“Sauce creates the depth of a dish, like a perfume does to a person,” says chef Arnaud Donckele, presiding over the dining room at La Vague d’Or, his restaurant at the Cheval Blanc hotel in St. Tropez. He’s a soft-spoken voice in the world of haute cuisine, but when he speaks up, it matters.
A reservation at La Vague d’Or is the most difficult one to secure on the French Riviera. (It’s also a serious slog to book a table at Plénitude, his restaurant at the Cheval Blanc hotel in Paris.) He poetically describes his Paris restaurant as “porcelain, and St. Tropez is pottery.” And yet a magnificent dinner I enjoyed recently proved that it’s well worth moving heaven and earth to eat there.
On a breezy summer night, Donckele greeted our table of six in the dining room. He had invited me, along with five of France’s most influential food writers, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of The Michelin Guide’s awarding three stars to La Vague d’Or.
Before the distractingly good food arrived, the Normandy native with a warm smile, the kind eyes of a child, and a messy mane of curly hair came out to welcome us. He was particularly excited for us to try a feuilletée (puff pastry) made of grand cru chocolate.
“We’ve been working on this dessert for more than a year,” said Donckele. “We couldn’t get the feuilletée fine enough in Paris, but we eventually achieved what we wanted in St. Tropez, I think because of the humidity in the sea air.”
Donckele is a French chef like no other. He doesn’t have a groomed media personality like the others of his distinction, simply because notoriety doesn’t interest him. You won’t see him endorsing a packet of ham in a supermarket or a range of cookware on Instagram.
In fact, sauces are Donckele’s passion. “Many chefs describe themselves as couturiers,” he explained in an interview with The Michelin Guide. “As I grow older, I feel more and more like a saucier. When I create a dish, I first imagine its sauce. This is why I’ve established a method of classifying them, a lexicon of texture: warm emulsions, veloutés, velours…. Then I define their temperament—for example, my velouté [is] ‘an anise-flavored dream.’ Every sauce has its own character and personality.”
You won’t see him endorsing a packet of ham in a supermarket or a range of cookware on Instagram.
After graduating from the prestigious École Grégoire-Ferrandi, in Paris, Donckele apprenticed at Gourmand Prunier and then joined the team of chef Michel Guérard at Les Prés d’Eugénie, in Eugénie-les-Bains. There, in one of his proudest moments, he became chef saucier at the age of 21. He’s since invented more than 40 sauces, and for him, they’re the most vital element of French cooking.
The arrival of an exquisite assortment of hors d’oeuvres stopped our conversation. There were zucchini flowers pressed into fragile, translucent golden wafers, rouget filets topped with amber orbs of tangy escabeche gelée, and fresh filleted anchovies. Each dish induced the same joy as seeing the first of the summer’s fireflies.
Our wonderment continued to grow. Donckele delights in transforming humble Mediterranean fish, including girelle (the bony, iridescent rainbow wrasse) and bécasse de mer (longspine snipefish) into exquisitely refined courses. They are accompanied by vegetables sourced from an organic garden that occupies an acre and a half of prime Côte d’Azur real estate.
Here, freshly caught fish is the ultimate luxury, and that idea was driven home by a nacreous John Dory filet garnished with oysters, baby clams, and a round yellow zucchini cooked with seaweed. Finished with abalone bouillon and a salsa verde made with olive oil and lemon, it was so profound that our loquacious group fell silent.
Afterwards, as we digested, the elegant Parisienne to my right declared it to be “quite simply, an exquisite meal.” It roused us from the collective and very companionable reverie brought on by Donckele’s gastronomic pointillism.
The following afternoon, as I returned home to Uzès on the train, I stared out at the wave-tufted Mediterranean through a screen of pine trees. It struck me that the cooking of Donckele may be the culinary equivalent of the poetry of Shelley or Lord Byron. No superfluous noise-making required.
Alexander Lobrano is a Writer at Large at AIR MAIL. His latest book is the gastronomic coming-of-age story My Place at the Table: A Recipe for a Delicious Life in Paris
La Vague d’Or, Cheval Blanc St-Tropez, Plage de la Bouillabaisse, St. Tropez, France, Tel. (33) 04.94.55.91.00, dinner only, May–October, chevalblanc.com