He got the call on a Saturday in January 2019, at 11:45 AM, just when noon service at restaurant L'Oustalet was about to begin. Chefs across France had their fingers crossed in anticipation of the release of the annual Michelin Red Guide, due in a couple of weeks. On the phone was the directeur of Michelin, inviting Chef Laurent Deconinck to travel to Paris from his restaurant in Gigondas got an official ceremony, in just two days' time.
Chef asked the caller nervously, "Did I receive a star?"
"I can't tell you," the directeur replied. "All will be revealed at the ceremony."
"But, how do I know whether to come or not?"
"I can't tell you. But," the directeur relented just a bit, "I wouldn't be calling you for no reason." He further enjoined chef to keep the telephone call to himself, not to share it with anyone.
Chef Deconinck hung up, nervous as hell, wondering if he should mention this call to his team. No, he thought, as he tried to calm himself down and get ready for the lunch service. Breathe, breathe, cook, cook.
Early Monday morning he caught the high-speed TGV from Avignon to Paris. There, in a ballroom at the Michelin headquarters, a group of chefs stood around, wondering why they were here and what would happen next.
Finally, the directeur walked in and casually announced, "Welcome. You are the new stars."
Deconinck and the other chefs whooped with excitement. He couldn't wait to get back to Provence to announce the great news to the team who had helped him over the past decade on his way to earning his first Michelin star.
Laurent Deconinck was born in Avignon and started his career when he was a teenager, training in what the trade calls "catering" and we call the restaurant business. He earned a degree in service, as a waiter. As part of that program, he had to spend a few weeks working in the catering school's training kitchen. Right away he knew that cooking was to be his path. Although he graduated in service, immediately afterwards he devoted himself to cooking.
Through his father's connections he got a position working in a one-star restaurant. During the following years he moved around to another one-star, a restaurant with two stars, and then some years spent in Paris working in the best kitchens in the capital, with top chefs like Pierre Gagnaire, Michel Rostang, and Alain Senderens. From each chef, he learned new techniques, working with the best ingredients and helping these powerful chefs create their vision on a plate.
The famille Perrin from nearby Châteauneuf du Pape are a wine-producing dynasty. You may have heard about the Perrin family's alliance with Brad Pitt when they collaborated on the Pitt-Jolie Miraval wine project.
But, the Perrins are most famous for their Château de Beaucastel, one of the most well-known wines produced at Châteauneuf du Pape, and one the most prestigious wines in all of France. Theirs is one of the largest estates in the appellation with 75 hectares of vines. They also own dozens of vineyards and vignerons throughout the Côtes-du-Rhône region and grow wine in most of the region's appellations.
Laurent Deconinck's father was the Perrin's family doctor for many years, taking care of the health and wellness of the multi-generational family. To thank him for his service the family would gift him bottles of their wines. Young Laurent grew up thinking that everyone drank Chateau de Beaucastel as their daily wine. (A good vintage of the Beaucastel, like the 2016, fetches upwards of €50 a bottle.)
So it wasn't by chance that the Perrin family took an interest in the career of the young cook. After a decade of training, Laurent was approached by the family with the idea that he come to work for them creating and pairing food for Perrin wine tastings around the world. Laurent traveled from Hong Kong to Norway, from Canada to the USA. His approach to creating the menus was novel.
"You can't change the wine," chef told us. "But you can change food to make it pair with the wine." Chef Laurent created dishes that perfectly complemented the Perrin wines at each of the tastings around the globe.
"Terroir" and "local" are words that Chef does not just give lip service to. He is passionate about presenting and preserving the foods and flavours of the region he was born in. His menu at restaurant L'Oustalet features the bounty of the southern Rhone Valley. Olive oil is the king. Fresh herbs, wild mushrooms, olives, courgettes, tomatoes, rosemary, peaches, apricots, and lavender complete the cornucopia.
Ten years ago L'Oustlet came up for sale. Located in the middle of the idyllic Rhone wine village of Gigondas, directly on the lovely place, it had already changed hands a couple of times during the decade we had been visiting Gigondas. The Perrins purchased the historic, tres Provençal building and installed Chef Deconinck in the kitchen. Their mutual dream was to create a gastronomic destination highlighting the flavours and products of the Voconces, as this region is still sometimes called. (In Provençal, the historic language of the area, "oustalet" means house.)
The Perrin family has been in the wine business for five generations; they had the time, money, and patience to let the restaurant develop and make its mark. Chef Laurent moved slowly: trying this, tweaking that. It was like a puzzle with many pieces. He told us, "You don't start a gastronomic restaurant without thinking about Michelin, but earning a star can't be your focus."
In the beginning Laurent's focus was on what he learned from Alain Senderens in Paris: to feature a wine and pair food with it, course after course. It was only with time he realized that Michelin doesn't respond to this approach. "It's about what's on the plate," Laurent was emphatic. "Michelin doesn't care so much about the wines or pairing."
It is October 11 and the temperature is 22 degrees, warm enough to dine outside. We sit near the 100-year-old plane tree that dominates the outdoor terrace, and beneath the olive tree that grows in the centre of the terrasse.
A group of Parisians arrives at the same time and debate whether to sit dehors or dedans. They wrap their scarves tightly and brave the outdoors. We think the weather is perfect. Idyllic. In the corner, a group of local men sip white wine from giant goblets. It's the dolce vita here in Gigondas. (La douce vie?)
It was the Romans who brought vines to the area, and who named this village Jocunditas, which means "joy". Today we call it Gigondas, one of the prettiest villages in the Côte du Rhone, found at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail, the jagged mountain range cutting through Haut Vaucluse.
Lunch at L'Oustalet
The mushroom entrée is in two parts; the first is a large wild mushroom from Barigoule, cut in half, warmed, and stuffed with a melange of finely-chopped mushrooms, carrots, and other vegetables, served with seared herbs and a grassy, green herb foam. The seared herbs provide a clever contrast to the dark mushroom flavours. In a separate bowl is the second part of the entrée: a sort of mushroom/chestnut jelly; like revenge, it's a dish served cold. The overall effect is a simple, earthy concoction signalling the start of autumn.
In the tasting menu chef is preparing for us there's a second entrée. Rouget (a fish) has been cooked in a salt crust, and is presented on the plate with a piece of the crust balanced on top, which is to be removed before eating. On the plate is a perfect, small piece of fish, zucchini flower petals, and coins of baby zucchini. There is a quenelle of pistou made with herbes de Provence, decorated with the fish tail anchored into it. The plate tastes of fish, in a clean, fresh oceany kind of way; a bite of goodness. This is refined cooking, using simple ingredients, bursting with delicate Provençal flavours.
On a simple white plate are two medallions of veal loin, roasted and sliced resting on the jus, which is dusted with tomato powder created in the kitchen. We are instructed to take a forkful of veal and stamp it into the tomato powder. Although the presentation is simple, there is a complexity of flavours featuring, among others, lemon jelly and black lime from Iran. A baby-sized silver cooking pot is filled with a creamy, chickpea foam doused in olive oil.
There's a cheese course, but unlike most cheese course, it is another small plat and another example of Chef Laurent's light touch. Fresh goat cheese, topped with a gel skimmed from the top of the cheese liquid, with a salty, minty pesto and a bite of arugula; served with a crisp tuille. It’s a great cheese course, in fact Mark's favourite goat cheese dish ever. Refined and subtle flavours, like every plate in this meal.
One of our favourite things about a tasting menu is getting a greater understanding of the chef's vision... and who doesn't love a pre-dessert? Chef delivers the plates himself and describes the construction of this palate cleanser. A single sage leaf crystallized, jagged eucalyptus meringue slabs, a dollop of lemon creme fraiche ice cream, and a spoonful of creamy, citrus arrowroot tapioca. He tells us to try each element separately and then eat them together in one big bite. It cleanses every corner of our palates.
Refreshed and reset, we're ready for dessert. A hot chocolate soufflé is small-ramekin-sized and served with a liquorice and blackberry soup plus a petit picher of raspberry coulis.
It's 4 PM when we take our last sip of coffee and linger over the last drops of local sweet muscat Beaumes-de-Venise. It's another perfect day in Provence.
–Diane & Mark
photographs copyright Mark Craft