Three weeks ago, my partner and I had the best meal of our lives. We had made the pilgrimage to Cancale, France, specifically to dine at the Relais Gourmand Olivier Roellinger, the only restaurant in Brittany to be awarded three-Michelin stars (the food world's highest honor).
At the first bite of each of eight courses we closed our eyes in reverent silence, trying to work out what, exactly, we were tasting. There was lobster with cocoa, chili pepper and lime seed oil. Lamb with tamarind. Poached pears in curried cream. It was pleasantly disorienting, like being momentarily lost in a foreign city and regaining one's bearings at the sight of a familiar landmark.
It was a meal so unusual and exquisite we almost wept. We promised ourselves to return year after year after year.
“It’s not accurate to describe me as a French chef. Above all I am a chef of the sea. The cuisine of the sea has never had borders.”
Just last week, we learned we would never have the chance. Roellinger, who worked twenty-six years to earn his three Michelin stars, had decided to hand them back and close his restaurant. The French food media was stunned. Imagine De Niro announcing he's giving up his Oscars; in France, this is the equivalent. Roellinger, only 53, is a softspoken culinary hero whose personal legend looms as large as his professional reputation.
In a statement announcing that Relais Gourmand O. Roellinger would close its doors on 14 December, he explained: "After twenty-six happy years behind my ovens, my physical condition no longer permits me to do two services every day … and it's not my nature to make others work in my name for very long."
I think it came down to a simple palindrome: success is getting in the way of who he is, and it's who he is that led to his success. Roellinger has always been an outsider in the world of haute French cuisine. Born in a sea merchant's house in Cancale, he was studying for a degree in the sciences when an attack by a crowbar-wielding gang left him in a coma, then confined to a wheelchair for two years. Weekend dinner parties organized to lift his spirits led him to see cooking as a more fulfilling pursuit. He changed careers, and vowed to spend the rest of his newly-reclaimed life enjoying it.
In 1982, Roellinger saved the sea merchant's house from foreclosure by opening a table d'hôte (prix fixe restaurant) inside. Everyone thought he was crazy to attempt haute cuisine in a land known for simple fare such as crepes and oysters on the half-shell, but within two years his intricately spiced, comfortably priced cuisine earned him his first Michelin star. A second followed in 1988.
It was a long haul to the third. Some say the Michelin judges, big on diplomas, didn't quite know what to do with a chef with just two years of cooking school and a few internships under his belt. In the meantime, along with his wife of 26 years, Jane, he opened two inns (one housing a more informal bistro), a compound of luxury cottages and a salon de thé. A spice boutique and cooking school now complete the "Maisons de Bricourt" armada.
Eight days before Roellinger made his announcement, I had the chance to sit down with him in Cancale to discuss his history and love of cuisine. At the time, there was no hint whatsoever of the shakeup to come.
"Growing up Malouin," he told me, referring to natives of the St. Malo region where Cancale is located, "You don't play cowboys and Indians. You play pirate captains." This heritage has so influenced his cuisine that Roellinger is often referred to as "the privateer chef." A description he accepts less comfortably is "French": "I am French, of course," he said, "But it's not accurate to describe me as a French chef. Above all I am a chef of the sea. Chefs of the sea, whatever coast they happen to live on, all have the same ingredients to work with: what's in their pantry, whatever comes out of the potager (kitchen garden), and what arrives off the conveyer belt from the ocean every day. The cuisine of the sea has never had borders."
Whereas most young men would have hung up their pirate hats by adolescence, as soon as possible Roellinger began retracing the routes once run by the Malouin corsairs. To date he has returned from his travels with more than 120 spices. Most of them are available at Epices Roellinger, on a corner next door to the former residence-turned-restaurant.
Entering the boutique is like stepping into a treasure chest. Corked glass bottles of spices, infused oils and vinegars beckon from antique cupboards like jewels. Bewitching scents waft from a stone vessel holding multicolored powders, herbs and seeds. There are nine varieties of pepper, vanilla beans from Tahiti and Madagascar.
Roellinger's signature spice blends can contain up to twenty named and secret ingredients. I can vouch for their power to transform. Poudre de Neptune (dill, fennel, star anise, seaweed) is by far the most-used seasoning in my kitchen. Poudre de Voyage (sesame, sumac, cinnamon, thyme), added to steamed cauliflower pureed with a little coconut milk makes for a ridiculously simple but exotic side dish. They are not yet available in the United States—but one hopes, with the stress of the stars behind him, Roellinger will expand his spice business to more distant shores.
Indeed, he announced: "I will transmit and share my cuisine differently, more in line from now on with my deep desire to communicate. I will go towards a wider public, and be more available than I could have been by keeping the three stars."
For now, that means his other enterprises will continue, run by the associate chefs Roellinger launched them with. Three of his most famous dishes will be available on the bistro menu. The hotels and cottages will remain open under the direction of Madame Roellinger, and the residence will serve as a kind of "spice laboratory" and exhibition space. Those unacquainted with the chef can visit his website to view recipes and tutorials in French and English.
Though he claims he can't paint, can't write and only adequately expresses himself in the kitchen, each of his recipes is given a title, and sometimes a sketch, before a single ingredient is committed to paper. In fact, Roellinger describes spice as the punctuation of his culinary storytelling. "I use spice to express the meaning—sometimes a new or hidden meaning—of the main ingredients," he says.
"Remember, back in the 17th century when privateers brought back not only gold and silks, but also spices to France, some people still thought the world was flat. It was a very religious era, and everyone dreamt of a Garden of Eden. The plants and spices were proof that such paradise existed."
Despite his insatiable wanderlust, Roellinger still finds paradise in his own backyard.
"I'll tell you a story," he said, yet again. "Last week a television journalist from Japan came to interview me. She said the Japanese don't understand why I won't open a restaurant in their country.
"I told her that I like Japan very much. One of my favorite things to do there is to have matcha tea—but prepared the authentic way, by a tea master. I asked, 'Can you imagine that tea master preparing his service out here on a dock in Cancale?' She said she could not. 'Madame,' I said, 'You have just answered your own question.' "
Translation: there will never be an O. Roellinger New York or Las Vegas—or anywhere else. "Give up your identity," he shrugs, "and you have nothing to exchange."
Amelia Smith moved from San Francisco to Paris in 1997, all the better to write about travel, food and culture without borders.