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January 7, 2022updated 24 Jan 2022 12:31pm

Monaco’s Le Festival des Étoilés takes Monte Carlo’s opulent culinary sphere to a new level

By Andrew Harris

Monaco has always been an ideal destination for anyone seeking glorious food, timeless luxury and lavish settings — but with its inaugural Le Festival des Étoilés Monte Carlo, it has taken opulent cuisine to another level, writes Andrew Harris

The winter sun dances its shadow dance off the chef as he ambles methodically around his vegetable garden, pausing here to sniff at some herbs, bending down there to handle the cassava.

But this isn’t some hidden corner of the Caribbean, where the tradition of home-grown vegetables still flourishes. It’s in the heart of one of Europe’s most densely populated conurbations and is the prized possession of Martinique-born Marcel Ravin, head chef at Monaco’s Blue Bay Restaurant; one of only two chefs of Caribbean origin with a Michelin star.

His kitchen garden is a little piece of home that also furnishes his restaurant with Martiniquais ingredients, along with other restaurants within the Société des Bains De Mer resort group. Created in 1863 at the behest of Prince Charles III, SBM oversees some of the most prestigious hospitality operations in the principality, including the famous Le Casino de Monte-Carlo and the recently renovated Hôtel de Paris. Sitting atop its labyrinthine wine cellar, the largest in the world with 400,000 bottles, and brandishing its unique celeb-stuffed back-story, the Hôtel de Paris remains among the grandest of grand hotels.

Image: SBM

Somewhere within that arc stretching from the Basque country around into Northern Italy lies Europe’s epicurean heart — and Monaco, of course, is pretty much in the middle. Bolstered by its reputation for unrestrained opulence, the diminutive dominion is home to some of the most coveted dining destinations anywhere, with SBM restaurants collectively boasting a staggering seven Michelin stars; a remarkable array of culinary expertise for its pampered population of just 38,000.

In 2021, to celebrate this gastronomic pre-eminence, SBM invited top-flight chefs into their kitchens for a series of collaborative extravaganzas: Le Festival des Étoilés Monte Carlo. It culminated on 27 November 2021 in the legendary Salle Médecin of the Monte Carlo casino in the presence of Prince Albert II, with all six Michelin-starred chefs creating a six-course dinner in a historically unprecedented landmark event.

Though Monaco’s history encompasses gala dinners and VIP events, not least following the paparazzi-catnip marriage of Hollywood starlet Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier III in 1956, its reputation as a culinary centre of excellence is perhaps more recent. In 1987, Prince Rainier set the future super-chef, Alain Ducasse, the task of winning three Michelin stars for the Hôtel de Paris’ Louis XV restaurant within four years. He accomplished it in less than three, the first hotel restaurant to ever achieve the accolade.

Of the six chefs, Ducasse stands apart. With a total of 19 stars culled from his global restaurant empire, no one in the world has more. To many, he is the greatest living chef and the ultimate embodiment of La Cuisine Francaise. Two of the festival’s other chefs, Dominique Lory, who helms the 3-starred Louis XV, and Franck Cerutti, at Le Grill on the 8th Floor of the Hôtel de Paris, are both long-standing acolytes. Having enthusiastically embraced Monaco throughout his career, Monegasques, led by the Grimaldis, have simply loved Ducasse straight back. Choreographing many Grimaldi milestone events, he has often seemed like their personal chef. November’s lap of honour in celebration of Monaco’s evolution as a go-to gastronomic powerhouse is clearly as much Ducasse’s to take, as anyone’s.

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Image: SBM

The majestic Salle Médecin, with its 15-metre-high ceiling, was originally built as an exclusive enclave within which the casino’s biggest players could fritter away their inheritances in privacy. For over a century it has hosted celebrities, scandal, and more drama than the Royal Shakespeare Company. It’s James Bond. It’s fabulous. It’s Monte Carlo.

After the deathly hush ushered inside with the Prince subsides, the first of six signature dishes of Le Festival des Étoilés Monte Carlo declares the dinner of dinners underway. Reflecting Ducasse’s exalted status as Gastronomic Godfather, he pairs with Dominique Lory for a first course of Gamberoni de San Remo in a rock fish gelee topped with caviar. Perfectly paired with a 2020 Domaine Droin Chablis, it’s a light, utterly sensational starter. Marcel Ravin follows with Monte-Carlo egg with alba truffle, manioc (cassava), and maracuja, a variant of passion fruit. Thrusting a huge truffle under my nose earlier as he explained its elaborate preparation, Ravin was clearly proud of the dish. He can be. There were discreet gasps around the table.

At just 30 years old, Manon Fleury, head chef at Elsa in the Monte Carlo Beach Hotel, represents the emergent face of French cuisine. Elsa was the first 100 per cent organic restaurant to win a Michelin star, and Fleury with her focus on sustainability, zero waste, and wild fish, is perfect to preside over its kitchens. Her superb signature of squash and citrus lace, orange blossom water cream received no less an ecstatic reception.

Repositioning the menu onto a more traditional trajectory, Franck Cerutti’s veal with black truffles and wild mushrooms, paired with a sublime 2009 Pomerol, was an affirmation of how talented the Hôtel de Paris’ executive chef, truly is. Right by Ducasse’s side since 1980, Nice-born Cerutti remains one of the most revered interpreters of Mediterranean cuisine along the Côte D’azur.

Image: SBM

Yannick Alléno, head chef of the restaurant bearing his name at the Hôtel Hermitage, is a titan of international gastronomy with 11 Michelin stars to his name. His famous scientifically oriented extraction technique for creating sauces, patented in 2013, was deployed for the evening’s dessert: fir tree extract in iced jelly with coffee, spicy crystalline shards and a rich hot chocolate cream. It’s complex, gorgeous to look at, even more gorgeous to taste, and a joy-filled journey for chocolate lovers to savour for as long as self-control allows; perfectly paired with an elegantly balanced 2018 Maury.

Formalised black-tie, large-scale dinners can easily fail to hit the epicurean high notes. But with tightly-knit teams of sommeliers and highly trained waiting staff floating around the Salle Médecin like squadrons of synchronised swimmers doling out doses of gourmet heaven, the stellar service was perfectly in tune with the superstar chefs.

And to those nursing any disappointment at having missed out on Monaco’s unprecedented night of the Michelin stars; ne regrettez rien. This November’s successful dinner has been designated the inaugural one for an annual event to take place each autumn.

Andrew Harris travelled by rail from London to Nice via Paris:

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