Named Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 2004, Renaut is as generous in character as his cuisine is controlled and refined, both reflections of the rich yet subtle mountain environment in which they flourish. A former sous-chef of celebrity chef Marc Veyrat, also renowned for his use of mountainous plants and herbs, Renaut is now at the head of his own three-Michelin starred-restaurant Flocons de selat a ski resort town near Mont Blanc, Megève in Haute-Savoie. Here is our conversation following an exquisite lunch at Flocons de sel on a recent crisp winter day.
Tell me about your first childhood memories of food and cuisine?
Childhood memories? I can hardly remember last week. So it’s even more difficult to remember my childhood. But I have always eaten well. My mother always cooked well. Family cooking, sensuous meals, household stables, in the spirit of a Blanquette de Veau (veal ragout) or Pain de Poisson (Fish Bread), quite classic things. I do have a true food memory, it is of one of a restaurant experience when I must have been eight or ten years old. I had the opportunity to eat at Greuze in Tournus. And for me, it was a really beautiful cuisine, with everything that could be gourmet and of French tradition, at the same time. A beautiful kitchen with a real tradition. It was a foodie stopover recognized throughout the world and when we stopped at Greuze, it was truly a gastronomic stopover. With Jean Ducloux, who was an incredible chef that I had the chance to meet. In addition to being an exceptional chef, he was a funny chef with anecdotes, with stories of everything that can exist about cooking.
Would you describe that as a Madeleine de Proust moment?
Maybe. But moreover, it was one of the things that pushed me to go into this profession, because it was beautiful. There were services, there were dishes, everything was there. And then, when you’re a kid, you look at things a little differently. I remember there was the dessert cart. For a kid, a dessert cart that comes with lots of things is just extraordinary. There are a lot of nice family memories in this place.
There is no longer any need to say that we are cooking in season since it’s become the norm. There was an era when it was fashionable to say it’s seasonal cuisine or regional cuisine. Now, this it’s just obvious. This is my line of conduct.
Your parents were, or are, fishmongers, tell me about that.
They were fishmongers. I was immersed in the world of fish all my childhood, but sea fish, therefore sea fish, with parents and great-grandparents from the Opal Coast. The Opal Coast is towards Picardy, the Hauts de France. By chance, I was born in the Paris (île de France) region. Yet, I have always been near water, lakes and in beautiful places. And then as now, a lover of the mountains, always.
Tell me about the chefs you’ve worked with.
So, before moving to Megève, I worked with the greatest French chefs, like Marc Veyrat, Christian Constant and Éric Fréchon, Thierry Breton -world-renowned chefs, without forgetting Yves Thuriès, for pastry-making. Excellent chefs, but each with different visions. It means that I could compare Eric Fréchon to Yves Camdeborde, these two exceptional chefs, but with two completely different backgrounds, with bistronomic cuisine, while remaining produce-based. And then Eric Fréchon, with the cuisine of a palace, with the detail of cooking precision. Each completely different, but complementary. One day, we want to eat in detail and another day, we want to eat simple and sumptuous. The fun and luck of working with people like that has been incredible. And then Marc Veyrat, with a completely innovative vision of cooking. I worked with him 25 years ago, I believe from 89. He was innovative in promoting the short circuit because it was in all his kitchens. He moved in 92 to Vieux Annecy, old where his daughter now officiates. [ Editor’s note: Facing Lake Annecy, Carine Veyrat created her own establishment La Reine des Prés in October 2006 in her parents’ former restaurant].
At the time there were restaurants serving a lot of similar products and there weren’t as many local identities. At that time, not as much attention was paid to short circuits cooking. Marc Veyrat was one of the precursors, alongside Michel Bras and Olivier Roellinger, being a forerunner in this path.
I understand your influences to be very French but in fact, they come from all around the world.
I think we have influences from all our experiences, whether they are encounters or our travels. And then, we reinterpret these influences with our own DNA, in relation to our of the two cultures. I was very inspired by food in Japan. Not by Japanese cuisine, but more by the way they work in relation to products. I don’t have Japanese influences in my cooking, but I have been influenced by their respect for the product and their respect for all traditions and seasons. This has become natural. There is no longer any need to say that we are cooking in season since it’s become the norm. There was an era when it was fashionable to say it’s seasonal cuisine or regional cuisine. Now, this it’s just obvious. This is my line of conduct. About twenty years ago, I said stop to sea fish, except for the periods when fishing is closed. I said to stop sea fish because of all the riches we have around us. We don’t have to import fish from Brittany or the Mediterranean into our kitchen, especially since we have just exceptional products: arctic char, perch, féras.
My lifeblood is to go for a walk in the mountains in summer and winter, even if it is to go for a snowshoeing trip. A hunting walk. Picking mushrooms and picking herbs. And then to transmit this all to my teams. The people who are with me are also passionate, and they are with me because they are passionate about the products. And it’s important for me to transcribe a piece of mountain on my plates.
When I moved here, in 97. And my first, my first clients to whom I said no, we don’t have sea fish. Then, it was customers who said lake fish are not good: “It’s dry, it smells of mud”. For them the only good and noble fish were the sole, the turbot and bar. And these were the same customers who are still loyal now, and come to eat local and in season. The eating is good, but lake fish had a bad image. Maybe because they were poorly prepared at the time, that is changing.
Now, I love the lake fish, but it’s true in the past I found its taste slightly muddy?..
Emmanuel Renaut: Yes, it’s about the way of working. And also the way of sourcing. The fera or lake fish don’t live at the bottom. They live between two waters. They are pelagic. It’s a life between two waters. It eats plankton and it is a vegetarian fish. The other fish are predators, so are all that is salmonids, lake trout, arctic char. But the fera is the most neutral fish. But I think it was more psychological than anything. There, now, we have cooking that is fairer with fish.
A fera is soft, marvellous. But with 4, 5, 6 degrees more, it becomes a papier mache. And it is true that 25 years ago, the fish had to be cooked. Now we have these products that are just exceptional. There are also beautiful ways of fishing. I see Eric Jacquier. He has a hybrid boat because in addition to doing that, we pay attention to our environment at the same time. It remains obvious in our way of working now.
And Japan, you’ve travelled there a lot…
I think I must have been there about 30 times, maybe more. So, I’ve been to Japan for just one night to go back and forth for just a meal. And then, I stayed in Japan for over a month. So, eight days of work and then three weeks of sightseeing, travelling, sharing with friends, with Japanese friends. Tokyo is magic when you see it for the first time. But when you go to the hinterland, when you go to the countryside, when you go to the fishing ports, as I had the chance to, well that’s something else. The whole island, Japan and even the North Island, like in Hokkaido where I went fishing: hunting for gifts from the sea. I had the chance to visit and then meet extraordinary people. I make a chocolate pie, with a torrefaction roasting that I tasted from the wood water in Japan, in Hokkaido. It is a memory that I have and that I brought with me in my suitcases to be able to reinterpret it with the species of wood from here. But in any case, the inspiration was there. This is why it is true that inspiration comes from our travels and our meetings. When you meet the Inuit on the island of Hokkaido, it’s just extraordinary encounters and sharing of people.
It is the philosophy of putting a piece of mountain on a plate. The philosophy of short/closed distribution channels for produce from local agriculture, of the beautiful products. Beautiful products don’t have to mean the most expensive product. The product can be, lake fish, fresh herbs.
Tell me about deciding on and moving to Megève.
Why Megève? Because since my early childhood. I’ve been in love with the Mont-Blanc region. After leaving Veyrat I was working in London, at Claridge’s. After meeting my wife Christine there, I wanted to come back to the mountains, but I had little precise specifications. I wanted to be around Mont-Blanc. I wanted to be in a village that’s lively year round. I set my sights on Chamonix, Saint-Gervais and Megève. And then I searched. And sure enough, I was lucky to find a pizzeria that is for sale and in my price range in Megève. When I came to prospect, I was looking between Chamonix and Megève, between Saint-Gervais and Cordon. And then the opportunity came up with this small pizzeria.
How would you describe Megève?
It’s just wonderful because we have a village. We have a village on a human scale which operates year round. And for me , my lifeblood is to go for a walk in the mountains in summer and winter, even if it is to go for a snowshoeing trip. A hunting walk. Picking mushrooms and picking herbs. And then to transmit this all to my teams. The people who are with me are also passionate, and they are with me because they are passionate about the products. And it’s important for me to transcribe a piece of mountain on my plates.
I interpret what the mountain is, with the seasons, on the plate for all the products we have. We are lucky to have strong seasons. Tough, hard, but with times like now, this morning, it’s minus 15°-16°. It’s been a long time since we had winters where we were not far from -20°. These are beautiful winters, because if we know that after that all the pests go. There will be a really beautiful season after that, a rebirth, a beautiful cold, harsh winters behind us. We know we’re going to have a magnificent season afterwards. At the high levels, aromas, aromas in the meadows, in the woods. I’m sure that with winters like this year, with a lot of snow, a lot of cold, we will have a spring in summer, in autumn, which is just going to be wonderful. It’s good to have seasons because it’s been several years since we haven’t had as much cold as this year. So this is just a blessing for the coming season.
How would you describe your cooking.
Describing my cooking is a bit complicated, but in any case, I have a cuisine that is instinctive, instinctive in the fact that based on the basics. And after that, it can and does change all the time.
How would you describe your cooking philosophy.
It is the philosophy of putting a piece of mountain on a plate. The philosophy of short/closed distribution channels for produce from local agriculture, of the beautiful products. Beautiful products don’t have to mean the most expensive product. The product can be, lake fish, fresh herbs. In summer, when we are lucky enough to have several gardens around the hotel and we make a salad of herbs and we are just going to gather the leaves two or three hours before and so they don’t have time to be in the fridge. Sometimes I do special events abroad, all over the world, but there are dishes that I can’t cook because I can’t take the ingredients, fresh, with me, those which are picked and then served on the plate hour after. It is a cuisine which is quite difficult to transport.
When I was a kid, I was dreaming of Paul Bocuse. I dreamed of Robuchon. I’ve never been a football fan, but for me let’s say they were my Maradona, my Messi.
What are some of your top ingredients?
It depends on the season. Of course, the lake fish are obvious. And then, vegetables, all vegetables. What if there was a product to keep? I think I would keep the porcini because I’m a mushroom junkie. I’m the first in the woods to pick mushrooms. It’s a blessing from nature. I rejoice every porcini I pick, I enjoy seeing it and picking and bringing people back, picking it, picking to share.
And a dish?
I don’t know maybe the herb salad with all the herbs from the garden, that reflects from where there is, where there are 30 or 40 different flavors. It’s a starter and a small one, it’s a simple salad. But even if you eat it at the same time, you won’t have the same tastes. It’s an interactive salad.
You will like it and tomorrow you will eat it. There will be the same ingredients, but as they will not be as they were and you are going to eat them a little differently, this is something that will always be changing and interactive. And then someday there will be such and such a herb, someday there will be such and such a herb. It evolves at the time of the season. It is a reflection, an image of images: woods, meadows, gardens.
What does it mean to you to have 3-Michelin stars?
I think it’s teamwork. It is an everyday job because it is a challenge every day. It’s not a contest, it’s a game. And it is, in my opinion, it’s about creating emotion. Transmitting emotions to pass a message. Having a cuisine where people understand the identity. For me, the most beautiful thing is when a client tells me that, it’s really your signature. That is to say that the customer who eats a dish, he says that is Emmanuel Renaut. And so, for me, it’s just extraordinary to have managed to give an impression. And now, my duty is to transmit it to the teams, to train young people. It’s become a duty to make people dream. When I was a kid, I was dreaming of Paul Bocuse. I dreamed of Robuchon. I’ve never been a football fan, but for me let’s say they were my Maradona, my Messi. And for me when I have kids who come in I love it. It is our job to transmit and create dreams for young people.
The last question: what’s happening with French gastronomy, within the world culture?
French cuisine will always remain French cuisine with our traditions and innovations. French cuisine must remain a mixture of tradition and innovation with our products. We are lucky to have an array of exceptional products in France. We have strong regions and I think that is what is good about all cooking styles, if we can call them fashions, either the fashions of the influences of Nordic or southern countries, we always keep the best of what they have to offer.
We have strong regions and I think that is what is good about all cooking styles, if we can call them fashions, either the fashions of the influences of Nordic or southern countries, we always keep the best of what they have to offer.
We always keep the best. We love to eat, we will always love to eat a traditional meal. This afternoon, you ate a quenelle. It will always be a quenelle. It’s in the bistro spirit, but French gastronomy will always reinvent itself. We adapt to our customers, we don’t eat the same things as we did 20 years ago, we have changed our tastes, we pay more and more attention to our food.
Whether it is for taste, for health, for the environment, there are many factors that make cuisine evolve with our way of life. And that is the future of cooking. Not just in France, but globally. Finally, I hope that we will stop importing products in our countries to have the identities of cuisines from around the world in our countries. Like Japanese cuisine, I appreciate it in Japan in a way that I would never appreciate it anywhere other than in its country of origin. The same goes for my cuisine. What I was saying earlier, I am not going to be able to move it to another country and transmit the same emotion. We will never have the same emotion if we move.