An Ode to Guy Martin, Chef of Le Grand Véfour

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From his youth as a rugged boy in the mountains to his position at the heights and forefront of French cuisine in Paris, Guy Martin has always brought energy and intensity to his passions. Chef since 1993 at Le Grand Véfour, the perennially great and unwaveringly elegant restaurant by the garden of the Palais Royal in Paris, he continues to develop his craft and extend his reach. Fabien Nègre brings his own talents as interviewer, portraitist, and gastronomy commentator in this ode to an “elusive and singular man.”

Self-taught incendiary, outright will-o’-the-wisp, tireless bundle of energy, art and literature enthusiast, extreme skier, Guy Martin defies the use of a single superlative. This little prince of the range, good-looking kid of the kitchen, serene poet, and toughened philosopher rules over a restaurant of legend, Le Grand Véfour. This is the story of an elusive and singular man.

Born in the harsh Alpine region of Savoy in the town of Bourg-Saint-Maurice on February 3, 1957, Guy Martin was endowed with nearly pathological energy. Blundering, cavorting, and other nonsense filled his childhood in a well-to-do family that “lacked nothing.” His mother, a religious woman, liked to prepare meals that were varied and homey yet precise enough that they might include a “reversed” flaky pastry. She wrote her recipes down in full detail, though her notebooks have since been lost, to her son’s regret. His father had a “nice situation” in civil engineering. The strapping lad skied admirably. He fit in with the décor, yet another creature of the woods not looking to be tamed. But at age 14, while his family frequently invited Offenbach and Mozart into the home, two outer encounters revolutionized his world: Claude Monet and the Rolling Stones.

His friends gave him the nickname “Mick.” Guy Martin already saw himself as a headliner, either as a rock star or a doctor without borders. Full of energy, he slept little. His mountain upbringing led him to appreciate the nature of sharing while surrounded by Savoyard grandmothers who kept an eagle eye out for the presence of spirits. A grand feeling of nobility arose from this landscape. At 19 he took on the role of a summertime pizza maker while preparing to take the baccalaureate exam. Nothing appeared to indicate that he would eventually play in the secret garden of the great chefs of this world. Yet this young man from the mountain knew how to work hard and understood the ethics of production. Faced with the infinity of the massifs, precision and justice melt into one; you can’t cheat when your life is at stake. Integrity and the need to surpass oneself are always necessary. “I didn’t know how to cook but I knew how to eat.” The gustatory collisions proved worthy: the adolescent’s morel mushrooms in a cream sauce, the parental Sunday venison in the country, the juice of the roast infused with sage from the garden, the maternal pie pastry.

At 23 he took the position of director of a 3-star hotel in the Alpine resort of La Plagne when offered a golden opportunity by Pierre Laden, director of the Gentilhommière de Coudrée. A fine combattant, he negotiated to obtain the responsibilities of manager and chef. It was a fateful time for him in a medieval setting, a weighty professional moment that lit the flames of desire. Sure of his impetuous talent, he put everything on the line when face to face with René Traversac, owner of twelve “Relais et Châteaux,” including Castel de Divonne. Straight away he asked for the position of chef-director. Six month later, with a staff of three in the kitchen, he obtained his first Michelin star. For eight years our Savoyard, with neither fear nor reproach, toiled away in the middle of this 50-acre park. His children accompanied him in daily sporting outings. He wished neither to live nor to work in the capital.

An event then occurred that changed the course of Guy Martin’s history: Jean Franz Taittinger, then owner of Le Grand Véfour, invited him to take the reins of the historical home of haute cuisine by the Palais Royal. The young chef—his feet alert and in the tempo, his mind boiling with excitement, full of ideas and projects—accepted the hallucinating challenge. On November 1, 1991, the spirit of Raymond Oliver, the late chef and owner who stood for decades at the helm of French cuisine, still haunted this restaurant of tales and legends. Guy Martin posed drastic conditions to have the freedom to pursue the adventure. Feeling his way forward, having set aside his ego, he was staggered by the scent history and by the sumptuous Directory dining rooms, by the smell the cut grass of springtime, by the sight of children fluttering around the nursery of the Palais Royal. The proximity to the Louvre determined the rest. Guy Martin draws the source of his inspiration from paintings. He imagines, eats, and paints a dish in a single effort. Bacon, Rothko, Botticelli, Schiele, and Magritte live beside him in the light of day. Artists help him exist in this landscape.

Ultra-sensitive to colors and shapes, he sketches on pieces of paper, he meditates his recipes in drawings. The food: a mental moment of Buddhist inspiration. On this canvas order comes from raw emotion. Like a play of pigments and shadows, the bitter, the acidic, or the crisp prevail in harmony. His menu is strewn with Savoyard notes: fish from the Lakes of Bourget and Geneva; cheeses of Beaufort, Reblochon, and Corne d’Abondance. More than the fragrance of individual products, these are ways of being. France anchored the Savoy region relatively late in its political and culinary history. Independent until 1860, Savoyards had produced a specific cuisine, opulent in spices. The Court of Savoy showed eminent sophistication. Traces remain in the biscuit, in preparations with saffron pistils, with lemon rind, with grain of paradise. Such spices play to perfection the accent of Véfour.

The aristocrat travels light. He abhors the superfluous. He ponders culinary behavior of the future. He listens so as to understand the tendencies of domestic consumption. The ways in which food products reach the mouth evolve: a clear gap between the city and the country, progressive fragmentation of meals, cuisine on demand, disappearance of the single dish, individuation of practices. Food as a type of play appears while culinary dogmatism disappears. Ever since Catherine de Médicis in the 16th century French cuisine has shown an extraordinary and unique capacity to integrate elements encountered abroad. Guy Martin has written or co-written popular books that echo this heritage: “Un artist au grand Véfour” (An Artist at Le Grand Véfour), 2000, “La cuisine des blondes” (Blond Cuisine), 2007, and others. His successes have rendered haute gastronomy accessible to the general public. He freely transmits to young people the choice of discernment. “Give back that which has been given to us.” A memorable dish is born of the mastery of buried foundations, of the lights at our back, of the forgotten as a form of memory. Through his emotions the taster can recall a single dish year, even a lifetime, later.

Insubordinate, Guy Martin knows that an eternal dish is defined as one that the chef no longer removes from his menu. Sharing of the dish matters as much as the protagonists that created it. Fleeing high society gathering and cliques, preferring the contemplative, he selects the guests with whom he himself eats. He humbly and surprisingly admits: “Chefs don’t count, only the plate matters.” His recipes fall from heaven like the sounds of a musician who doesn’t write down his score. Material moves toward texture rather than the other way around. His preparations form neither an arena of tension nor a table for geometry but a deep search for taste, i.e. for the memorable emotion. Recently, in Japan, near Osaka, in a cast-iron port of the same type his grandmother had used, he watched a Japanese chef prepare sea bream and rice then finish by scraping at the burnt heart of rice. For Guy Martin, a shiver of thrill to observe.

Elected best French chef among the top seven in the world by The World Master Arts of Culinary in 2001, he keeps a level head and plunges into the perpetual questioning that changes the way we look at things. Moved by his Legion of Honor, troubled by his distinction as man of the year 2006 in Japan, he sings “The Barber of Seville” in his Jacuzzi and frequents authors as discerning as Alexandre Vialette, Henri Michaux, and Milan Kundera. His own mythology is built around Lawrence of Arabia, “Casablanca,” and “La Dolce Vita.” He lives his life without spite, gives peace dinners around the world—Africa, Israel… Suddenly he’ll stop the tape. Then, lost in thought, he’ll describe an orange, previously forgotten, in the mountain, during a climb, from a backpack, handed to him, a fruit that gives the mouth such intense freshness, such pleasurable texture, such thrilling juice. To maintain the fire that burns within him and to constantly fan the flame higher he got involved in the creation of a fragrance with perfumer Annick Goutal. He seems to enjoy noting: “I didn’t want to have this profession. I would like to have been an artist.” Insatiable worker, he only creates “real things.”

With superior staffs he created the restaurant Le Sensing in the 6th arrondissement and the luxury sandwich shop and snack bar MIYOU in the 8th, where he concocts without taboo, without borders. He casts his gaze on the orchards of the world (France, Europe, the Orient) that punctuate his inspirations. Seize the day of Algerian citrus fruit for a blanquette. Far from the violence of the world and from absurd accelerations, his art expresses a way of confiding love, an outstretched hand. Having his roots in the tang of the soil reveals the taste of the earth, an interest in classicism touched by modernity. As with great music, our sensitivity is sharpened by habit and familiarity. Peas, large as the head of a pin, metamorphose into a heady, creamy ice cream. Varieties of cactus, tasted in Mexico, reveal peppery flavors and sweet undertones. In Thailand, the rediscovery of grasshoppers and larvae inspire him in memory of Edouard Nignon (1865-1935), the famous chef who wrote “L’Heptaméron des Gourmets” (1919), a presentation of 620 glorious preparations of French cuisine. Guy Martin has also created the first-class menus for Air France, provided strategy for the Monoprix supermarket chain, and advised La Mère Poulard, the famous omelet-proud restaurant on Mont Saint Michel, on its eggs, all the while working on his own cloud, his head in the stars.

Guy Martin reaches the essential. He lives every moment to the fullest, molding his life into a single work of art. For the maestro of the Véfour the winds of happiness are Hauts Sauternes and the paternal génépi liqueur… and decorating one’s power to exist, never fearing, never hoping, always believing that life affirms the infinite field of possibilities… and cooking as a spiritual exercise of training a horse: feel its heart vibrate, be one with the civilized beast through tolerance and humor. Surrounded by his family, his children, in the mauve poppy of our lives and of our desires, Guy Martin, Zen herald, Zorro of gai savoir, diagnoses the utopia of the present in a better planet. He can’t stand the idea that one would fail to understand that the first and last audacity is Man.

© Fabien Nègre. Translation and adaptation by Gary Lee Kraut with authorization from the author. This article first appeared in French on www.lesrestos.com. It has been translated (with slight modification) and posted here with permission.

Fabien Nègre is an economist, philosopher, and content producer for the media.

Three Guy Martin establishments in Paris

Le Grand Véfour – Guy Martin. 17, rue de Beaujolais, 1st arr. Metro Palais Royal. Tel. 01 42 96 56 27.

Le Sensing – Guy Martin. 19 rue Bréa, 6th arr. Metro Metro Vavin. Tel. 01 43 27 08 80.

MIYOU. 35 rue de Miromesnil, 8th arr. Metro Miromesnil. Tel. 01 42 66 33 33.

1 COMMENT

  1. I watch his program on TV5 Monde and am always fascinated by his reaction to the foods and other culinary items grown throughout our world. I cannot wait to return to Paris in the next few months and enjoy being a guest at each of his establishments.

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