asparagus) and herbs (basil, thyme, parsley, rosemary) is a constant throughout the region, and so is the spotlighting of the fish or meat on the plate, without a mask of sauce. Indeed, with its reliance on olive oil as a cooking fat and emphasis on herbs, garlic, and tomatoes, the cuisine of Provence (which even includes ravioli and polenta) is closely linked to the cucina of its neighbor to the east.

One way to get closer to a sense of Provençal food is to leave Provence, to cross the Rhône into the Languedoc. "The food of Provence is very influenced by Italy and the food of Languedoc is very influenced by Spain," says 34-year-old Jacques Pourcel, who with his twin, Laurent, runs Le Jardin des Sens, an astoundingly fine restaurant in Montpellier, just to the west of Provence, in the Languedoc. The brothers grew up in Agde, a town about 30 miles from Montpellier. Trying to explain the difference between Provence and Languedoc, Pourcel told me, "In Provence you have Parmesan cheese and pasta. Here we have calamari and anchovies and salt cod." When I pointed out that they have all of those things in Provence, he smiled, shrugged, and said, "The preparations are different."

The cooks of the Languedoc like to fry food, in the Spanish style. On the night I ate at Le Jardin the Pourcels offered a series of amuse bouches, two of them deep-fried: a square made from gelatinous pig's feet, molded like a fish stick, breaded, fried, and served with a crème moutarde that resembled a tartar sauce; and a mussel, done in a similar way. Jacques Pourcel said the food of his region, like that of Provence, was a poor man's cuisine. However, Pourcel insisted that his culture was more impoverished: "The cuisine of Languedoc is made with ingredients that are not too expensive—vegetables and rice, never luxury products but products of the earth."

So what is one to make of the extraordinary first course that I devoured at Le Jardin des Sens: red-and-white lobster meat and green vegetables that had been pressed into flat leaves and then rolled in a paper-thin layer of smoked duck breast and served with vanilla olive oil, accompanied by the youngest and crispest snow peas imaginable and two petit balls of sweet and juicy orange melon. Is this a poor man's cuisine? Of course not. "One wants to make an original cuisine, not a regional one," Jacques Pourcel says. "We are influenced but not limited by southern cuisine."

He and his brother learned to cook at the age of 13, when their mother fell ill and went for a prolonged hospital stay, leaving the boys to feed a family of five. In the years that followed, Jacques trained with Pierre Gagnaire, Laurent with Alain Chapel. When they decided to open their own place in Montpellier in 1988, Jacques assumed primary responsibility for fish and dessert, Laurent for meat. Ten years after their opening they received a third Michelin star. "We were surprised," Jacques says. "We weren't working for it, but we want to keep it." At the same time, "one does not want too much silver, too many candles," he says; "one wants a restaurant that is younger. We don't want to become too luxurious an establishment but to remain a restaurant of the city of Montpellier." He is proud that half his clientele are locals, while 20 percent come from elsewhere in France, and 30 percent are foreigners. On the night I visited he seemed to be achieving his goal of staying casual. There were customers in blue jeans in the elegant modern dining room, which is high-ceilinged and glass-enclosed and looks out on a garden with a rectangular concrete pool and a miniature vineyard.

In seeking to define southern French cuisine, I kept returning to the notion that it should be relaxed—earthy, sun-drenched, unintimidating, and fun. In the grand and slightly stuffy Hôtel Negresco, a dowager that dominates the Promenade des Anglais on the waterfront of Nice, chef Alain Llorca wrestles with this issue daily. At Restaurant Chantecler, Llorca, whose ancestors were from Valencia, offers a tasting menu of tiny dishes that he calls tapas, after the Spanish bar snacks, because he thinks it's fun. "In this décor, which is very heavy and rich and beautiful, I wanted to give a little youth as contrast, with a modern cuisine," he says. "It's the Côte d'Azur, vacation, sun—it should be informal." On his tapas menu he serves a tiny lobster sandwich (on a micro-baguette smeared with a white-bean paste) with a little cup of gazpacho. "When you eat it you should dip it into the gazpacho," he says. "Ce n'est pas grave." He also makes a spring roll of rouget de roche (red mullet) and fennel, with a sauce of the rouget liver. "I would like the clientele to take the rouget and dip it into the sauce, but in this establishment it is difficult," he admits.

I don't see how you can possibly avoid using your fingers when confronted with Llorca's delectable potato salad, served club- sandwich style:slices of boiled new potatoes instead of bread and layers of cuttlefish, marinated fresh anchovy, confit of tomato, baby fava beans, and tiny squid, all held together by a toothpick. The melt-in-your-mouth cuttlefish contrasts texturally with the crisp favas and soft yet firm potatoes; the sweetness of the tomato and squid collide with the saltiness of the anchovy and nutty bitterness of the favas. It is a great modern Provençal dish. But Llorca's cleverest reinterpretation of the native cuisine comes at dessert, with his red tomato tarte tatin, accompanied by a lovely pale-purple, black-flecked ice cream that is made from candied black olives. "The tomato is a fruit," Llorca says with Gallic nonchalance, and in his kitchen (as in that of Alain Passard at Arpège in Paris) the tomato lives up to its genus.

The tomato came to Provence via Italy, where it had arrived from the New World. Daniel Hébet, of the Hôtel La Mirande in Avignon, discovered for himself yet another New World staple, the potato, during two years in Peru, a sojourn which began when he was invited to cook at a state dinner for President Alberto Fujimori. "They have five hundred different potatoes in Peru!" he exclaims in awe. He uses purple ones in a weird foie gras preparation (see "Foie Gras Obligatoire"). Hébet has a flair for the bizarre, a trait (or weakness) he has inherited from chefs Christian and Philippe Conticini, the wildly imaginative brothers under whom Hébet apprenticed at La Table d'Anvers in Paris. Indeed, the addictive deep-fried chocolate truffles that appear on his dessert menu are a Conticini invention.

Although he was born in La Rochelle, on the Atlantic coast, where people eat butter, cream, oysters, and charcuterie, Hébet has adapted easily to his new homeland, recasting his heritage in the Provençal light. "My grandmother makes pig's cheeks with escargots," he says. A little of that flavor comes through in one of his best dishes, an open tart with baby fava beans, poached cherry tomatoes, and tiny squid (all time-honored Provençal ingredients), but the squid is stuffed with chorizo. Hébet buys the sausage in the Avignon market, a splendid place where another vendor plied me with four varieties of olives (Provence has almost as many olives as Peru does potatoes) and the fish stall offered five different kinds of squid, including the babies that are featured in Hébet's tart.

At the Auberge la Fenière, perched in Lourmarin in the Durance Valley of the Luberon, Reine Sammut is so indebted to her local suppliers that she lists them by name and ingredient on the back of her menu. She looks forward every year to the late-summer months when the fishermen in the nearby seaside town of Martigues reserve for her the precious poutargue, the roe of gray mullet, or muge. She dries it for a couple of days and either serves the roe in slices with raw tuna or, after soaking it in water and mixing it with olive oil, as a sauce with the mullet.

Though Sammut was born in Lorraine she's lived in the South of France for 30 years. The restaurant was founded in 1975 (in a nearby location) by the parents of her husband, Guy. Reine was studying medicine in Marseille, but gave it up to work with her mother-in-law in the kitchen. On his mother's side Guy's ancestry is Tunisian and French; on his father's, Sicilian and Maltese. "I don't make Mediterranean food because it is in style," Sammut says. "I make it because it is my culture." She followed her mother-in-law's recipes until, she says, she was provoked into creativity. "Guy was going to Burgundy three days a week to learn about wine," she says with a laugh. "He would tell me what he had eaten at great restaurants in Burgundy. I have to seduce my husband to keep him here, so I began looking for ideas and new dishes and new products." On her travels she collects ideas, especially those on presentation: For instance, she offers a tempura-style sole stuffed with pine nuts and an oyster, so that the outside is crisp and the interior melts. Even more interesting, Sammut finds that some of the recipes her mother-in-law brought from Tunisia are close cousins to the food of Provence. "When we make a Tunisian salad that is called salade frite, first the eggplant is fried, then the tomatoes are fried, then olive oil and vinegar are added, then it is put in the refrigerator and served cold," she explains. "In Provence the eggplant is fried, then a tomato sauce is added, and it is served hot—the same ingredients but a different presentation." When she served her beautiful version of the cold Tunisian salad later that night I noticed another Provençal touch—it came with marinated fresh anchovies rather than harissa.

For Sammut, as for her forward-looking colleagues in Provence, there's no difference between searching for ideas in Tunis or in Martigues. "The south now is all the Mediterranean," she states. "Provence welcomes all the world, so it is important to integrate the world.In the past there were problems with Italians in Provence, and now with North Africans here, problems with racism. We must integrate," she concludes, "not only in our culture, but in our cooking as well."

On the cusp between Spain and Italy, the cooking of the South of France has been a hybrid for centuries; as the world becomes more cosmopolitan and chefs seek out new ingredients, the division between Provence and the Languedoc and the separation between the Côte d'Azur and the hinterlands become ever blurrier. Yet we can easily identify the hallmarks of southern French cuisine: The primary cooking fat is olive oil, and the warhorses are olives, anchovies, garlic, and tomatoes.

And we can note two other defining traits. The cuisine of southern France usually travels badly because it depends so heavily on local ingredients. On the other hand, because it's been so profoundly affected by foreign ingredients (the tomato, for starters), it is always open to novelty. At Les Muscadins in Mougins, Noël Mantel serves an avocado mousse (made simply of puréed avocado, olive oil, lemon juice, and shallots) with a tasty, crusty-skinned loup de mer, or sea bass.

"Avocado in Provence?" I asked him.

"I don't know whether it's Provençal or not," he replied. "It amuses me to use avocado, so I do. If I do it for thirty years here, and then other people do it, it becomes Provençal food."

I knew better than to argue.


Foie Gras Obligatoire

Although it is not a traditional Provençal ingredient, foie gras de canard—the liver of fattened duck—is the luxury product that every ambitious chef in the South of France must use to prove his or her mettle. The richness of foie gras demands a tart, sweet contrast. Alain Llorca at Restaurant Chantecler serves it with a mango sorbet, thereby introducing a second counterpoint, of hot and cold. The Pourcels at Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier serve foie gras on thin slices of lemon confit, floating on a small pool of sweet red sauce made from Banyuls wine. Pascal Morel at the Abbaye de Ste.-Croix does it with apples, julienned in a compote and dried like potato chips. The weirdest creation—and I thought the only flop on an otherwise smashing menu—was the brainchild of Daniel Hébet, at the dining room of the Hôtel La Mirande in Avignon. He made for me a foie gras with purple Peruvian potatoes, candied violets, and a cloying (not to mention shocking) blue sauce colored by orange-flavored Curaçao liqueur.


Dining Basics

Prices are for dinner for two, based on a prix fixe menu, and exclude wine but include tax and service. The country code for France is 33. The regional code is 04. (Omit the zero when dialing from the United States.)

Abbaye De Sainte-Croix Four courses: $128. Salon-de-Provence; 90-56-24-55.
Auberge La Feniere Three courses: $63. Route de Cadenet, Lourmarin; 90-68-11-79.
La Mirande Three courses: $75. 4 Place de la Mirande, Avignon; 90-85-93-93.
Le Jardin Des Sens Four courses: $156. 11 Avenue St.-Lazare, Montpellier; 67-79-63-38.
Lei Mouscardins Four courses: $112. Tour du Portalet, St.-Tropez; 94-97-29-00.
Les Muscadins Three courses: $55 (tax and service not included). 18 Boulevard Courteline, Mougins; 92-28-28-28.
Restaurant Chantecler Four courses: $129. Hôtel Negresco, 37 Promenade des Anglais, Nice; 93-16-64-00.
Restaurant Jacques Maximin Five courses: $110-$172. 689 Chemin de la Gaude, Vence; 93-58-90-75.