Meeting with Claire Vallée, chef of the first starred vegan restaurant in the world

Claire Vallée is the chef-owner of the restaurant ONA (for Origine Non Animale) located in Arès in Gironde, near the Bassin d'Arcachon. The restaurant offers an entirely vegan menu and became in January 2021 the first vegan restaurant in the world to obtain a star in the Michelin Guide. Only a few days after receiving this award, so coveted by chefs from all over the world, we went to meet this committed chef to discuss her cuisine and her philosophy. : Hello and congratulations for this star! Could you introduce us to your restaurant and the cuisine you offer?

Claire Vallée : Thank you! ONA (External link) is an organic and vegan restaurant. We offer a seasonal, local and 100% vegetal cuisine.we prefer products that are grown within close range of the restaurant and change the menu each season. For that, we always consult the producers to know the products that they can propose to us in order to establish seasonal dishes. No tomato menu in January! Offering an entirely vegan restaurant in the southwest of France, a region whose specialties are often based on seafood or duck, is a daring gamble! Where did you get this desire to propose a vegan cuisine?

CV: I wanted to do something different that would fit with my convictions, it was important to give meaning to my work while respecting my values. It had been a while that I was turning around this plant and did not know how to express it. I trained in restaurants as a chef where meat and fish had to be predominant in the dishes. I had some opportunities to create vegan dishes but not enough and that's why I created ONA, to express myself fully in what I had to say. : How do you build a gastronomic menu in 7 dishes 100% vegetal, which products inspire you?

C.V.: My menus are often experiments. It can be a return from a trip abroad, where I would have discovered spices, but also trips to France, I offered for example a menu entirely dedicated to Brittany. They can also be linked to a childhood memory, as for example my menu on the Drôme Provençale where I grew up. For this menu, I looked for all the markers of the Drôme Provençale: walnuts, olive oil, orange blossom... In this case, it was a menu offered in July and August in order to be able to use the fruits of the orchards like apricots. I also sometimes create a menu around a single product if I really like a seasonal product. For example, if I create a menu around tomatoes, because it's the season and we're in the best tomato season, we'll work with all the varieties of tomatoes and we'll use them in savory and sweet dishes, soups, textures... and we'll add other vegetables and other products to coat the whole. But the tomato will be our star ingredient! : Where does this inspiration come from ?

C.V. Creating a menu always starts with the producers: we look at what we can get at that time of year, we talk about it with them. Then I do a debriefing in the kitchen and in the dining room, everyone together. I talk to them about a theme, ask them what it inspires them and then we start brainstorming, everyone says what they think about it, what the theme evokes to them. From that, I build the menu with the team, we test it, see what works, what doesn't, what's missing in the plate, what's missing in taste so that it's more striking.

__* : You were talking about the dining room, do the waiters have a particular speech to help explain your cooking to the customers not necessarily informed about veganism ?

C.V. Absolutely. We explain the dishes, completely in general. If we don't have time to explain everything in detail but there are questions, I come and answer them. I have a lot of interaction with the customers, thanks to the kitchen pass that is open to the room and where I am always, so they can come and ask me questions, they love to chat - that's what I wanted to keep in my restaurant. I think 95% of my clientele is not vegan, it's really tiny. The customers are foodies, if at the beginning people came with curiosity, we are more anchored today so they come for the gastronomy as such. I like being able to exchange with them. What is your relationship with French gastronomy in general?

C.V. Of course, there are classics that we revisit, like meringues for example. There are elements of French gastronomy that we already use in the vegetable world, like making macaroons, fruit jellies, ganaches. There is already a base that is not animal-based. But I also look for other cooking methods, and create a fusion cuisine thanks to my travels around the world which will allow me to discover, for example, other cooking methods. There may be things in French gastronomy that are basically meaty, but that we can reproduce with our technique. In fact, having the basics in this cuisine, and then acquiring the technique, allows us to go further in the vegetable field and to create things. : In addition to your star, you have received a green star, a sign of your environmental commitment. How do you work with your producers and suppliers?

C.V. I work with products that are grown within close range and they are delivered to the restaurant, but I also go and look for them because I always have discoveries to make, so I like to go and see where they are and talk to my suppliers. We have a lot of suppliers, it requires real logistics. Some restaurants work with only one supplier, I prefer to have several, it's my personal preference. The producers are important players in our ecosystem, they allow us to have a diversity of products and to enrich ourselves, just by the contact and the dialogue with them. It's a real chance and an advantage to be able to talk directly with the producers, it allows us to know what we have on our plate and to be able to talk about it to our customers: we know the products, we know the producers, we know how they were cultivated and that changes everything, it's a real added value. Was the goal to get a star?

C.V. No, not at all. It was already incredible just to open my restaurant since I didn't have any financing, so it was already incredible to be able to open it. We opened the restaurant and we had people right away, so we were caught up in the influence of this success. After that, the guides arrived, so we started to think about the star: when you start to enter the guides, you ask yourself questions. We adapt, we listen to them because they also suggest changes. We listen to the professionals, to the feedback from the clients... All this, we feed ourselves, it is important to listen to the critics. : After obtaining this star, what are your objectives for 2021 ?

C.V. The objective, of course, is to reopen the restaurants in France. We know now that we will have a lot of people, and we are going to organize ourselves so that we don't lose quality and maintain the flow. We can't wait to please our customers again and ourselves because we can't wait to cook!