René Mathieu is the chef at the La Distillerie restaurant in Bourglinster Castle. His talent is beyond dispute (one Michelin star, 18/20 in Gault&Millau, third-best vegetable restaurant in the world according to the leading “We’re smart” website) and both his personality and the extraordinary originality of his dishes stand out. The restaurant prides itself on giving centre stage to vegetables and plants that grow on the doorstep.
Have you always had this focus on plant and vegetable-based cooking?
Always. I’ve always been passionate about nature and what it provides. I’m 58 years old and have never lived in a city. I spent my entire childhood in woodland or countryside with my father and uncle who were forest rangers. I learnt a lot, but when you’re young, things like that aren’t cool, so it goes in one ear and out the other. However, it’s all coming back now. When I turned 50, I started to wonder whether I wanted to keep working away like everyone else and decided to do what I wanted to do. The idea of wild produce interested me even more than plant and vegetable-based cooking. It became clear to me that by combining the two, a compromise was possible between cultivated and wild plants/vegetables.
It is rare to see someone turning their love of nature into gastronomic cuisine. Why didn’t you follow in your family’s footsteps and become a forest ranger?
Forest rangers are anonymous figures who spend their time in the woods. Although they are knowledgeable about plants, they do not share their knowledge much. I became a chef because I had a lot to say and wanted to express myself. It’s like painting or composing music. For me, cooking is about a love of people, regardless of where they come from, and pleasing them by appealing to their emotions. We are purveyors of happiness. There are not many jobs like it.
They are outstanding! French or Italian tomatoes may be very good, but they don’t taste like Sandrine’s – that’s due to the terroir
The notion of terroir is essential to wine-making. Does the same apply to the rest of the plant world?
Of course! Take the tomatoes from Panier de Sandrine (editor’s note: a celebrated market gardener based in Munsbach) for example. They are outstanding! French or Italian tomatoes may be very good, but they don’t taste like Sandrine’s – that’s due to the terroir. To me, they have a very mineral flavour. Many people say that Italian tomatoes are the best, but I have a lot of Italian friends who never look back once they have tasted Munsbach tomatoes!
Respect for terroir is also about respect for seasonality.
That is the most important issue. I only use tomatoes from early July to October. Thanks to Sandrine, I have access to top-quality produce throughout the year. I’m glad that she has been successful – things are changing and we need to encourage this movement. People need to pay a fair price and not be too picky. They need to take what the producers have. Working in partnership is about respect.
Your food requires people to cast off their previous culinary experiences. Would you say this is an essential prerequisite?
You don’t necessarily have to love it, but you do need to be prepared to transcend limits and explore. Even if something shocks you, you have to try it. I went to Noma in Copenhagen (editor’s note: ranked best restaurant in the world on numerous occasions) in early July and it was outstanding! You eat almost everything with your fingers and we had three dishes with mould on them… The chef René Redzepi pushes the boundaries with his experimentation.
So why does he take it so far?
We ate completely mouldy asparagus, wheat and celeriac. It was really fantastic in the same vein as Ferran Adrià when he started working with molecular gastronomy. People either loved it or loathed it. What I like about cooking – and everything else for that matter – is seeing how far things can be taken, whether this produces the right results, and whether it serves a legitimate purpose. A substandard stick of asparagus may become mouldy, yet also delicious if the conditions are all properly controlled and managed. After all, the same process is used in cheese-making! This is a very useful technique for using up end-of-life products. In other respects, I don’t necessarily agree with everything they do. When Ferran Adrià deconstructs a tomato, is there really any value in reconstructing it as a fake tomato side dish?
In your view, is it essential to avoid waste in catering?
Not just in catering! We have no choice if we want to save the planet. We only eat a third of what we produce. Why do we produce so much and use so little? Eating has become a cultural activity, whereas in the past it was a primordial necessity. In late July, it seems as if everything the planet has to offer has been used, but that is simply not true – trust me, there are plenty of other things to eat in the woods and countryside! The planet offers such a rich bounty that we have stopped making any effort.
Do you view your cooking as an invitation for people to re-immerse themselves in their immediate environment?
In the past, people intuitively ate what they found, while now we eat what we are given. We do not grow or harvest food any more, and we have become a society of overconsumption. There’s too much choice, too much of everything, whereas in the past we only took what we needed. We have completely lost our connection with natural produce.
Trust me, there are plenty of other things to eat in the woods and countryside!
By foraging in your environment, you can limit waste…
With plant and vegetable-based food, there is no waste – you can use everything. For example, I dry the green rind from watermelons and turn it into powder, which has a peppery flavour. I make courgette peel into a purée … and I apply the same approach to absolutely everything. There is no waste. I am very glad to see that less and less is being thrown away in the restaurant, although we could still do better.
You have inverted the ratio of main product to accompaniments. Vegetables and plants are the main focus of your dishes.
That’s right, although I must say that I am not opposed to meat. Diners have the choice of a menu with small quantities of meat and fish or a completely plant and vegetable-based menu. Some people claim to be big meat eaters, but that doesn’t stop them from finding out whether they can do without it for just one meal! You have to come to my restaurant to give it a try. If you accept the principle, you will not leave craving meat.
And when you do include meat in your dishes, you do not use the finest cuts.
No. I use things like chuck steak and poultry… I’m not a big fan of fillet. In terms of fish, I look for the most local varieties. Since river fishing is prohibited in Luxembourg, our fish is sourced from Belgium. Occasionally, when it’s in season, we source fish like turbot from the North Sea. Approximately 80% of our produce is sourced locally. The remaining 20% is made up of produce like fish, coffee and citrus fruits.
Is a target of 100% local produce feasible?
I have tried out various lemon substitutes. Begonia flowers are one possible solution, but we need to set up a procedure for growing them and extracting their juice. As for coffee, I remember my grandparents roasting bedstraw berries – that’s the plant whose seeds cling to your clothes. I’m not saying that we should go back to doing that, but we should remember that such things exist and that food is never far away. All the aromas and flavours of spices from around the world can be found here in local plants. Having said that, we must not reject modernity. Wine is the best illustration of this point. Fifty years ago, Luxembourgian wine was a very far cry from what it is today.
It has showcased another side of Luxembourg that relates to nature and people who are passionate about their work, rather than just banks.
On that subject, what is your view of the wines served in your restaurant?
I taste all the pairings that my sommelier recommends, but give him plenty of leeway because everyone has their own role to play. My only requirement is that there must only be one French wine on the menu. I enjoy introducing people to wines, and Luxembourgian wines in particular, because too few people know about them. I insist that we have one on the menu. There are some truly fantastic discoveries to be made. For instance, wine-growers like Raphaël Hannart (editor’s note: Happy Duchy estate) offer some terrific wines. Last year, he asked me to visit his vineyard so I could advise him on which plants to grow between the rows of vines. I went there with my daughter after harvest time and it was wonderful.
What is your view of Luxembourgian Moselle wines?
It’s great to see all the quality Luxembourgian wines available at the moment! People are not sufficiently aware of them abroad, which is a shame. That said, Noma serves wines produced by Abi Duhr (editor’s note: Château Pauqué, Grevenmacher). We in Luxembourg are not proud enough of what we produce. I do not understand why there are wine bars here that serve virtually no Moselle wines! That would be inconceivable in other countries. The country has been stuck with a poor reputation because for many years its wines were not great. When I ran a restaurant in Belgium, I did not serve any Luxembourgian wine because you could only get Elbling, which no one wanted. Since then, excellent progress has been made, but we don’t talk about it enough … and we need to go global rather than confining ourselves to the Grand Duchy – especially since people from Luxembourg often prefer to spend their money abroad! I am more famous in Belgium and France than in Luxembourg. The BBC, RAI and New York Times have all featured us. We have had visits from Belgian, Portuguese, Dutch and Japanese TV crews. This is great as it has showcased another side of Luxembourg that relates to nature and people who are passionate about their work, rather than just banks.