Frédéric Anton watches over the happy destiny of Le Pré Catelan while preparing to flash his credentials as Meilleur Ouvrier de France at the very top of the Eiffel Tower.
Last century, a dozen or so children turned a forest, one not far from Contrexéville in France’s mountainous Vosges department, into their playground, their private domain of wonder. Among them was young Frédéric Anton. The kids gathered beneath the pines and oaks in their free time to make pint-sized cabins. Wood, therefore, was already an element of Frédéric’s life. The boy shared his father’s passion for do-it-yourself building projects, like go-karts (in wood) and stilts (in wood). So, naturally, when he was a pre-teen student and given the chance to leave the (wooden?) desks of his traditional school behind, he wanted to pursue a curriculum in cabinetmaking. The country’s national education system showed a flash of insight and refused him this first choice. Feeling rather stifled, he turned to taking cooking classes. “I had never, ever cooked in my life. To me, cooking was my mother’s thing. It was for women. Forty years ago, around Contrexéville where I grew up, I had no idea there were great chefs, male chefs.” At the hospitality management school he attended, he discovered a world he loved. After all, the work of a cabinetmaker and that of a chef are not so very different. You extract the best from your materials, compare boards like you compare vegetables, you use a plane or a knife, you smell, touch, assemble; working with a costly material involves the same level of risk. He swiftly found himself to be truly in his element.
Although he had never prepared a dish before enrolling in this school, he remembered his mother’s marvelous cooking, meaning the talent was in his blood. “She made wonderful roast chicken, casseroled with candied potatoes, tomatoes, shallots, garlic. She added a glass of water at the last moment, to deglaze all the juices – it was simple and exquisite. My mother’s signature dish,” he laughs. He still calls her for advice. She sometimes gets lost in recounting superfluous details, forgetting who it is on the other end of the line, her son, a man who, for the past decade, has had three Michelin stars. “It’s OK, Mom, I know that part…”
After hospitality school, he went on a “Tour de France of great chefs”: the Grand Hôtel in Gerarmer, Le Capucin Gourmand in Nancy with Gérard Veyssière, Le Flambard in Lille with Robert Bardot (a Meilleur Ouvrier de France with two Michelin stars), with Gérard Boyer at Les Crayères (three Michelin stars), and, of course, seven years with Joël Robuchon. “At the time, he was the greatest chef in the world and had the best restaurant in the world.” When Robuchon chose to retire-but-not-retire, Anton heard about a chef’s position at Le Pré Catelan and went over to sniff the place out. He’d had no idea it was so big, he who was accustomed to his thirty covers on rue de Longchamp. But youthful enthusiasm quickly overcame that first overwhelmed moment and he arrived, toque in hand, at this decrepit luxury establishment of old. No investment had been planned to refurbish the premises and “we had to just make do with that.” In 1998, he captured his first star; in 1999, the second streaked down to him; and, in 2007, the consecration took place – even better than three cherries in Las Vegas are three stars in Paris. It triggered cascades of goodwill. Three and a half million euros were invested in renovation: The restaurant was closed for a full year so as to return Le Pré Catelan to its former Belle-Époque glory. The scallywag of the Vosges forests had become the “Lord of the Bois de Boulogne.” There it is again – wood.
His head’s as hard as wood, too. Here’s an anecdote that speaks volumes about the chef’s character: To celebrate his third star, he went skydiving, his disastrous hobby of the day. He landed badly. Firefighters came to rescue him. The doctor told him, “You’ve broken both your legs.” The chef replied that he’d just received three stars and here he was in a hospital sixty miles from Paris on a Sunday night and he’d prefer to start off the week on a better foot. He refused to let them operate then and there and insisted on being put in plaster casts. He went home by car with a friend, who had the good sense to go to his grandmother’s place to borrow a wheelchair. They operated on Tuesday, he was released on Thursday. He asked to be taken back to Le Pré Catelan. He locked himself in his office for a few minutes. He put on his chef’s jacket and, suitably supported by his friend’s grandmother’s wheelchair, pushed through the swinging doors of the kitchens with his cast-bound feet. Silence. Everyone stopped what they were doing. Anton thundered, “Well, you guys, you didn’t actually think I was going to stay at home for two months, did you? Get to work!” And it was in a wheelchair that he went through the first weeks of his new superstar-chef life.
More recently, he chalked up yet another triumph, one that seems to surprise him more than anyone: the 10-year concession of Le Jules Verne restaurant in the Eiffel Tower. “What was at first unlikely became possible. Thierry Marx and I were very determined. Both of us are passionate craftsmen. We joined forces. We had an excellent plan and complete faith in it, all the way to this tremendous victory. Le Jules Verne will be one of the most exquisite restaurants in Paris. I’ll revisit the great dishes of French gastronomy, which I love making. It’s an adventure that makes my heart leap for joy.”
On this marvelous, magical note, let us end this beautiful tale, the one in which the Lord of the Wood lives happily ever after (for at least ten years) with his Iron Lady, both of them glittering with stars.