He wears a neatly trimmed moustache and goatee. A beard, too, if he is in the mood. The hair is a little dishevelled and it alludes to a laid-back lifestyle. In the winter months Arnaud Donckele takes to his Harley Davidson and roams the French Riviera in the Mediterranean. Throw a bandana on his head and he could pass off as a Hells Angels full-patch.
Donckele rides the Côte d’Azur in search of inspiration. In the 39-year-old’s world, he is a poet who darts in and out of farms and orchards to spark his creative instincts. The Rouen native is France’s celebrated chef, and from April to October he creates poetry in his La Vague d’or restaurant at the Résidence de la Pinède hotel in St Tropez. His brilliance paid off in 2013 when he became the youngest Michelin three-star chef.
In handing the Frenchman the accolade, Michelin Guide’s international director Michael Ellis says Donckele’s fish dishes are highly original as he seeks out local producers for the highest quality ingredients. Cuisine, Ellis adds, must recount the history of the region.
Donckele is a wizard in this trade and, like an alchemist, conjures the magic out of the treasures from the French Riviera hinterland and the cobalt blue Mediterranean waters. “My aim is to create a culinary journey that is both bucolic and elegant, grounded in the fantastic produce that the Mediterranean has to offer,” he tells The Peak in St Tropez. “The art of cooking is knowing how to reveal flavours, and to then fittingly associate them in order to further amplify them — as with perfumes or fragrances.”
Magic through the Taste Buds
The Peak dined on his art at the invitation of Kiran Haslam, marketing director of Princess Yachts International, and it was an adventure to an epicurean ballet of eight acts. The evening was an intriguing performance and like a regisseur, Thierry di Tullio, maître d’ and Donkele’s close friend, narrates his buddy’s haute cuisine with stories of the flavours of the Riviera as each course arrives.
A heavy oval-shaped marble first took centre stage with a yellowtail and spider crab marinated in lemon zest. Alongside, tomally ice cream and sauce, thyme leaves, and the Riviera’s freshest vegetables and herbs played in harmony to accentuate the flavours.
Throughout the four-hour meal that began at eight in the evening, the Donckele cast of leerfish, lobsters, prawns, turbo, codfish and sea bass assaulted the senses with their collective high notes. It was as much a visual treat as it was a palate sensation. To sit at Donckele’s table of sea meat, sauces and fresh vegetables is to watch and taste poetry in motion.
His creations are a rustic journey through the Mediterranean that gives diners a peek into St Tropez and the Provence region. Even La Vague d’Or’s wine list favours local producers from the Côtes de Provence, Bandol and the wider southern France region.
“The creation of a dish is something purely instinctive,” says the Michelin three-star chef. “It is inspired and tells the story of a region, a person, an encounter. The menus are constructed as a crescendo, with each dish adding an additional layer of surprise.
“Beyond the cuisine, it is the alchemy that we are able to create together with Thierry, who allows us to deliver a real ‘experience’ to the diner. It is the storytelling about our craft, about the inspiration for a given dish that conveys our passion and creates that special ‘magic’.”
Born and Bred
Donckele’s rise in haute cuisine was no accident. He grew up in his grandparents’ farm in “total autarky” until the age of 11, before joining his father’s catering business. The close interaction with nature and food in his formative years, says the Frenchman, inspired his passion for gastronomy.
“My dad was a caterer who had a passion for cuisine and fascination for famous chefs,” explains the father of a five-year-old girl. “I grew up reading cook books and biographies on famous chefs like Roger Vergé, Alain Chapel and the Troisgros saga.
“My childhood memories take me back to the family vegetable garden and its authentic produce, which continue to inspire my work today.”
He eventually learnt his craft under the watchful eyes of French masters Michel Guérard, Alain Ducasse and Jean-Louis Nomicos. Each one in a different way, says Donckele, played a major role in shaping the chef and person he is today.
Heaping praises on his mentors, the French maestro says: “Guerard with his poetic, bucolic and elegant cuisine, Ducasse with his philosophy and love of produce, while with Nomicos it allowed me to witness how a culinary identity is shaped.”
Donckele arrived at La Vague d’Or in 2005 and within three years collected four toques from prestigious restaurant guide Gault et Millau, receiving a fifth four years ago. In 2010, Michelin honoured him with two stars and a third three years later.
His achievement in 2013 helped put France back on top of the world of fine dining, ahead of Japan, in terms of the total number of three-star chefs each country had. The battle between the two nations has been neck and neck for decades, but Donckele dismisses the comparison and says France has always been proudly represented in the Michelin guide.
But there is no easy route to success in haute cuisine, Donckele points out, and his secret at St Tropez was good old fashion hard work.
“Given carte blanche upon my arrival at La Vague d’Or, I devoted my creative freedom to explore the Provence countryside. I keep in touch with chefs who, be it by the sea or in the hinterlands, explore the richness of local produce and aim to extract their quintessence.
“Achieving the three Michelin stars and five Gault et Millau toques involved a lot of hard work and staying very focused and close to my kitchen and my vision. I could not have done it without the support of my incredible team, in the kitchen and in the dining room.”
In the winter months from November to April the restaurant is shut and Donckele spends time with his wife, daughter and close friends. But he is driven to be better than what he is now.
“Today, my wonderful wife is the source of inspiration in my life and my work, and what continues to inspire me day after day is to become a great chef one day,” he says.