L’AUBERGE DE LA Roche is a place where everything, big and small, has a story. One of the joys of visiting — there are many — comes from those stories revealing themselves, slowly and delightfully, over the course of an evening or weekend.
Located in the Mercantour, a verdant region where the Alps meet the Mediterranean, the Auberge is only an hour from Nice. The breathtaking and, at times, gasp-inducing mountainous drive is a hint of what is to come: another world, another pace. Time seems to slow the moment you arrive in Valdeblore (population: 835), a village where laundry billows in the breeze, old men play boules in the town square, and church bells ring through the dusky sky. Here, the only thing to do is take your time: to listen to birdsong and crickets; to watch mountains appear and disappear according to fog, rain, and the moods of the sky; to experience, firsthand, the marvel of a restaurant created by Franco-Canadian couple Mickaëlle Chabat and Louis-Philippe Riel along with Chef Alexis Bijaoui.
Now a fêted restaurant and inn — the Auberge was named France’s “best restaurant” and “best stylish bedroom” this year by Le Fooding, a hipper, younger version of the Michelin Guide — the place was an abandoned ruin just three years ago. Amidst the hopeless shambles, Chabat and Riel saw exactly what they had been looking for: a ticket out of Paris, a place where they could raise a family and build their dream, stone by stone, plank by plank, one foraged piece of material at a time. (The Auberge is a showcase of antique and vintage treasures collected over the years by Chabat and Riel.)
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In their previous lives, Chabat co-owned a jewelry business in Paris, and Riel was chef at Le 6 Paul Bert, where Bijaoui worked for a time as sous-chef. The combination — a devotion to both aesthetics and food — is a recipe for success. As the visionary Chabat puts it, “That’s why it works. The three of us are very complementary; we have totally different backgrounds.” In addition to a reverence for fresh, seasonal ingredients, the two chefs share a love of getting their hands dirty. For Riel, it’s through scavenging, restoring, and building; for Bijaoui, it’s through gardening. There is exquisite care put into everything at the Auberge, from the gorgeously decorated dining room, guest rooms, and suites — think nature meets design — to the immaculately tended permaculture beds in the garden.
“I always felt the need to cook with a connection to farming — to be able to go outside and pick what you need,” says Bijaoui. “When I moved here, one of the foundations of the restaurant was to work with as many people as possible, with specific products from each of them.”
Since the restaurant’s opening in April 2021, the trio has made it a point to work with local farmers and producers — to learn their histories and know their products. “It’s much easier to cook and make a menu in Paris because you can get everything you want,” says Riel. “Here, we have to create relationships with everyone, from the fishermen to the cheesemakers. The restaurant would not make sense without all of those people, without these relationships.”
A recent dinner started with aperitifs on the terrace, where customers spoke in hushed voices as the sun began to dip behind the mountains. Woodsmoke filled the air and mingled with the smell of fresh herbs from the garden below, where Bijaoui was harvesting handfuls of rosemary, thyme, and sage for the evening ahead.
The restaurant describes itself as specializing in bread, wine, and love, and there is all that and more. The savory brioche and homemade breads are made with organic and heirloom flours; the extensive selection of natural wine is chosen to harmonize with local flavors. Dinner on the evening I visit tastes like hiking through a shaded forest and cooling off with a swim in the sea. It is early June in Southern France — mushrooms and fish are abundant, and everything is growing and green.
Among the amuse-bouches and small plates are zucchini flowers stuffed with fig-leaf cream; turnip remoulade adorned with rose petals; a succulent pancetta-style tuna belly; white asparagus topped with sunflower-seed cream and shaved egg yolk; and a delicate amberjack served with pickled and fresh rhubarb. For dessert, there is sage-infused ice cream with poached peaches and an orzo cream with hazelnut praline.
For guests who stay overnight, breakfast the next morning is a symphony unto itself, artfully prepared and beautifully presented. There’s homemade brioche and ancient-grain bread still warm from the oven, an array of sumptuous cheeses, tangy yogurt, house-smoked trout, local honey, bright jams, and farm-fresh butter the color of sunshine.
“What’s interesting about cooking is that you’re part of something bigger. I hope that when people come here, they don’t see it as just a restaurant or just an auberge,” says Bijaoui. “We cook the food that makes sense here; if we would do this somewhere else, it wouldn’t be the same.”
A visit to the Auberge, this house turned home, is a singular experience: rustic and refined, conscious and creative, a dream transformed into reality.
Marie Doezema Writer
Marie Doezema is a writer based in Paris. She has worked as a journalist and editor in Japan, Qatar, and across the US and Europe, producing work for outlets including the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the New York Times, and National Public Radio. In addition to her work as a writer and correspondent, she teaches and directs the languages department at Sorbonne Université’s journalism school.
Emma Hardy Photographer
Emma Hardy is a self-taught portrait and documentary photographer based in London. She works in close collaboration with her subjects, offering a tender and honest gaze. Neither intruder nor witness, she is more like a participant with a camera, endeavoring to capture subtlety and the sweet humanness of the indecisive moment.