Elegance, purity and determination. These three words summarize the interview with the Monte-Carlo Blue Bay Chef, Marcel Ravin. A man deeply anchored in his childhood roots and values. Sharing his cuisine with his guests is like a communion, an initiation, a ceremonial if you like. Simplicity and conviviality are essential here. But it is also about living a singular adventure in quest of new flavours, with a concept of a gastronomy based on respect. Respect for nature, local products, and for the health of those who savour them. No space for extravagant experiences favouring chemistry over cooking.
On the other hand, there is always that audacity, marrying unsuspected flavours and creating unique dishes no one would have imagined. This attitude has certainly earned Marcel Ravin a reputation of a most gifted chef in his generation and two macaroons in the Michelin guide.
The Monte-Carlo Blue Bay restaurant reopens for the New Year in a new setting after a major facelift. This is a living space with a restaurant within a restaurant inviting for unique artistic exchanges. This place made in the likeness of its chef is now named “Blue Bay by Marcel Ravin”.
Hello Monaco: What were the most remarkable moments of your career?
Marcel Ravin: The most memorable times are associated with my apprenticeship back at home, in Martinique. I was trained according to the same standards as in mainland France with the purpose of getting acquainted with the great French gastronomy. We were four young people alternating one week of school and two weeks at work. You were supposed to grasp all the basics before even hoping to go into the kitchen. It was all about knowing the right gestures, how to cut meat, to clean fish or peel vegetables. Many were discouraged. We were not allowed to go to the kitchen, but confined to the reserves… Two weeks later, I was the only one whom the teacher summoned witnessing my determination: “Ok young man, you can now go upstairs”. It was already a great victory.
HM: And prior to that, when you were little, were you ever taught to cook in the family?
MR: I followed in my grandmother’s footsteps. She meant a lot to me. She literally helped me in taking my first steps when I was refusing to walk after a fall. With great patience, she put me back on my feet until I was able to pursue things on my own. My daughter also bears her first name, Ivanesse. She taught me such essential values as perseverance and selflessness. I often think of my grandmother when I struggle with creating, mixing flavours. She is a kind of guardian angel for me. It’s as if she were blowing warm air making me feel good, feel light. Making my touch more delicate…
HM: Do you remember your very first dish?
MR: Of course… I was 14 and I had to cook for my brother and sisters. I simmered a chicken fricassee with pasta shells, garnished with onions, chilli and cane sugar. I wanted to impress my mother. Pampered with love, this dish was a great success.
HM: Being a chef is a job but also a passion. What does that mean to you?
MR: I don’t perceive it as a job. I’m experiencing what I’ve always wanted to experience. This is more of a passion than a job, even if I make my living with it. Passion is violent, upsetting, making us happy or sometimes sad, but it does us a lot of good. What’s devastating is those pests keeping you away from your focus. What we want above all is to be creative. And to achieve this, you need serenity.
HM: Talking about “pests”, you have just been a victim of some. You were denied entry to the great chefs dinner you were invited to by the French President, Emmanuel Macron. How do you feel about it?
MR: This was a painful experience. No one can quite understand it without having gone through it. The debate is not whether or not we responded to the invitation. Others who failed to were still there. What is more peculiar is that friends who were at the table had not realized I was absent. When you show up at the entrance in your white jacket with the Legion of Honor distinction, I would say it also requires a minimum of discernment on the part of the security. This is a case of sheer racism understandable only for those who had experienced it. I was unhappy since initially I was telling myself: “My work is finally recognized after so many years”. I was supposed to be among the chefs representing French gastronomy, and as a Frenchman I was proud to. Instead, I was kept away from being there!
HM: How do your origins influence your cuisine?
MR: I inherited a culture totally inspired by a mélange. It’s in my DNA. Over time I learnt where I came from and who I was. I did thorough work understanding how to write my gastronomy story. I’d encourage all young people from the Antilles or Africa not to deny their culture and identity. You have to have the audacity of putting ancestral flavours centre stage. I think I am among those having raised awareness in this matter. We want to be the pathfinders.
HM: How do you create a new dish? Is it the idea or the product that guides your inspiration?
MR: It is the product that guides me. I have my favourite market and I believe in the living world. For me, a tomato is a living thing (there are some forty varieties of them in my vegetable garden). I anticipate its ripeness, touching it, biting into it and then trying to transcend it into a dish.
HM: So you have your own vegetable garden…
MR: Yes, right here at the hotel. 250 square metres where I grow my vegetables. I learned it with my grandmother… Every family in Martinique has this kind of Creole garden. It serves as a pantry when you can pick fruit, vegetables and
herbs… My grandmother knew how to read nature. She knew what to plant and when. She smoked a pipe and grew her own tobacco. We also had cocoa and coffee plants. We were waiting for the best time to collect and roast seeds. I still sense those flavours…
Here we have sweet potatoes, vegetables and herbs of all kinds… There was also a wonderful tree here, a moringa. When my father passed away, I left Martinique with a few seeds which grew here incredibly. Unfortunately, my tree of life has been uprooted since it somewhat obscured the view from the breakfast room. It was supposed to be replanted elsewhere but I’m still waiting…
HM: I think that part of your talent comes from this earthly upbringing…
MR: Absolutely so. I am imbibed by this idea of sharing. I always tell the boys in the kitchen: “If you have no desire to share, no desire to convey an emotion, there is no good dish”. You have to take the guests on a journey, surprise them, transport them. What I wish is for them to feel vibrations, a bit like listening to a philharmonic orchestra.
HM: Is there a vital, decisive gesture about the kitchen?
MR: It’s a touch! I touch the material, the products, the plants, the earth, the table, my cutting board, men and women I work with by taking their hands. Touch transmits energy.
HM: What do you like to cook most? The meat? The fish?
MR: It’s all about the terroir. You must not give in to fashion. The best may come from things around us. It is all about the Mediterranean here. The fish come from the local fishing. The dishes get changed around, there is no way of knowing which ones will be on the menu of the day… We use poultry from a farm near Nice, calves and pigeons from Piedmont… These days I am not just happy with seducing. My cuisine is what it is. We take it and do what we want with it. Take it as you might…
HM: Is there a favourite dish?
MR: There is a dish that often comes up on the menu, it is our clients’ favourite. I’ve seen people cry while savouring it, including my own sister. She burst into tears when she came to taste my cuisine. I named it “The Monte-Carlo Egg” since that’s where it was created. Cassava, maracujá (passion fruit), truffle. We are dealing with a combination of things that have nothing to do with each other and end up being complementary. It is often said that extremes are attracted. Cassava is considered a poor man’s vegetable, truffles a luxury product… It’s one of my first “daring” dishes. Our guests are overwhelmed and moved every time they taste it.
HM: Is there an element of chance in the kitchen?
MR: Yes. Since you have to be daring, there is always an element of chance. The outcome is never known in advance. We don’t do any testing prior to changing our menus. I believe that you just have to let your soul speak. This is your sixth sense.
HM: How does a great chef stand out from just a good cook?
MR: You have to respect your guests. There will be no strawberries just because it’s Valentine’s Day! I refuse to meet people’s expectations. Alain Ducasse is talking about “naturalness”. For me, the terroir is essential. We are simply mediators guaranteeing our guests’ well-being. Maybe that’s what being a great leader is. Not just a technician!
HM: What does the Principality represent for you?
MR: Monaco is the place where everything is possible. The best compliment I ever received was from Prince Albert as he was leaving the table: “Chef, I hope you stay with us for a long time”. And I answered: “Your Highness, I will stay as long as the Principality wants me” and that has been 18 years. I feel like living in a country where I’m truly valued.
HM: Do you have a dream?
MR: Yes, having total freedom of expression without constraints. I don’t like feeling oppressed or indebted for anything. My dream is that this restaurant becomes really mine and that I invest myself without any accountability, letting time prove its success.