The Provençal countryside is a tad different on the west side of the Rhône River. We're more familiar with our home-away-from-home turf, the east side of the river, around Vaison-la-Romaine and the limestone crags of the Dentelles de Montmirail. Driving on the west side, though, we saw flatland below a ridge of bare-stone cliffs with the sun painting ragged shadows on the rock face. Below the cliffs, next to the road, were patches of vines, olive trees and fruit orchards. Unlike the river valley plains on the east, we didn't find spreading fields of vineyards or sunflowers; the plots here were much smaller.
A few minutes after crossing Autoroute A7 on the overpass heading toward Châteauneuf-du-Pape we had picked up the D72 and then turned south on the D976, leaving the department of the Vaucluse and entering Gard as we crossed the Pont de Roquemaure spanning the Rhône. We were awake and alert, we had our notebooks and cameras, we were everything well-equipped food writers should be. We were on our way to call on the Michelin-starred Chef Fabien Fage at Le Prieuré, a Relais & Chateaux hotel located in what for centuries was a priory belonging to Chanoine monks.
It was market day in Villeneuve-lèz-Avignon and traffic slowed to a crawl as we entered the town. The already narrow road was even more constrained by the parked cars lining either side. Were those legal parking spaces? We saw some blue-uniformed traffic wardens, but they didn't seem to be paying attention to the chaotic parking. A travelling fun fair was coming to town, probably to be set up on the place when the market was over; its trucks and caravans and pieces of fairground rides were also parked alongside the roadway.
At the roundabout we turned right ("Please take the first exit," Victoria – as we had named our GPS guide – instructed) and entered the historic centre of Villeneuve. The roads were paved with smooth-cut blocks, the same colour as the stone used for the buildings. It was a tight squeeze, with wandering tourists, cameras around their necks, using the same roadway as the cars. The place looked both old and majestic, and with good reason. When the popes established themselves in Avignon in the 1300s, the Catholic cardinals took up residence across the river, here in Villeneuve-lèz-Avignon, the "new town" near Avignon, building palaces and churches.
We crept past the 14th-century Collegiate Church of Notre Dame and saw, to our right, a small cobblestoned courtyard with a pair of huge wooden doors set in an arch at its farther end. Above the doors was a stone lintel that read Le Prieuré.
A handful of metres along the street we came to a sign that said "Parking". Rarely in Provence do you still see signs announcing "stationnement"; the English word "parking" has taken over, complete with a standard blue sign sporting a big white P.
Le parking was nicely shaded and we collected our notebooks and cameras and followed the sign for Réception, walking along a trellised path that skirted the swimming pool. The five-star luxury hotel that is now located in the former priory has retained its name, Le Prieuré.
The hotel was much more extensive than it appeared from the street. A number of buildings from various historical period (all old) formed a rough U around a spacious central courtyard. We we in Provence; the familiar blue or white shutters flanked all of the windows. While we certainly admired the beauty, we passed through quickly since we were a tad late for our meeting.
Fabien Fage had a cold, he'd been sick for three days. But he welcomed us and we sat in the lounge where we drank the best espresso we'd ever been served in France.
Maybe it's because he was feeling ill, maybe it was the novelty of being interviewed in a bastard mix of English and French, but Fabien Fage opened up to us about some hard truths in the training of a chef in France – working six days a week, sixteen hours a day, under demanding conditions for subsistence wages.
At thirty-eight years old, Chef Fage was at the time the youngest Michelin-starred chef in Provence. He'd already been working in kitchens for twenty-four years.
His mood was tense and emotional when he discussed a difficult childhood and the years spent training in some of the best kitchens in Paris and Burgundy. His eyes hinted at an underlying darkness, a seriousness, that only lifted when he occasionally smiled.
Chef Fabien was a compact man, slender in a sleek black chef's jacket and a black apron that wrapped tightly around his wasp waist. His dark hair was slicked back, green eyes revealing a certain darkness, a seriousness, a complexity that only lifted when he smiled. Then you could imagine what he must look like when he's playing his 1954 vintage Fender Stratocaster. He's passionate about the guitar and loves the blues.
Fabien Fage was born on October 22, 1975 in Arles to an French father and a Italian mother. It was a difficult childhood. His father was a mechanic and an alcoholic. His parents divorced when he was young. He speaks with fondness of his mother and grandmother preparing the foods of Italy, but there are no Proustian bursts of culinary curiosity.
Like other Michelin chefs we've spoken with, Fabien was a poor student. By the time he was fourteen his academic years were over and he was forced to choose a trade. That's how the French education system works. He lasted a few months in his first choice, mechanics, but he hated that as much as he had hated academics; his dad was a mechanic, colouring his view of the trade. The head of his school took him aside and asked him what else he would like to try. Cooking, perhaps? We imagined the teenage Fabien averting his eyes and shrugging, who knows?
The turning point in Fabien's young life came when he overheard two instructors talking. "That Fabien's got good hands, good technique. There's something there," remarked Monsieur Simonin. That's all it took. From that moment on Fabien became a serious student. Everything he did professionally from then on was to honour his mentor, Monsieur Simonin.
Thanks to that spark, by the time Fabien was sixteen he was interning with renowned chef Bernard Loiseau in Burgundy, the year after Loiseau was awarded a third Michelin star. Loiseau is remembered today for committing suicide at the height of his fame. The story persists that it was the possibility of losing a Michelin star that led him to suicide, but Fabien does not believe that. "Bernard," Fabien says, "was a very, very good person. Very emotional." Fabien believes Bernard had other demons to deal with.
After Burgundy, Fabien Fage's first professional job was in Paris, at restaurant L'Arpege under Chef Alain Passard, who has held three stars since 1996.
"It was very hard," he recalls. "There were only five of us in the kitchen doing all the work. I would arrive at 8 AM and stay often until 2 AM. I worked six days a week and we would do two full services each day.
"Passard would be with us during lunch and dinner service, but other than that we were on our own. He would compose the plates at the passe, the pieces of the meal were passed to him and he created the final plate. He would taste everything and if he didn't like something he would..." Fabien made a gesture like throwing a plate, with a crashing noise.
At L'Arpege he was earning only €1200 Euros a month in a city with one of the highest costs of living in Europe. From L'Arpege he moved across town to one-star Le Meurice under chef Marc Marchand. Also in that kitchen were future star chefs Yannick Alleno, Frederic Simonin, and Christophe Moissand. Alleno would go on to lead Le Meurice to three stars and later open his own restaurants in Paris earning multiple stars. Simonin would open an eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant in the 17th arrondissement after working with Joël Robuchon. Moissand would revitalize restaurant Le Celadon and earn a star there.
The move to Le Meurice was a good one for Fage; there was a larger brigade (cooking team) and less stress, but the income was still pitifully low.
However, back in Provence a family crisis arose. His mother was "exhausted" and needed his help and his father's health had declined with heavy drinking. Fabien returned home to assist his mother and help care for his father; luckily he was able to find work as a sous chef.
He could not have known that his life was about to be changed once again, that there was to be another turning point.
One night after service in Provence he had a couple beers with friends before driving home. Fabien fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a tree, fracturing his skull and the first and second vertebrate. He spent weeks in the hospital and was off work for six month.
This event caused him to reevaluate his priorities in life. Would he continue cooking or would he pursue his other passion, playing bluesy guitar? After recovering he decided to return to the kitchen, but, he decided, he would only work as Chef de Cuisine – head chef. His years as an apprentice were over.
Although he was secure and content at Le Prieuré, holding a Michelin star, chef told us that he was fantasizing about having a small restaurant somewhere, with only one assistant. He would also like to have a family, he said. He was thirty-eight years old, but girlfriends hadn't liked his busy life. He'd had one relationship that lasted 8 years, another for 4 years that had recently ended. For now, he noted, he was on his own.
à la prochaine,
– Diane & Mark
photographs copyright Mark Craft
Postscript – Sète
A couple of years after our visit, Chef Fabien Fage moved to Sète, a French port town on the Mediterranean, to take over the kitchen at restaurant The Marcel, earning himself a Michelin star in the first year (2019).
Read about our meal at The Marcel in The Two Best Things About Sète...