Veyrat Is Back
Sylvie Bigar - January/February 2014
Manigod, France—André Soltner lived in the building that housed Lutèce. Daniel Boulud perches one flight above Daniel. And since it opened last September, Marc Veyrat, 63, has chosen to live inside La Maison des Bois, his new restaurant high up in the French Alps.
After his devastating 2006 ski accident, some critics rushed to bury the multistarred chef, as famous for his 20 out of 20 in the Gault-Millau guide as for his brash persona. For three years, he struggled to keep his two restaurants open, but in 2009, still in terrible pain, he closed up shop. There were reasons to believe that he would never cook again.
Countless operations, 13 months in a wheelchair, and four years on crutches have changed the man. Gone are the molecular follies and the white marble floor. His talent and his trademark black hat remain.
At the new restaurant, the hats are part of the decor: one next to a candelabra in a glass case outside, and a pile of them by the entrance. “I’m not about to lose it,” he said one recent Sunday, “It’s a personal homage to my grandfather, the goat shepherd who hid blueberries in his hat when he picked me up from school.”
Veyrat has come home. La Maison des Bois sits at 5,400 feet on the Alpine pasture where his family’s herds once spent the summers. It’s almost a village: Near the restaurant lies a chapel and a glass fence featuring etched Veyrat family portraits. Farther up are smaller wood constructions hiding luxurious guest rooms and a spa. Farther still, a vegetable garden, salmon and crayfish basins, beehives, and a 60 chicken coop. Boulders, logs, and wild herbs surround the chef’s lair, but they also appear in the decor and, more important, on the plate.
Wide reclaimed wooden planks and floor-to-ceiling windows abound in the three-level chalet. Thanks to antique tiles, traditional wooden dressers, and old cowbells, Veyrat has created a classic mountain retreat. Glass slits in the floor reveal a cheese cave and the stone cellar where diners browse and pick their own wine bottle. A Chambertin Grand Cru, perhaps, or a 2002 Echézaux? How about a local Haute-Savoie wine instead?
“My cuisine has evolved with me,” says Veyrat. “I want it to be pastoral, mineral, and close to nature.”
Amuses are served among sheep skins in the bucolic salon on the first floor. A heavy-duty crockpot, kept warm in the 23-foot-tall cathedral fireplace, produces a silky pumpkin velouté in which ravioli, crafted with cheese dough and stuffed with bacon, melt slowly, leaving a smoky tear. Squares of bubbly onion/Reblochon tart celebrate the local cheese; a plank as a tray lends a rustic touch to decidedly non-rustic foie gras and fig sliders.
The chef leads the way up the stairs to the dining room, points to a glass-walled kitchen and, across from the tables, his impeccable bedroom and bathroom.
At Veyrat’s, the front- and back-of-the-house demarcation line is constantly blurred. Cooks serve the food. “That way, if asked, they can really talk about a dish,” while the master plays host, then waiter, then chef as he explains his vision of a dish before he starts buttering a diner’s bread. “This dark bread comes from the valley, and my cousin makes the butter,” he explains. “I only work with purveyors who respect humanity and the earth.”
Topped with corn coulis, an egg cooked in clay at low temperature gets a shot of oxalis juice, at the table, via a syringe. And if you wonder what gives the companion cracker its impossible crunch, it’s actually ground eggshell.
Sautéed frog’s legs rest on a nest of green moss, and a piece of tree bark supports a bright green dip made of polypode (a sort of fern) coulis; tender and delicately nutty, a fillet of fera (a European whitefish) lies on a bed of wild spinach, awaiting a soft brushing of bitterness in the form of a café au lait sauce. Strands of spaghetti hang above a small bowl and, made without egg or flour, dissolve into the vegetable bouillon as a young cook pours the warm liquid over the “pasta.” Sipping the broth, redolent of woodsy mushrooms with hints of cheese, one is literally drinking the landscape.
Local comfort food makes an appearance as Veyrat reinterprets tartiflette, a potato gratin with Reblochon cheese, onions, and bacon. His version, as light as a soufflé, comes in a milk carton that reads “21st Century tartiflette.”
Finally, as service slows, the chef sits down to talk about his new foundation. “Two goals,” he announces, “promote organic and natural ingredients, and transmit my craft to the children and the young cooks who come to stage with us.”
The first batch, junior cooks from Mexico, Japan, China, and the United States, finish polishing the kitchen. Then they pause, perhaps adjusting to the thin mountain air, and join the diners one last time, to watch the mesmerizing flow of the clouds.