Gérald Passédat, pictured here at the MuCEM.
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Mission Marseille

Stephanie Curtis - December 2013

Gérald Passédat is on a one-man crusade to prove that his beloved hometown is about more than bouillabaisse.

If any city merits the title “Capital of the Mediterranean,” it is Marseille, and if any chef seems apt to take up the sceptre as its culinary king, it is the Mediterranean Gérald Passédat. For the moment, the city is bathing in the limelight of its role as European Capital of Culture 2013, with Passédat’s signature on several of the year’s culinary highlights.

This pure-blood Marseillais was born and raised on a wave-washed promontory overlooking the Mediterranean, site of the family restaurant, Le Petit Nice-Passédat, which attained “star” status in 2008 when it was awarded a third star from Michelin. The first and only chef in France’s oldest city to attain this supreme rating, Passédat could have easily just basked in the glory of his consecration, an “exception” in a culinary landscape (some detractors say a culinary desert!) too easily summed up in one dish—bouillabaisse. Instead, he’s using his new notoriety to spearhead a movement aimed at improving the quality and image of the local culinary offerings. “La cuisine, isn’t it this that unites us all around this sea?” asks Passédat. His vision for Marseille is to make it the creative hub of Mediterranean cuisine.

At 53, this charismatic figure with a tough-guy, cor­sair face, tempered by a warm, timid smile, helped found Gour­méd­iterranée, an association of over 40 local chefs and restaurant owners whose goal is to promote cuisine and ingredients “made in Marseille.” He has spent over two years creating the restaurants of the recently inaugurated Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCEM). This audacious four-story structure, with an outer skin of lace-like concrete that lets the sun come dappling in, is a poetic and powerful work by another charismatic local figure, architect Rudy Ricciotti, who immediately envisioned Passédat for the restaurants.

The panoramic windows of La Table, one of the museum’s three restaurants, look out on Marseille’s harbor, where Passédat’s maternal grandfather was a dockworker. And just beyond is the vast expanse of blue sea that Passédat calls his “potager”—his kitchen garden—source of 65 different varieties of fish, brought directly from local fishermen’s nets to his restaurants. “I’m emphasizing the idea of the seasonality of fish—a concept that’s been nearly lost—and reintroducing forgotten or unknown species of fish.” Varieties such as girelle, liche, moustelle, and pelamide (a cousin of tuna) are regularly featured on the menu at La Table, as at Le Petit Nice. The chef’s new website devotes colorful tabs to these varieties, and his first cookbook, Des Abysses à la Lumière (a title inspired by his desire to bring to light and to the plate what he calls “forgotten fish”), published last month, is an ode to the Mediterranean.

Passédat’s philosophy is to let natural flavors and textures dominate—clean, candid, and digestible—using this wealth of ingredients from the sea and the rugged back country of Provence. He grew up in the fragrant kitchens of Le Petit Nice, a dreamy white villa perched above the waves, bought by Passédat’s paternal grandfather, Germain, in 1917. The excellent cuisine, the site, and the charm of Germain’s wife, Lucie, an opera singer, quickly made Le Petit Nice a destination for the stars of that time. At a young age, Gerald had already set his goal, thanks to a “nage des langoustines,” savored at Alain Chapel’s Michelin three-star restaurant near Lyon, where he understood the emotion that fine cuisine and the beauty of rigorous plating could produce. “I was 12 years old, and decided then and there that I would have three stars.” He perfected his art with some of France’s great chefs, notably Michel Guérard in Eugénie-les-Bains, and the Troisgros brothers in Roanne, before taking over the kitchens of Le Petit Nice from his father, Jean-Paul, in 2000.

Another determining experience was a visit to New York City at the age of 18. “I met Andy Warhol and Lou Reed at Studio 54, but the thing that struck me most were the docks on the Hudson,” remembers Passédat. “They reminded me of the docks of my hometown and of their potential to become great. I’ve always believed in Marseille.” Now, more than 30 years later, he sees the profile of his city evolving.

The MuCEM, symbol of the city’s new dynamism, is situated between the old port and the dock area, long inaccessible to the public, like a hyphen connecting the two. Passédat’s project is called the Mole Passédat (literally Passédat’s pier). “When the press announced that I’d been chosen to create the museum’s restaurants, everyone said, ‘Passédat is opening a gastronomic restaurant in the MuCEM.’ But that’s not my goal,” he explains. “I want my cuisine here to be accessible to a larger public and to echo the theme of the site.” It’s a cuisine that is popular and “gourmande,” for example, carpaccio of octopus with herbs, cucumber, and ginger, or a grilled loup à l’antiboise with tomatoes, lemon, and olive oil, and socca (a chickpea flour crêpe) served at La Table, the most upscale of the three restaurants. On the other side of the bar, in the same clean, white, and light wood decor, is La Cuisine, a table d’hôte–style, semi self-service restaurant looking onto the large open kitchen bordered by a buffet of cold mezze-style dishes.

Downstairs on the ground level, next to the 17th century Fort Saint Jean, is the casual Le Café du Môle, and outside, a take-away food kiosk. Adjacent to this, a Mediterranean herb and vegetable garden, source of ingredients for the cook­ing school scheduled to open at a later date, looks out on the port where Greek sailors first landed over 2,600 years ago, bringing ashore their vines and olives, the roots of this region’s cuisine and culture, a vibrant tribute by a 21st century chef to the past and future of this ancient Mediterranean port.