A five-star hotel and three-star restaurant with deep Savoyard roots is home to masterful mountain savoir-faire – dedication that, in 2020, earned the French property recognition as an Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant, a Living Heritage Company.
Deep in the Savoie, near the Vanoise Massif, the Vallée des Belleville feels like the ends of the earth, steeped in exquisite, comforting serenity. There, in the hamlet of Saint-Marcel, at some 5,000 feet above sea level, you will find La Bouitte. Though the name means “little house” in Savoyard patois, it is, in truth, a monumental structure with sloping roofs set upon thick stone walls and wood at every turn. La Bouitte embodies heritage in many forms: familial, architectural, and, naturally, culinary. And who is the family? Chefs René and Maxime Meilleur, father and son, work there together with their respective wives, Marie-Louise, the maîtresse de maison, and Delphine, the maître d’hôtel.
The story starts back in 1976, when René and Marie-Louise Meilleur (whose surname in French means, aptly, “better” or “best”) built “the chalet of [their] dreams” to house a restaurant that would serve hearty and down-to-earth mountain specialties, like fondue, raclette and rib steak. That menu persisted until a memorable evening in 1981 and a dinner at Paul Bocuse – “a gustatory earthquake” that shook up their thinking. “After that night,” René recalls, “we understood that we had to start transitioning to more elaborate and creative cuisine that was more representative of the local terroir: locally raised lamb, fish from the lake, herbs from our mountainsides, and the like. We gradually put away the raclette grills and started using finer accoutrements. By 1985-86, we really started working well.” So much so that the Michelin stars began to twinkle at La Bouitte: the first in 2003 (“We were overjoyed, it felt like we were joining a family,” René says), the second five years later, before the three-star consecration in 2015.
During the last twenty years or so, the chalet has dramatically expanded, first to eight guest rooms, then continuing to grow to 15 guest rooms, including seven suites. Over time, the place has unquestionably become a labyrinth, but one that is so warm and welcoming that getting lost in it is a pleasure. Local, ‘earthy’ building materials — schist or slate, blue stone, larch framing and other centuries-old planks from former sheepfolds — help preserve the hushed ambiance. The same goes for the guest rooms, with curtains, blankets, and seating made with cozy textiles woven by the Arpin spinning mill in Séez, an hour away.
The décor is nothing less than an ode to popular Savoyard art from the 17th to 19th century. First, the furniture: mountain-style, solid-wood armoires, chairs, tables and dressers. Then utensils and objects: a butter mold, a moveable stoup, an ornate chest. “I find it incredible that people crafted such beautiful shapes for everyday use,” says an enthralled René. Even the cheese trolley, which transports such traditional treasures as Beaufort from Nant Brun or sheep’s-milk tomme from Châtelard, is an ode to craftsmanship in itself.
Charming details abound, be they in the common areas or the guest rooms – from an assemblage of bells from prestigious manufacturers in Chamonix to a collection of plates and pottery found in Haute-Savoie. One of the dining rooms features a splendid Baroque painted ceiling graced with carved cherubs, a nod to the 17th-century Notre-Dame-de-la-Vie chapel, a masterpiece to be admired as you leave the hamlet, on the Sentier du Pèlerin (“Pilgrim’s Trail”) that leads to Saint-Martin-de-Belleville.
Behind the immense sliding glass door, ceaselessly to-ing and fro-ing, lies the kitchen, where a white-bereted team dances to the fife and drum of a duo of meticulous chefs, René and Maxime Meilleur, aged 71 and 46, respectively. Their surname is a call to excellence – no wonder the wall bears an adage from Leonardo da Vinci: “Details make perfection and perfection is not a detail.” The “perfectionist” seems to be Maxime, while René is seen as more of a “poet.” According to Maxime, his career in the kitchen began somewhat serendipitously. (“One day back in 1996, I went in there to make a custard and never came out again. It’s a place that has an authenticity and sincerity you won’t find anywhere else.”). Today, this dynamic duo performs four-handed feats. “We know our recipes by heart, so we do things automatically,” explains the father. “We work like two painters on the same painting – each adds his touch, quite naturally, and we finalize things together.” Observing the virtuosity with which they transform seemingly simple dishes into subtly miraculous meals is fascinating. “What’s hardest to do is to enhance without distorting,” Maxime says with feeling.
The result, though, is ravioli revamped with Reblochon cheese, swimming in an onion court-bouillon accompanied by fried onion rounds. Or the filet of Lake Geneva’s famed fera covered in a thin slice of crisp bread with a frothy beurre blanc seasoned with rock salmon. Then there’s a dish that encapsulates the entirety of La Bouitte’s history: pan-fried duck foie gras escalope perched on a fresh corn pancake and surrounded with honey from Saint-Marcel and an aged-vinegar reduction. To close the meal, there is the captivating option of Lait dans tous ses états (Milk in all its forms), a small and perfect “architecture” mixing many ingredients – sheep’s, goat’s and cow’s milk – and textures – powder, mousse, yogurt, butter, meringue, sorbet and jam. A gourmet delight nearly beyond description, a delectable dream of days gone by. For those who wish, René and Maxime Meilleur personalize a carte blanche menu of three to eight surprise dishes in a combination of the guest’s preferences, the day’s market, and the chefs’ inspirations. The cellar, with a thousand wines, is apparently one of the best-endowed in the Alps, with vintages that pay homage to the heritage theme, dating back to 1937.
When the Meilleurs are your hosts, your gustatory journey invariably ends by the fireside with final sweet treats, including the cruche (something akin to a Savoyard shortbread), based on a recipe by René’s mother, Gisèle. Just one of the myriad childhood taste memories that the chef has been collecting since 2018 as part of the Conservatoire de Cuisine de Montagne (Mountain Cuisine Conservatory), of which René is president. As has been made clear, terroir rules. Even the spa does its part, boasting of its milk and honey baths, using hay cut from alpine pastures.
Lastly, the most adventurous souls should be sure to plan on a unique morning activity (at 6:30 a.m.): ascending to some 8,900 feet in altitude in a tracked vehicle to have breakfast at the summit and, for skiers, the first descent in pristine powder, before the ski lifts open. Contemplative sorts will be satisfied with the simplicity of a sunrise over Mont Blanc. Better yet, just before the sun rises and at the point exactly opposite, they can admire, for a few fleeting moments, just below the pink-tinted atmospheric phenomenon known as the Belt of Venus, a thick, curved line of slate blue: the shadow of the Earth projected upon the atmosphere. Breathtaking.