Jim Poris / April 2000
Food Arts presents the April 2000 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Roger Vergé, the executive chef/maestro of Moulin de Mougins and inspiring master tutor to legions of chefs who passed their haute exams in his Provençal kitchen just outside of Cannes. As Sundance Kid to Paul Bocuse's Butch Cassidy, Vergé, with business panache and sunny personality in tow, slapped a jet-setting face onto a profession sleepily content with its embrace of anonymous drudgery.
Just as his meteoric rise to Michelin three-star stature in the 1970s flung open the window of bright Provençal flavors for the world to emulate, Vergé also blazed the way for multifaceted, entrepreneurial chef/owners. Building on his fiefdom at Mougins—where he started Le Moulin in 1969 (now with just one star from Michelin), added the homier L'Amandier de Mougins in 1977, founded a cooking school, converted a 12th-century olive oil warehouse into a wine emporium, and developed a Provençal food products line—he acquired a quiver of consultancies and, sacré bleu, audaciously took serious French food to Mickey Mouse-ville with a restaurant at Disney's Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida (with Bocuse and Gaston Lenôtre). Even now, as he turns 70 this month, Vergé is planning a Provençal/Tuscan restaurant called Medi to open this fall in New York City's Rockefeller Center.
"As long as you're involved in projects, you're still young," Vergé says, smiling through his wickedly white mountache.
"He was always ambitious and understood that because he was involved in communicating cuisine, his business couldn't just stop with his restaurant," notes Daniel Boulud, one of the many seedlings—including Alain Ducasse, David Bouley, Jacques Chibois, Hubert Keller, Jacques Maximin, Michel Richard, Bruno Tison, and Eckart Witzigmann—cultivated by Vergé.
Dreams of travel, airplanes, and big-game hunting sustained Vergé as a boy growing up in Commentry in central France. Funny how things turn out: after his nascent culinary steps at La Tour d'Argent and the Plaza Athénée in Paris, he decamped for Casablanca and Algiers before settling from 1956-60 in Nairobi, Kenya, from where he set up foodservice operations for 16 African airports. "So you see, all my childhood dreams came true: I was involved with airplanes in the land of big game, indulging my hobby of food," he once told a British journalist.
This Kerouac of a chef stayed on the road through most of the '60s, summering as the chef of Le Club in Cavalière on the Côte d'Azur, wintering in Jamaica setting up hotel kitchens, and stopping for a fortnight at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, where he headed the Games' catering arm.
Then came Moulin de Mougins, which settled his down, for a while anyway. But Vergé needs action. "I can cook for five people or 6,000, it doesn't matter," he says, "and I've got a facility to adapt to products wherever I am." Buckle your seat belts.