There are chefs who have mastered the craft of cooking, chefs who have built a public brand that defines a region or exemplifies a cuisine; there are others who give to their community and as a result uplift those who call that community “home”; and there are those who push cooking in new and exciting directions. On rare occasions, there are chefs who do all of the above and more. Chef Marc Meneau was such a chef – a powerful personality who elevated the dining experience – a chef who lived excellence every day in his restaurant L’Esperance in Vezelay, France.
A small, historic community on the crest of a hill in the Burgundy stands tall as a village where thousands of worshipers and interested historians visited each year to pass through the threshold of its Benedictine monastery – The Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine built in 1120 A.D. – a house of worship where it is claimed rest some of the bones of Mary Magdalene. Walking up the cobblestone road that leads to the church and taking in the beauty of the French countryside is truly a spiritual experience. At the same time, on the outskirts of this religious mecca, sits another destination that for decades attracted worshipers of a different kind.
Vezelay is a centuries old village of less than 500 year-round residents, but throughout the year, visitors from around the world would make the trek to experience the spirituality of the area and to win a table reservation at Marc Meneau’s magnificent restaurant. Some would fly into France and make the final journey by car to break bread with friends and business clients at the Michelin 3-star L’Esperance, enjoy a memorable meal, and then fly home. It was this good.
Walking towards the entrance to L’Esperance – you could feel the stress of life leave and the anticipation of something unique and noteworthy about to happen. Chef Meneau’s wife, Francoise, might greet you at the door, as well as their dog that had free reign of much of the restaurant. A beautiful, petite gift shop on your left was reminiscent of stepping into a Cartier store in Paris, but in this case the product was not jewelry, but rather expensive wine, caviar, glassware, and reminders of your time visiting Marc Meneau’s contribution to the culinary arts.
The dining room was perfectly appointed with fresh flowers, the finest tabletop details, and magnificent views of the L’Esperance gardens. Many visitors would in fact be encouraged to walk through the gardens in between courses to take in its beauty and aid in digestion of the multiple courses to come.
As you walk through to your table you might pass young service staff hand wrapping house made caramels and chocolates, polishing silver, and nurturing the robust coffee beans that would eventually become a perfect espresso at the end of your meal.
As perfect as the dining room was – the environment was still light and comfortable. The L’Esperance experience was not pretentious at all, yet for those who make their livelihood with food – there was a reverence to this place that was quite unique.
If first impressions are truly lasting impressions then Meneau knew how to control them. While guests take in the view and passionately read the menu – the L’Esperance signature Cromesqui would arrive. Painstakingly prepared with foie gras passed through a fine mesh sieve until it was as smooth as silk, and added truffle and cognac – this mind blowing concoction was refrigerated, cut into precise cubes, coated in seasoned flour, and fried until crisp. When served the process of enjoying this amuse bouche came with instructions from your server. “Place it in your mouth, do not chew – allow it to melt in your mouth and attack your senses.” This single bite could be felt in your sinuses, on your palate, and in the process of coating your throat as it disappeared. This set the stage for what was to come.
Each course would be masterfully prepared and presented and flawless in execution. You would find yourself wanting more of each dish, but anxiously awaiting what would come next at the same time. This was dining as it could be; dining executed at the highest level. If you ever wondered why a 3-star Michelin experience was so special – you now knew.
A tour of the kitchen was to a food lover, the ultimate polish to a perfect meal. The kitchen, as you would expect, was pristine. Stainless, silver, and copper was accentuated by the natural light that flowed from the kitchen windows. Stations were set as per the same model that Escoffier had defined more than a century and a half before. Entremetier, Saucier, Poissonier, Garde Manger, Grillade, and Patissier were directed by the calm yet forceful voice of the Sous Chef/Expeditor as he called out orders in French. Everything was made fresh and from scratch – in fact, at the end of a service, the coolers at L’Esperance would likely be near empty –waiting for the early morning orders to arrive tomorrow.
Chefs and commis were in crisp whites and blue aprons. They were serious about their work and cognizant that the smallest detail was as important as the most complex. The experience that was the guest’s – began with this level of passion and commitment.
Meneau’s presence was always felt, even though he might be walking through the dining room visiting guests. He did not need to cook a dish to impact it’s flavor and presentation. This kitchen was the perfect example of a consummate team of professionals.
Meneau was never trained as a cook, yet his passion for food, for outstanding experiences, and for the significance of excellence allowed this self-taught study of the craft to rise to the culinary world’s highest perch.
For ten years, I had the distinct pleasure of sending student interns for a semester experience in France. An experience that included a stage in operations like L’Esperance. While not every student had the opportunity to work with Meneau, they did find themselves in Michelin restaurants from Paris to Sancerre. Every student knew of Meneau and what he represented, and he would often visit our home base in Entrains sur Nohain to chat with them about food, history, and the beauty of France.
Meneau was a world ambassador for French cooking and was treated as a celebrity wherever he would visit. He was commissioned to work with the producers of the movie “Vatel” featuring Gerard Depardieu as the chef who made the grand food presentations during the age of Louis the XIV. The food that you see in the movie was directed by Meneau. Sofia Coppola, in the movie: “Marie Antoinette, was surrounded by beautiful food created by Meneau and his team.
As a restaurateur – Meneau understood the challenges of being successful. Of earning a profit – he once told me: “Restaurant profit is found in the onion peel, not the onion, and in the lobster shell, not the lobster itself.” At one point Meneau suffered through the loss of a Michelin star, but- re-energized, he worked to gain it back and did so. Earning those stars is challenging, but keeping them is relentless.
On December 9, 2020 – Marc Meneau passed away at the age of 77 and the culinary world will miss him. His impact will not be lost as this chef has raised the bar and sits with a small cadre of exceptional culinarians as a benchmark that will continue to define the possibilities of great dining.
Rest in Peace – chef.
PLAN BETTER –TRAIN HARDER
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