Chef Frédéric Vardon’s Love of Simplicity
Published: April 24, 2013 (Issue # 1756)
Vardon, who is the chef at Le 39V in Paris, brings his masterful use of simple ingredients to St. Petersburg to showcase his gastronomic wisdom.
Michelin-starred chef Frédéric Vardon, the man behind the award-winning Parisian restaurant Le 39V, arrived in St. Petersburg last week with a five-course tasting menu that he will be presenting to the city’s gourmets through April 27. But there is much more behind his visit than the simple desire to share his culinary art.
Vardon said he would be eager to join forces with a local restaurant group to open a venue in the city. “It would not need to be a gourmet’s haven with truffles and fois gras featured on the menu; rather, what I think would be ideal is a bistro format,” the chef told The St. Petersburg Times on Friday.
Vardon traveled to St. Petersburg to introduce two gala dinners at the W Hotel’s miX restaurant last Friday and Saturday. His menu features Osetra caviar atop an apple salad, king crab and spring vegetables in chilled spicy broth, a take on veal Orloff, Jabugo ham and Colonnata bacon shavings served with spinach, and a raspberry vacherin. The menu will be available at the restaurant both as a complete meal and as a la carte dishes.
Vardon’s visit is part of the Guest Chef at miX project — a series of gastronomic tours by some of the world’s finest chefs. Further visits in the series later this year are due to include David Rathgeber of L’Assiette in Paris and Vincent Maillard of Rivea at Hotel Byblos in St. Tropez.
Vardon was born in Normandy into a family of charcutiers and farmers.
After completing an apprenticeship with Jean-Pierre Morot-Gaudry and training with Alain Dutournier, Vardon joined Alain Chapel’s culinary team at his restaurant in Mionnay in 1988. In 1994, he started working with Alain Ducasse, with whom he spent 14 years and contributed to shaping some of Ducasse’s renowned restaurants around the world including Spoon, Benoit Tokyo, and Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester.
At present, Vardon leads the team at the Michelin-starred Le 39V restaurant, located on the rooftop terrace at 39 Avenue George V in Paris.
Vardon’s culinary philosophy is summed up in a stunningly short motto, and one of the chef’s favorite statements: “There is no good cuisine, only good ingredients.”
The chef inherited this straightforward culinary wisdom from his grandmother, who was a farmer and who taught Vardon simple gastronomic truths. “She would often say that food should be made with love and a desire to share,” he remembers. It was his grandmother who taught him to respect nature and everything it offers.
“I honestly despise those who don’t respect nature,” he added.
In Vardon’s childhood, seasonal and local produce reigned supreme at the table.
As the chef himself put it in a recent interview, “For me, the challenge for a restaurant is the same whether it’s located in the business district in Gennevilliers, in the trendiest parts of Tokyo, or in Paris’s famous ‘golden triangle’ — it’s to try and bring our guests the best products, and to make them want to share them,” he said.
Despite his love of simple ingredients, Vardon can’t resist a bit of Osetra caviar.
“ I like to keep telling my team that good products are usually the result of a beautiful love story between man and nature. As a result, a table in a restaurant must be a meeting place for all foods — those made with love and good products, and those that are the fruits of exchange and sharing.”
At Le 39V, guests can often order dishes that don’t appear on the menu. Diners who visit frequently or who happen to be in the know, simply ask Vardon what he has up in his sleeve on any given day. “I enjoy doing that and I practice this only at Le 39V,” Vardon said.
“When wonderful fresh produce arrives in the kitchen, I am eager to use it immediately. Our guests appreciate the opportunity to try new dishes which are not yet on the menu, and they enjoy being the first to sample the freshest seasonal fruit, for example.”
What Vardon himself enjoys is the spontaneous creativity. It is the chef’s current dream to open a restaurant without a menu.
Like many highly skilled globetrotting chefs, Vardon has a range of ingredients he never travels without. “Although in most places where I visit almost any ingredients that I would need are normally available, I always take Espelette pepper — a variety of chili pepper that grows in the French commune of Espelette, in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques,” the chef said.
Perhaps predictably, the list of other travel necessities that Vardon is especially attached to is very short, and includes his notebook and his iPad. “It is essential to stay in reliable contact with my team, and it is useful to have the notebook at hand, whenever you have an exciting thought going through your mind,” he said.
When discovering a new town, Vardon makes gastronomy an integral part of the visit. While some chefs choose to explore the flavors of local cuisine at farmers markets or via the Michelin guide, Vardon always chooses an angle; a starting point for his gastronomic journeys. In St. Petersburg, the starting point was vodka. “I had my first dinner in St. Petersburg at the Russkaya Ryumochnaya No. 1 restaurant at the Russian Vodka Museum,” he said. “It was just the perfect solution and, honestly, I feel that I have started to understand the point of Russian cuisine much better. The classic Russian dishes that I tried, paired with vodka, were excellent.”
In addition to Le 39V, Vardon runs the chain of three Z!NC bistros, two of which are located in Paris and one open seasonally in Courchevel, France.
The renowned chef draws parallels between gastronomy and architecture, suggesting that a chef and an architect ultimately seek to achieve the same goal — that of appealing to one’s sensitivity. “A good chef resembles an artisan,” Vardon said. “You have to learn a range of culinary crafts to excel in the job and the trick is that, in addition to being emotional, you have to be very precise. In this sense gastronomy is close to science.”
Vardon sees a good chef standing with one foot in the arts and one foot in science. “A chef has to learn the craft and pay attention to proportions but his goal is pleasure for the senses — an emotional experience for the recipients of his art. And this is the sort of goal that an artist has, not a scientist.”
For the French chef, the greatest challenge in his profession is to be able to always rise above the routine and the habitual. “It is actually a very hard work, to be able, whatever the circumstances, to get up in the morning, go to the kitchen and perform all dishes in the top-notch, classic way they have to be cooked,” Vardon said. “[Being a] chef is a very emotional profession; it requires an emotional approach and it appeals to people’s senses. What is important for me, is that as a chef I remain in very close contact with nature, serving as a bridge between nature and my guests.”
What is an unforgivable sin in Vardon’s kitchen is contempt and disregard — for the guests or for one’s colleagues. “As for the mistakes, we all make them. Every human being makes mistakes, and this is normal. The only way to completely avoid mistakes is to do nothing. But arrogance is something that we really cannot afford.”