“It’s madness, I never imagined that my life would change so much!” exclaims Claire Vallee. Since Gwendal Poullennec, director of the Michelin Guide, called her to award her her first star last January, the vegan chef has found herself propelled into the limelight. Programs, reports, interview requests: the solicitations are incessant.
To keep her feet on the ground, the manager turns into a site manager. Because to celebrate her star, she gave new clothes to her restaurant, ONA – pour Origine Non Animale, in Arès, in New Aquitaine. A total renovation from floor to ceiling and a new kitchen. “I need a powerful working tool to create more”, she explains, she who is already thinking of her second star.
And yet, nothing in Claire Vallée’s CV suggested a future behind the stove. No hotel school or cooking training, but archeology studies. Its subject: the Achaemenid dynasty and its legendary emperor Darius, the king-builder. What about the kitchen? Chance? Not quite. “It has always been part of my life, I have been cooking since I was a kid,” announces the young woman from Nancy straight away. It’s in my DNA. ”
Self-taught and gifted
To finance her studies, she accepts a summer job in a hotel in Crans-Montana. First in the dining room, it ends up in the kitchen. Passionate, she works tirelessly, observes the slightest gesture, the slightest technique. And everything is linked. Quick, very quickly. She was then offered a post of chef in another establishment.
“I didn’t have a degree, but I was offered the job of my life,” she admits. A proposal that she cannot refuse. Successful bet. She left to work for one season and spent eight years in Switzerland. There will be no going back, she knows that her career will be in the kitchen. But it was during a trip to Thailand that she had a revelation: she discovered Buddhist vegetarian culture. “There, I’m interested in tofu and seitan, a widely used wheat protein preparation.” She then immersed herself in a new sensory and olfactory universe, tastes each herb, each spice, each root and moves away from meat and dairy products.
Back in France, it is therefore in Arès, a small village of Gironde of 6000 souls located on the Arcachon basin that she finds a place as chef in a restaurant. Quickly, his convictions and his cooking are no longer aligned. “I had become a vegetarian, and it was more and more difficult for me to cook in the traditional way.” She then saw only one option: to set up her own gourmet restaurant, 100% vegetable.
The challenge is big. “Imagine a woman, without a partner, without money, who wants to open a vegetarian restaurant in a small village in the land of oysters and pâté in a quiet street,” she laughs to remind everyone that the game was far from over. to be won. She could have given up following repeated refusals from the banks. On the contrary, it is embarking on new research on alternative financing methods.
It is organizing a crowdfunding campaign via social networks, mobilizing 126 donors and raising 10,000 euros. For the works, she imagines a participatory site. More than 80 volunteers answer the call. “Painters, masons, electricians, little hands, local traders came to give me a hand,” she recalls. It was an incredible human adventure. ”
On October 22, 2016, ONA finally took off. Very quickly, success is there. “I have shown that vegan cuisine is not sad,” says Claire Vallée. And that it’s not just a handful of seeds and vegetables! She strives to create unique experiences, reversing the order of the dishes, seeking surprising but always delicious associations. Like this dessert made from roasted salsify in cocoa butter with Batak berries, with a slightly tart taste.
For each plate, she juggles between 20 and 40 ingredients. All from organic and local production. Alone in the kitchen, this hyperactive constantly explores. “I challenge myself, I’m not afraid of the unknown, because it’s the only way to progress,” she says. She will also breathe in the zeitgeist among her colleagues. She quotesone of the first chefs to put vegetables at the heart of the plate, but also , three-star chef and world mushroom star!
Emotion at Noma
Its greatest culinary emotion takes place in Denmark, at Noma, repeatedly named best restaurant in the world. “It is essential to go and see what is happening elsewhere, it inspires me,” she says. With these different explorations, she aims for an ever more creative, more sophisticated cuisine.
And his talent does not go unnoticed. Two years after its opening, it obtained a Michelin plate and two GaultMillau toques. Then the grail: the red star in January 2021. “I was not expecting it, says Claire Vallée, the way blurred by emotion. It was a consecration for me, the autodidact, and a recognition for plants. ”
But there is no question of becoming the face of extremist veganism. If she rejects factory farming and animal abuse, she wants above all to raise awareness “in a peaceful way” to a way of life that respects the planet. For now, she is preparing the reopening of ONA, imagining a kitchen clothing brand and recruiting. In total, seven people will join the adventure. Like Darius, Claire Vallée extends the contours of her vegetable empire.
1980 Born in Nancy.
2009 Becomes chef at the Plaza in Crans-Montana.
2013 Departure for Thailand and discovery of vegetarian cuisine.
2016 Opening of the ONA restaurant in Arès.
2021 Becomes the world’s first Michelin-starred vegan chef.