When French chef Claire Vallée wanted to open her first restaurant, the banks refused to lend her because they didn’t believe that a vegan place run by a relative novice and located in a small coastal town would one day succeed.
She proved them spectacularly. The vegan restaurant that she created five years ago with € 10,000 raised via crowdfunding recently became the first in France to be awarded a star by the Michelin Guide, the bible of gastronomy.
At ONA – an acronym for non-animal origin – the self-taught 41-year-old chef, originally trained as an archaeologist, has made the constraints of cooking without butter, cream, meat or fish a liberating adventure.
“I make this food because I love it, and I want to show people that you can eat differently and still enjoy it,” she said in an interview. “With vegan food you always have a fabulous hunting ground with so many varieties of grains, spices and plants. You can really express yourself in the kitchen with so much to discover and preparations to invent.
The elevation of the ONA by the Michelin Guide made headlines in France and internationally as a symbol that one of Europe’s most classic cuisines was finally opening up to the movement of foods made from plants that became a big deal These last years. The guide had awarded a star to vegan restaurants in Germany, the United States and Spain, but there were none in France.
Ms. Vallée’s triumph has also been hailed by many catering stakeholders as rare good news in the grim context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Like all restaurants in France, ONA was forced to close during the national spring lockdown, and after a brief summer respite, they closed again in October without knowing when they would reopen.
Ms. Vallée took advantage of the forced downtime to write a cookbook and try out new recipes. The ONA pivoted to offering take-out veggie burgers during the first lockout and recently started selling vegan foie gras as an alternative to the traditional version popular in France during the holiday season. “Seaweed, chestnuts, peanuts, mushrooms and armagnac,” she said, proudly bringing out the ingredients. “It melts in the mouth like foie gras.”
That Ms. Vallée dares to sell vegan foie gras in Ares, the small town near Bordeaux where ONA is located, has said something about her bravery. This part of France is the cradle of foie gras and produces more than half of the country’s annual production.
The ONA offers a seven-course dinner tasting menu for € 59 and seats around 30 people in its white dining room decorated with plants and flowers hanging on the wall. The menu’s list of unusual ingredients includes black salsify, an oyster-flavored root vegetable, and dulse, a type of seaweed.
Gwendal Poullennec, international head of Michelin guides, said he hoped ONA’s selection “would overturn conventional wisdom about French cuisine” to show that today’s gastronomy is more varied than the cliché of sauces. with rich butter and beloved dishes such as coq au vin or blanquette de veau.
But veganism remains much rarer in France than in the United States or the United Kingdom, which makes it a tough sell for restaurateurs. There are vegan restaurants in Paris, but few elsewhere. Eating out as a vegan remains a challenge in a country where meat and fish still dominate the plate, cheese is fundamentally a national religion, and fresh bread and pastry are a daily treat.
Traditional hospitality and cooking schools in France do not really teach vegetarian or vegan cooking techniques, which makes Ms. Vallée’s success all the more remarkable, said Karine Castro, consultant for restaurants at the Institute of Vegetable Gastronomy. “I have seen that chefs often lack the knowledge to produce sufficiently elegant, gourmet and sophisticated vegetable-based cuisine,” she said.
Alexis Gauthier, a French chef who owns restaurant Gauthier Soho in London, said the ONA Michelin star was a sign of how much has changed in the French culinary scene.
“There were great chefs like Alain Ducasse and Alain Passard who put vegetables at the center of their art but there was something that held them back. And I think it was Michelin, ”he said.
Mr Gauthier’s restaurant had a Michelin star, but when he became a vegan himself and decided to convert his entire menu, the guide told him he would lose it. Such a thing would not happen now that ONA had received the facility’s Imprimatur, he said. “Claire Vallée has shown that you can be 100% French, 100% vegan and 100% creative.”
In Ares, Ms. Vallée is still trying to digest her victory. “It was crazy,” she said, adding that she had received calls from as far away as Japan and Australia to reserve tables. “It’s reassuring to know that we will have a lot of customers when we can reopen.”