“Tout est délicieusement bon ici.” –Maurice Beaudoin
It’s noon. A groom stands outside Le Grand Véfour. Inside the historic listed restaurant, chef Guy Martin greets guests, even personally shows them to their tables, which wear copper plaques dedicated to the restaurant’s legendary guests: Napoleon with Josephine, Victor Hugo, Cocteau, Colette, Maria Callas, Simone de Beauvoir, George Sand…
In the cuisine Guy Martin and his brigade work passionately with delicate seasonal vegetables from market-gardener Didier Pil, poultry from Bresse Miéral, veal from André (the third generation butcher), line-caught fish, delivered direct from French waters, and wonderful cheeses from Boujon, Thonon-les-Bains.
Signatures include the sublime Ravioli Foie Gras, crowned with an airy froth of truffle cream, ordered by one regular client as starter, main and dessert! This client (no names) also recommends the house-baked bread for ‘mopping’. The dishes served here are the chef’s spins to the 250 years of Le Grand Véfour, which began life in around 1784 as Monsieur Aubertot’s fashionable Café de Chartres.
Born (1957) in Bourg-Saint-Maurice, the Alpine Savoie region of France, Guy Martin never really considered a culinary career – he confides that he actually wanted to be Mick Jagger! “But I’m nul at the guitar.” The epiphany came when a friend lent him an extraordinary book written in the 1920s: Henri Babinski’s (aka Ali-Bab) Gastronomie Pratique, Etude Culinaire.
“In his job as an engineer, Babinski traveled the world and collected recipes which he cooked for friends when he returned”, explains Guy Martin. “When I discovered the book I was working in a mountain pizza parlor during school holidays to earn enough money to ski. Pow! I realized cooking could take me round the world, just like Ali Bab. Cooking’s a great communicator, politics divide, the table unites, eh?!”, he smiles.
“I wanted to be a musician in a rock band, but, after working my way through Ali-Bab’s recipes, I changed my ideas”, he admits. “Now I just sing my heart out and air-guitar in the shower!”
No posh cookery schools for Guy Martin, from a job at an Annecy café, he then went on to the prestigious Relais & Chateaux kitchens at Château de Coudrée, then Château de Divonne, where he won two Michelin stars – quite astonishing – he’d just taught himself!
In 1991 the wannabe rock-star accepted the challenge proposed by Jean Taittinger, then owner of Le Grand Véfour. ‘”Come to Paris and cook at Le Grand Véfour, an establishment that has been at the epicenter of Parisian life for over 200 years,” suggested Monsieur Taittinger.
“I wasn’t sure. I was a mountain goat and they don’t live in towns. But, the first time I crossed the Palais Royal gardens, they’d just cut the grass, it smelled of hay, children were playing. I pushed open the door of Grand Véfour – I knew I was home”. Of his culinary concept Guy Martin reflects, “For me, the key element in cooking is the influence of artists and art; that’s where I find my color, structure and flavor”.
Today, even if there is no question of trying to recover that unjustly lost third Michelin star, which he held from 2000-2008, Guy Martin has plenty on his plate, including a TV show, a consultancy at The Brando resort in French Polynesia, restaurants “I Love Paris” at Charles De Gaulle Airport and the precious collaboration with his son Flavian at L’Atelier de Guy Martin.
In the kitchen, testing’s just finished for La Bûche de Noël, version 2019, a magnificently astringent geometric concoction of black Iranian lemon, tonic, juniper berries on a lemon and vanilla biscuit base. A delicious edible work of art which can be ordered in advance (Tel: +33 (0)142965627 or email: [email protected]).
It’s 3.00pm and the last Véfour guests leave, smiling. Guy Martin waits by the door, signing his books (of which he has authored dozens). He pauses to have his photo taken and bids guests “à bientôt”.
Outside, the groom and his assistant attend to the line of sleek limos waiting to ferry Véfour guests back into the real world.
PS. Guy Martin liked Le Grand Véfour so much he bought it in 2011. And last summer saw the opening of Palazzo Maritati and Palazzo Muci in the historic town of Nardò, southern Italy. This hospitality concept is housed in two historic palazzi, transformed by Guy Martin into a contemporary art-filled guesthouse with ten beautiful rooms, but, no restaurant! “You still have to come to Paris to taste my cuisine,” he says.
Le Grand Véfour
17 rue de Beaujolais, 1st
Tel: +33 (0)1 42 96 56 27
Metro: Palais Royal Musée du Louvre,
Lunch €115-€315. A La Carte from €220-€300
Closed Saturday Sunday and from December 23rd-25th.
Open December 31st for special New Year’s Eve Dinnner (€750) and January 1st Lunch & Dinner
Lead photo credit : The dining room at Le Grand Véfour. ©Jérôme Mondière