Le Petit Nice's story begins like a film. The date is 1917. The location is Marseille, next to the sea. A countess leaves her neo-classical villa and crosses the street to make a phone call from the bar across the way. She informs her real estate agent of her desire to sell the villa...
Surprised by the conversation, the bar's owner offers to purchase it.
Germain Passedat transforms the villa into a restaurant with a few guest rooms. The setting is magnificent: set on the rocks that descend into the sea, the villa offers stunning views. Immersed in the great blue waters, the silhouette of the Calanques can be seen on one side and the Frioul archipelago on the other. The name of the restaurant, Le Petit Nice, sounds like a nod to the glamour of the French Riviera.
At the time, Endoume was not yet a posh neighbourhood. It did have several villas, but its small ports were inhabited by fishermen — often Italian immigrants — and its slopes rising toward Notre-Dame de la Garde were covered in terraces of vegetable gardens. The spectacular seaside roadway, La Corniche, would not be completed until the 1950s.
The soundtrack to this film is operatic; Germain's wife was an opera singer. His son also adopted the same profession before renouncing Bel Canto to replace his father behind the stove. Michelin stars came to take the place of cheers of "bravo": the first being earned in 1977, the second in 1981. In between, Le Petit Nice also became a luxury hotel and joined the association of Relais & Châteaux.
As recounted by Gérald Passedat, the third in this dynasty and the one to complete the establishment's collection of Michelin stars in 2008, the genesis of Le Petit Nice sounds like a fairy tale. It is easy to imagine a child walking around the kitchen and the restaurant's dining room, before running and diving into the sea with the sons of fishermen.
However the period that followed — post-1987, the date of his arrival at the helm — is another story. He tells more of difficulties, with the responsibility of continuing and sustaining the family tradition serving as a (heavy) backdrop. It took time for him to free himself from the grip of a highly codified gastronomic catalogue that, uprooted from his territory, condemned the chef to a never-ending repetition of the same recipes.
But Gérald eventually found his own musical score, with local fish serving as the notes and a cuisine of Marseille as the melody. The only thing that remained was convincing his guests that fish also had it seasons and its risks, and to help them discover lesser-known species that could also be gourmet, seducing them with the freshness of local fishing. It was an audacious gamble, that has been well won.
This winding path, like those of the Calanques, has allowed him to bring a unique style to his cooking. Evidence of the (magical) place where Le Petit Nice is located, the restaurant now attracts gourmets from the four corners of the world. The fishermen, for whom without them the restaurant would not exist, are duly acknowledged in the menu.
Gérald has hit the note. Just as in a coming-of-age novel, he has found a harmonious state of balance that allows him to dive into new adventures. First, it was the opening of Môle, a bistro dedicated to the cooking of Mare Nostrum inside MuCEM, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations. Then Albertine followed, in the neighbourhood of the former Phocaean docks, where the cuisine of the hinterlands is showcased, while also featuring seafood.
Finally, this year, Gérald moved away from the coast to run a restaurant inside Château La Coste, a large wine estate in the area of Aix that houses works of contemporary art. It could be seen as a celebration of the birth of the Aix-Marseille metropolis. This journey from Le Petit Nice to Greater Marseille has been a century in the making.