The wind is up, and Jean-Claude Bianco holds down the brim of his cap and keeps the rudder steady.
The waves are pushing his small wooden boat toward the wall of the calanque, the rocky cliffs and coves that surround Marseille, and he is looking at the net coming up on the front of the boat and shaking his head.
It’s been three days of rain and wind, so he didn’t expect a big catch with all the water stirred up. Still, tell that to Gérald Passédat, the Michelin three-star chef for whom Bianco works. He’s expecting his delivery in a few hours.
Perhaps a song might help. Bianco has a nice, deep voice, and he croons out over the water. The view of the cliffs and the pine trees behind the dock is alpine, serene. Could be Switzerland here. It’s cool in the early morning, and most of Marseille is still sleeping.
“Ah! Rascasse!” Bianco says. He plucks the tiny fish from the net and flings it at my legs. The color is rust, like a sand snake. The fins are spiky, like a medieval torture device. It has big eyes and a big mouth and is one of Marseille’s greatest mysteries. How could the city’s most exquisite gastronomic creation come from such a hideous-looking fish?
Do you know the history of the bouillabaisse?” Christian Buffa asks about Marseille’s famed fish stew. The chef is in the corner booth at Le Miramar, the restaurant he owns on the Vieux-Port, as close to an urban center as the sprawling city has, and he’s telling a story that’s familiar around the docks here. It starts with a fisherman who, perhaps centuries ago, couldn’t sell his rascasse, or scorpion fish. The ugly (yet tasty) little suckers were too bony and spiny. They yielded such little meat and were dangerous to handle, the spiky fins pricking fingers. So the fisherman gave the rascasse to his wife to boil up for soup, and when it was finished, she threw another fish he couldn’t sell into the rascasse broth, to boost the flavor.
Eventually variations emerged, and the dish became symbolic of Marseille. Since Phoenician times, the port has been its own melting pot. The city itself was founded on a marriage of different cultures. Thousands of years ago, the legend goes, a Greek adventurer named Protis disembarked here. At the same time, a wedding ceremony for a princess named Gyptis happened to be taking place at the port. Per tradition, Gyptis was filling up a cup of wine to hand to the man who would become her prince. She saw the stranger Protis and gave the cup to him instead.
Even today, Marseillais like to tell the Protis-Gyptis story because the fantasy it offers is still alive. This second-largest city in France isn’t really part of France at all, or Provence, for that matter; Marseille is its own place, a jumbled colony of strangers who landed here like Protis did, questing for fortune, adventure, love or simply to escape the hardships in Africa and political persecutions in Eastern Europe. It’s also a famous drug-smuggling zone once run by mobsters. It’s a dodgy, lively mix—one reason why Marseille was chosen last year to be Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2013.
Hence the bouillabaisse. “Marseille is a bouillabaisse,” chef Buffa says. “A big bouillabaisse! People moving in, people moving out….” Over the years, Buffa has become the self-appointed bouillabaisse king of Marseille. In the 1980s, a handful of chefs gathered to form a Charter of the Bouillabaisse, a gimmicky cabal devoted to protecting the heritage of the soup as if it were a national monument. They were outraged that other restaurants around the Old Port were using cheaper ingredients, cutting corners, calling their dishes real bouillabaisse and (excusez-moi!) stealing their business. So the chefs set about establishing a set of guidelines to keep the stew authentic.
Rule 1: Bouillabaisse must be served in two separate courses. The first course is soup.
Rule 2: The soup must be made from rascasse, and lots of them. The broth should be thick, almost like a paste, so that a spoon floats on the surface.
Rule 3: Crispy toasts of bread should be served with the soup and accompanied by two types of rouille, a Provençal aioli made with breadcrumbs, chiles, saffron and garlic. One rouille should be garlic-based, the other saffron. Once slathered with rouille, the toasts can be floated or dunked.
Rule 4: The fish for the fish course must be boiled in the soup.
Rule 5: No fewer than four fish can be served.
The upside to all the rules is that real bouillabaisse is not just a soup anymore; it’s an experience. There’s a lot of fish to buy and prepare, which means the experience isn’t cheap. The irony of the old fisherman’s stew is that fishermen can no longer afford it. If the bouillabaisse costs less than $60, chances are it’s not the real thing. “Each bouillabaisse has three kilos of fish,” Buffa says. “Three kilos!” (That’s more than six and a half pounds a meal.) He praises the gluttony in each serving and admires the color of rascasse broth: “This is the color of the people. A bouillabaisse of culture. It’s a very special mélange, no?”
It’s not only people and fish that are a soup in Marseille. The architecture of the city is a smorgasbord of looks and styles, all seemingly glued together over the centuries. Take the Vallon des Auffes, a celebrated calanque in the city that offers the history of Marseille in one view: the small boats with their motors raised out of the water, the peach and lavender pastels of fishing cottages, the pocked bricks of the castle wall, the sheer glass of modern houses built high above, the bell tower of a church behind them and the salmon-tiled roofs of Provençal villas.
“There is an expression in Marseille that the city changes every ten minutes,” Constantin Savulescu says. He drives a double-decker bus for tourists, and we’re approaching the Arab market. He makes a turn toward the Notre-Dame de la Garde cathedral, with the Madonna sculpture on top made from gold leaf and 37 feet tall. We pass graffiti: vibrant colors and elaborate tags, a testament to the city’s hip-hop culture, the most vibrant in France. Another turn and we’re down near the Vieux again, passing through a square with a carousel and oysters on ice for sale nearby. School is out, and the kids are smoking cigarettes and forming their own bouillabaisse: the skin, the ethnicity, the religion—all different, all mixing. “You see, the people, the view, always changing,” Savulescu says.
He puts his finger to his lips. He looks around the room. “Shhhh. The Corsican Mafia used to run this place,” Eric says. (He gives only a first name—the Mafia may be gone, but it’s not forgotten.) It’s getting late, and we’re in Le Mas, a Marseille landmark. On the plate in front of me are steamed artichokes served with a vinaigrette, nothing else. Eric is a local restaurateur, and he’s praising the simplicity of Provençal cooking and yearning for the gangsters of yesteryear. When the Mafia presence was strong, Marseille was a safer place, he says. Now the fear of getting your knees broken or worse is gone, and so is a sense of control. “We need them back,” he says.
The evidence of lawlessness can be found in the windows of the Vieux-Port stores, cracked and splayed with bullet holes. Living here is not for everyone, he says. “Normally people like to think with the cerebral part of their brains. It’s more comfortable. But in Marseille we have to think with the primitive parts of our brains. It’s not only accepted to think this way—we quite enjoy it.”
I ask him where I should go to see the real Marseille.
“L’Interdit,” he says. “But I can’t advise you to go because it’s too dangerous. Just last night there was a shooting. A young kid, probably drunk. He was in line; they wouldn’t let him in. So he has a gun and starts to shoot. One bullet, apparently, hits a guy in the eye.”
L’Interdit. Means “forbidden.” I write down the address and arrive around midnight. There is no sign or door, just a large sheet of plywood, perhaps to repair the door that was shot the night before. There are no lights. Must be closed, I think. Then the plywood board swings open. Inside there is a faint amber light. Against the light near the bar I glimpse a flash of magenta and the pale glow of skin. Then the bouncer (think sumo wrestler) looks at me and slams the plywood board shut.
I turn around. She’s come from across the street and is wearing a bottom barely larger than a bikini, a top that reveals everything. Her face is a mask of makeup.
“No parlez-vous français,” I say.
“Oh, you speak English,” she says and grabs my arm.
“Sex!” she says. “Sex inside! Sex inside!”
Silviya Kate doesn’t work in the sex bars off the port, but her boyfriend does as a bouncer. She works around the corner, at O’Stop, a 24-hour restaurant near the Opera House that’s so dangerous, she’s forbidden to take the night shift. Having recently moved here from Bulgaria, she’s made a hobby out of studying the Marseillais.
“Just the other day, a customer comes in, a very old Greek man. He likes to have a black pepper steak and enjoy his wine. He keeps to himself. A very sweet man. Another man walks in. This man looks very rich. He has a suit and tie, shiny shoes. He asks, ‘Can I use your bathroom?’ I say, ‘Of course.’ He finishes and walks toward the exit, and that’s when he sees the old Greek man. He goes over to him, sees the steak, grabs it and runs away!”
She’s laughing so hard thinking about it. “Marseille, it is chaos.”
Back to the soup. Bouillabaisse is not only soup. It is a philosophy, the purists say, though that’s argued, too. “The bouillabaisse is not a philosophy—it is a conviction,” says Amine Knops. “No, it is more than that.” He pats his belly and gazes up at the sky. “The bouillabaisse, it is a direct connection to God!”
Knops is head waiter at Fonfon, where Marseillais have been flocking for bouillabaisse since the 1950s, and what might be noteworthy about the place is Knops himself. He owns the floor, moving like Fred Astaire to pull out chairs, pour wine, charm the diners in their own languages and fill the bowls with ladle after ladle of rascasse broth.
The soup, above all, is the most important part of bouillabaisse, the heart of its flavor and the legs on which it stands. One knee-bucklingly good version can be found at Une Table, au Sud, a Michelin one-star. There the broth is considered so sacred, it’s not served in a plebeian delivery device like a bowl (it could get cold) but in a space-age-looking thermos.
The chef, Lionel Lévy, is not from Marseille. He grew up in Toulouse, so he doesn’t have any hang-ups about adhering to the Charter. “I think it’s hard to adapt to a melting pot,” Lévy says. His divine dish is composed of layers of different liquids: creamed potatoes and garlic on the bottom, mascarpone and eggs in the middle, a foamy broth on top.
There are other innovations, like the bouillabaisse burger at L’Aromat. Here all parts of the burger are made from traditional bouillabaisse ingredients: The ketchup is saffron rouille, the relish roasted fennel. A seared fish fillet is then served on a brioche bun made with saffron, and the rascasse broth is sipped through a straw like soda. “I like to put a little personality on the plate,” says chef Sylvain Robert. His aha moment for the dish came while eating at McDonald’s.
At the other end of the bouillabaisse spectrum, off the Corniche Président John F. Kennedy, down an alley and behind a big gate, is the hotel Le Petit Nice Passédat, where Bianco delivers his fish and home of the most opulent interpretation of the poor fisherman’s soup. Its creator, Gérald Passédat (the hotel restaurant also bears his name), is the only chef in Marseille with three Michelin stars; his bouillabaisse tasting menu starts at $210, without wine.
Passédat. His name is on the packages of the spices in the gift shop, painted on the outside of the villa. After struggling to find his vision, Passédat discovered his calling had been in front of him all along. It was the sea itself, and his version of bouillabaisse is to re-create an ethereal experience of the Mediterranean, starting with a clam-and-shellfish carpaccio drizzled with olive oil and a foam-like wave of seawater. Next comes a medley of fish (he uses more than 80 varieties) served in a delicate saffron broth (so as not to disturb the individual flavors of each fish). There are no toasts to dunk, there is no rouille to slather. “I find it unnecessary,” Passédat says. After all, there is no bread in the sea.
As we wait for the third course, I look out the window, down below among the rocks. Perched there I see two men. One holds a long fishing rod, waiting for a snag on the line. He looks North African. The other is lighter-skinned. He could be French. He sits on the rocks guarding a pair of baguettes (presumably their bait). The tide is rising; it is twilight.
“It appears they haven’t caught any fish,” my dining companion says, devouring the final arrival from Passédat’s bouillabaisse menu: a bundle of plates all piled on top of one another like layers of a birthday cake. In the bottom bowl are a few strands of decorative seaweed with hot water, which serves as a warmer for a pair of fillets cooked just so, floating in a deliciously thick broth. The fillets had come from Jean-Claude Bianco’s nets that morning, though they were not the finest of the sparse catch. In his boat, Bianco had moved some of the best fish into a separate pile: for himself. His friends were coming over for dinner. On the menu: bouillabaisse, his version.
When in Marseille
Marseille is a tricky place. One doesn’t come for glamour but for its exceptional food (most notably bouillabaisse) and a few lessons in French urbanism, from Le Corbusier’s vision of high-density city living (his 1952 Unité d’Habitation) to a street education in French graffiti and social politics. So tread carefully, especially when it comes to hotels.
The big brands are here—Hotel Sofitel Marseille Vieux Port (rooms, from $250; 36 Bd. Charles Livon; 33-4/91-15-59-00; sofitel.com) is among the better examples—but if you’re looking to relax without businessmen at breakfast, then head to Le Petit Nice Passédat (rooms, from $250; Anse de Maldormé; 33-4/91-59-25-92; petitnice-passedat.com), a Relais & Chateaux property owned by the family of chef Gérald Passédat. With a clandestine entrance marked by a jasmine tree, it is small (the rooms can feel that way, too), though the terraces overlooking the Mediterranean are expansive. The best feature is the staff: friendly and diligent.
Understanding Marseille as a port city is vital, which is why a visit to the Old Fishermen’s Market is recommended. Most mornings the fishermen steer their boats through Vieux-Port and display their catch on small tables. Starting at about 9:30 a.m., it’s a fun and colorful way to experience the myriad fish.
Aside from bouillabaisse, another Marseille specialty is pizza, brought over from Naples and Corsica. The standout is Chez Etienne (43 Rue de Lorette), where the tomato-and-anchovy pie should not be missed.
Fonfon 140 Vallon des Auffes; 33-4/91-52-14-38; chezfonfon.com
L’Aromat 49 Rue Sainte; 33-4/91-55-09-06
L’Interdit 9 Rue Molière; 33-6/50-77-67-58
Le Mas 4 Rue de Lulli; 33-4/91-33-25-90
Le Miramar 12 Quai du Port; 33-4/91-91-10-40; lemiramar.fr
Le Petit Nice Passédat Anse de Maldorné, Corniche John F. Kennedy; 33-4/91-59-25-92; petitnice-passedat.com
Une Table, au Sud 2 Quai du Port; 33-4/91-90-63-53; unetableausud.com