The celebrated chef of the iconic Le Chabichou restaurant, located in Courchevel 1850, works to a clear objective: ‘cookery in perfect harmony with nature’. With a penchant for ingredients gathered from the forest floor, we asked him to explain how this philosophy affects his cuisine.
Christian Simenc: Chef Michel Rochedy, who passed away in 2021, opened Le Chabichou in 1963. You assisted him for three decades before taking over from him five years ago. What do you remember about him?
Stéphane Buron: When you spend 30 years with the same person, you tend to pick up their flaws [laughs]. Mr. Rochedy didn’t have many. He was about discipline, but he was cheerful. Discipline doesn’t mean ‘strict’, and cheerful doesn’t mean ‘anything goes’. We need discipline because we strive for excellence, but work is better when you’re cheerful. Mr. Rochedy had a good sense of humor, but he was also very exacting, especially when it came to product quality or cleanliness. The kitchen, for example, was entirely renovated in 1988. If you could see it, you would think it happened barely two years ago. He taught us to surpass ourselves. One day, another chef painted his portrait. I still keep it in my office. I look at him, and he looks at me.
CS: How do you carry forward his legacy while adding your own personal touch?
SB: I was his sous-chef, and we developed a number of recipes together. Two of them are still on the menu, but I have adapted them to my style. The first one is lobster salad with an exquisite vinaigrette. It was created in the late 1980s. We no longer arrange it in a rosette on a salad, and the dressing–a truffle-infused leek vinaigrette–has a more contemporary inspiration. The same goes for the caviar-topped bass. Mr. Rochedy would steam it over seaweed and then remove the skin to replace it with caviar. These days, we make a ballotine of nori seaweed leaves and make a confit. Then my son Antonin puts the finishing touch on the caviar sauce at the table as he tells the clients the history behind the recipe. It’s pure evolution: the recipe was created by Mr. Rochedy and then passed down to me, and today my son puts the finishing touch on it.
CS: What are your hopes and dreams for Le Chabichou?
SB: Mr. Rochedy was from the Ardèche, while my roots are in the Lorraine and the Vosges, but we both shared a culture of the foothills. Three decades of working for someone can ‘indoctrinate’ you, but I always respected his wishes. When I took over in 2018, I had to assert my individuality. With the consent of Mr. Lavorel, the head of Le Chabichou, I started by opting for tableware that corresponds better with me–going from white to black–and then updating the restaurant’s decoration. I wanted to bring in more wood, plants and minerals to bring in the mountain atmosphere. My son Romain is a cabinetmaker, and he crafted the wooden table mats and stools.
As for the recipes, we have continued to update them. In the summer, we gather what nature provides, such as blueberries and fir buds for our Arctic char marinade. I also bring in new ingredients: Shio Koji, a fermented Japanese product, enlivens the scallops and beetroot. Cherry tree vinegar brings that little touch of tartness that is welcome with venison. I love to add an unexpected flavor, like cherry blossom powder. In the 1980s, no meal would have been complete without a sorbet-filled lemon. I modernized the concept with a selection of citrus fruits: lemon, kumquat, sudachi, yuzu, limequat and so on. We serve them after the meal in a type of little box crafted by my son Romain that I call a ‘citrus cellar’. I continually strive to improve the experience that we offer clients.
CS: Is it possible to innovate?
SB: Of course! Today, I am seeking out ways to accentuate the forest-floor influence, both in taste and appearance. For example, we have a dish called La feuille dans la feuille (The leaf in the leaf). One leaf is 3D-printed using potato starch, while the other is an open-worked lace of Beaufort. Through a lovely optical illusion, the two appear to merge. We serve them with an Albufera sauce to which I add a touch of exoticism with bergamot, which reminds me of my roots in Nancy and Lorraine, and also makes me think of Japan, a country that I adore. I love to surprise people with flavorful foods. Taste is important, but so is beauty. I had ceramic artichoke leaves made specially to serve L’Artichaut de Mamie Odette (The Artichoke of Granny Odette). The mushroom consommé is served in a mushroom-shaped cup. Authentic!
CS: Over the last few years, there has been an increasing awareness of sustainable development. How are you working in favor of that?
SB: There are no farms in Courchevel 1850, unfortunately. We have to have everything brought in, especially in the winter. However, we do our best to call on suppliers in the surrounding area, especially organic and sustainable farms. They are principally located in Savoie, Isère and Drôme. There was a time when my butcher was based in Lyon. These days, I purchase meat from Stéphane Milleret at La Boucherie des Halles in Albertville. That’s about 75 miles closer. I source vegetables from the Allemoz family in Albertville, but sometimes I place an order with Éric Roy, who grows produce in Touraine. I send him an email in the morning, he harvests the vegetables in the afternoon, and I receive them the next morning. You can’t get much fresher than that.
We sort our garbage, but we also try to reduce its volume. I have prohibited the use of polystyrene fish containers, and now we use reusable ones, even though they’re plastic. As soon as we unload the contents at the restaurant, they’re reloaded onto the delivery truck. It never leaves empty. The same goes for vegetable deliveries.
CS: There is a dish on the 2023 Chabichou menu called “Les Zitones, un souvenir d’Antonin” (“Zitoni, as remembered by Antonin”). Your 24-year-old son is your sous-chef. How are you passing along your savoir-faire to him?
SB: It’s so wonderful to work with my son. You could say that Antonin was born at Le Chabichou. He knew Mr. Rochedy, who was like a spiritual grandfather to him. Today, if I was the orchestra conductor, Antonin would be my first violin. My vision of cookery has changed thanks to him. Antonin spent three years working for Arnaud Donckele at La Vague d’Or (Editor’s note: the three-star restaurant of the Cheval Blanc hotel in Saint-Tropez). Arnaud Donckele also prepares a zitoni recipe, which he perfected in the past with another chef, Jean-Louis Nomicos. Antonin revisits the recipe with truffled foie gras, smoked Jerusalem artichoke and milk infused with caramelized Beaufort.
CS: In 2021, you published a book of 50 recipes. Is that also a way to pass along your expertise?
SB: Exactly! Sharing is an integral part of our profession. The book features 50 products that I love to work with. It covers a lot of family memories. It includes our Christmas recipe of boudin blanc, my earliest memory of truffles: my grandfather was a pork butcher in Valence, and he would prepare the sausages with truffles and send them to us in the mail for the holidays. There is also the sole recipe that I prepared for the Meilleur Ouvrier de France competition in 2000, which I lost! There is a fondue: my grandmother was a cheese monger, and she would use the rinds of cheese for her own delicious version. There is an artichoke with vinaigrette, also from my grandmother, a throwback to the 1970s and ’80s; and the list goes on. The Cochon fermier cuisiné de la tête aux pieds (Farm-raised pig cooked from head to foot) is also a memory inspired by my grandfather. When I would go on vacation to my grandparents’ house, he would sometimes take me along to the pork butcher’s shop. We would leave at five in the morning, and I would spend the morning watching the workers prepare Strasbourg sausages, boudins blancs, black puddings, hams, rillettes, pâtés and country-style terrines. That’s where that recipe comes from. The idea is to encourage enthusiasts to discover cuts of pork that they aren’t accustomed to preparing.