Around 20 minutes by car from the ancient Roman city of Arles, Armand Arnal serves his plant-based cuisine in the rooms of a former farm and on a terrace shaded by plane trees and grapevines. And he’s done so very successfully. In 2009, La Chassagnette was the first organic restaurant in France to be awarded a Michelin star for its hyper-fresh creations, which distinctly enhance the natural flavor of each ingredient. We talked to the chef about the culinary inspiration offered by the authentic Provençal landscape, his garden-to-table philosophy and the problem concerning leaving things out in the French culinary tradition.
We are here in an expansive country garden. What is your philosophy at La Chassagnette?
The garden is the heart and soul of the restaurant. Our goal is to explore the possibilities that the country has in store for us. The soil in the Camargue is very salty, which means that not everything can grow and thrive here. For 15 years we have been trying to achieve the greatest possible diversity with the conditions that prevail. This is particularly successful because we have a lot of space at our disposal. Thanks to our rotating system, part of the land is always left dormant.
How do you live and work with this land?
My workday starts off with the gardeners. They hand over the vegetable, fruit and herbs, in other words, that which nature provides us every day of the year. Once I’ve gathered them, I head to the kitchen.
What plants grow wild in the region?
Mostly wild herbs and fennel. These are my favorite ingredients along with mangold and tomatoes.
Do you do a lot of experimenting?
Yes, we experiment with cultivation, but in the kitchen we try to leave things more or less as they are. We want to remain easy to understand and not alienate nature too much.
Your approach is very well-received. You’re the first organic restaurant in France to be awarded a star.
Yeah, that happened in 2009, two years after we opened. Ten years ago, organic food wasn’t very well-established in France yet, so this was really a big surprise. And we still had struggles ahead.
We didn’t cook the vegetables for that long, which many people had to get used to. We also used rice flour instead of wheat for the bread, because we only work with ingredients from the region. By doing so, we were committing a sacrilege.
How did people react?
I was dubbed the “gluten-free chef,” but it was really never my intention to leave anything out. I also don’t really want to be featured as a gluten-free restaurant in women’s magazines. “Free from” has a positive ring in English, whereas the French “sans” sounds like denying yourself or setting limitations. But this really is not what my philosophy is all about.
Are there also animal products on the menu?
Yes, last year we felt that a new twist would do us good, so we added a small farm to the garden. We now have 50 bee hives and keep a few sheep and chickens. However, we source or meat from local producers. Sometimes we have lamb, sometimes pigeon and, in the winter, we occasionally have pork. Otherwise the proteins we have are in the side dishes, where vegetables are always in the leading role. This is probably the biggest difference between us and other restaurants.
You also work with a combi oven from Rational. When and what do you use this for?
For basically everything. We use it to steam and cook as well as for sous-vide. Oh yeah, and we bake our bread with it as well.
Before coming to Arles in 2006, you used to work for Alain Ducasse, among others. How has your career developed?
My first exposure to cooking was in my parent’s kitchen. My mother, grandmother and great grandmother were all passionate cooks. I first started training as a confectioner, but then I realized that this limited me too much. After that, I went to New York where I worked together with Alain Ducasse as a consultant for a project about food in space. Just imagine, my food has already been to outer space!
That sounds exciting.
Yeah, I was in my mid-20s and it really was very exciting. But of course it had a significant impact on my personal CO2 footprint. Now I will be making regional organic food until the end of my days. (laughs)
In recent years Arles has increasingly evolved into an international cultural hub. After all, La Chassagnette belongs to Maja Hoffmann, who has made a very important contribution to this development. Among other things, she has commissioned Frank O. Gehry to design a large museum in Arles, the so-called Tower of Resources, which will open next year. What is it like to live here?
For me, it’s great. My driving motivation is to make the best of what nature gives me. At the same time, I also find it very interesting to work for Maja Hoffmann. Thanks to her foundation, she attracts many major artists to Arles. This gives me the opportunity to meet interesting people and also inspires me to think outside the box and push boundaries. Arles has a unique quality of light, a very special energy, as Vincent van Gogh himself discovered. This light really forces you to set things in motion. It’s not a place to just sit back and relax.