Claire Vallée: 100% vegetable and spicy star of haute cuisine

She uprooted the vestiges of the past from the earth… Today, she draws her happiness all in leaves, roots, fruits and tubers, because in her veins flows sap! His lucky star took on the appearance of distinction from the Michelin guide, which awarded him a red one in January 2021, and a green one for his commitment to sustainable gastronomy. Claire Vallée, a former archaeologist converted to gastronomy, is the only vegan chef in the world to have obtained this award, for her restaurant ONA (non-animal origin), located in Arès, in the Arcachon basin. Offer 100% vegan haute cuisine in the land of oysters and game? You do not belive it ! But if. Bet won. Woman of plants in the land of hunters, she tells us about her journey with spicy words.

Sciences and the Future: You were an archaeologist, and today you run a Michelin-starred restaurant: how did you go from digging to the stove?

Claire Vallée: (Laughs!) Through the odd jobs box! After my doctorate in archeology, I accepted a job in a restaurant in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, where I started indoors. I was a chef de rang – in charge of the service – then I was offered a position as a pastry chef. It was daring, but I had this passion in my genes, inherited from a family of sacred bon vivant who loved to cook. Through my experiences in different establishments, I took the step of working in the kitchen. One day, I was called to replace the leader who was leaving, and my employer put me up against the wall: I accepted or I left. I stayed, I learned my profession as a chef in Switzerland and overcome my fears of being totally autodidact. I admit that my boss at the time is very proud of that today!

© Cécile Labonne

You have chosen to devote yourself to 100% plant-based cuisine: why?

A trip to Thailand was decisive in this regard. I experienced in this country a sensory revelation, made of a profusion of spices, herbs, roots, fruits, oilseeds, seeds and vegetables. It was the discovery of dishes free of dairy products, enriched with tofu or seitan – a preparation based on wheat proteins very much consumed by Buddhists – which plays on subtle balances between sweet, salty, spicy, l ‘bitter. I did not imagine the complexity of this universe, it was dizzying and disturbing! I was assailed by ethical, ecological, health questions … Once back in France, hired as chef in a gourmet restaurant in Arès, in the Arcachon basin, after two years I was saturated. I realized that my mind was no longer in tune with traditional cuisine, my creations favored plants: I decided to turn the page.

And in 2016 you opened ONA, for “non-animal origin”, which has just been awarded a Michelin star, in Ares itself, in the cradle of good traditional meat!

It took a lot of determination at the start, the help of crowdfunding and a multitude of volunteers who lent me a hand, since the banks had not believed in my project. I must admit that I had multiple handicaps: self-taught, unknown in France, woman, offering entirely vegetable gourmet cuisine … At the beginning, customers did not know what they would discover on their plate, but quickly the press spoke about us, Gault & Millau and Michelin have visited us, and the star we have just won is a strong message. In the Arcachon basin the animal imprint – oysters, game, foie gras – is indeed very present, it was not won in advance, but we were well received, even if we cannot please everything the world !

© Mehdi Fedouach / AFP

Besides, you avoid the term “vegan” to designate your kitchen: for what reasons?

In France, this term is associated with currents whose sometimes violent actions have marked public opinion, the L214 association among others. My own convictions are established, I am hypersensitive to animal suffering, to the conditions of breeding and slaughter which often border on torture, the misdeeds of fashion, the cruelty that is manifested even in the respect for pets. I have been and continue to be close to movements that defend animals, but I move away from images that overwhelm me and instill in me the guilt of being a human in this society! These are the choices made for ONA that express my daily commitment. What I want above all is that people understand that we can eat differently and tasty thanks to plants, without lacking in nutrients and creativity. It is thanks to this kind of cuisine that we can also raise awareness: 95% of our customers are not vegan, just greedy and curious about gastronomy.

So what are the pillars of your plates?

I love using spices and aromatic herbs – my herbarium on the restaurant terrace brings together 140 plants – rich in nutritional qualities and flavor. We work with spice researchers from all over the world, who favor fair production methods, and with local organic gardeners. I play with algae and their iodine intake, with special salts like that of the Himalayas, loaded with natural trace elements, and I use oils with high nutritional value – olive, argan, sesame, walnut … If you remove dairy products, it is necessary to keep balanced fat intake. I like the strength and the nuances of peppers, peppers, or roots, like ginger, wasabi, horseradish… And then I love acidity! It’s a common thread in my cooking, I always break dishes with vinegars, fruits, citrus fruits, or certain herbs. I work instinctively, in my head there is a sort of library of tastes, filled with sensations that come back to my mouth when I cook, which allows me to invent the right associations. If I am missing an ingredient, I juggle!

© Cécile Labonne

Tell us about a spring dish that you particularly like.

I love making the hot and cold asparagus. It tells of my love of pepper that tickles the taste buds, of acidity that surprises, of the strength of the herbaceous. It brings together white and green asparagus. We start by cutting the stems into small sections, we keep the tips, we reserve a part raw and we cook the rest, which will be “snacked” – slightly burnt. The effect on the palate is a pleasant contrast between hot and cold, flavors that are both raw, green and a little toasted. We serve these asparagus with barely cooked and smoked strawberries and crunchy, pan-fried sweet potato gnocchi, which bring a sweet and delicious side. All seasoned with a grapefruit-based vinaigrette, Timut pepper with citrus scents… and decorated with seasonal herbs and flowers: pansies, blueberries, nasturtiums. It’s the season to enjoy it!

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