When asked « How did you get into cooking ? », Chef Eric Guérin answers without a moment’s hesitation: “through art !” – a surprising, yet perfectly accurate answer ! A childhood spent around artists made him familiar with this environment, and today he is still connected to it – on a daily basis when he sketches his dishes, and more generally as he strives to make painting, sculpture, poetry, and theater, enter his restaurants. Not without reason, he calls his two Michelin-starred restaurants (La Mare aux oiseaux, in Saint Joachim, and Le Jardin des plumes, in Giverny) living spaces. Spaces where he wants to have diners as he would have guests in his own home, to share with them what moves him, and to exhibit works by artists he likes. And when he does not call on Art, Art calls on him ! As did the Nantes Art Museum, which asked him to operate its café, with a cuisine that is inspired, creative, tasty – and local.
From a very young age, thanks to art and antiques collector parents, Eric Guérin lived around artists.
In their home – an old farmhouse they had turned into an art gallery – young Eric grew up in contact with those who exhibited or stayed over for dinner of for the weekend. He liked this so much that he wanted to go to art school, but he was talked out of it by his parents who told him: “as you can see, since we have to help them out, this is clearly a career with few prospects…”
The art of hosting, and the utmost respect for nature
As he was equally fascinated by the moments and conversations around the family ‘s open dinner table, he decided to turn to another form of art: the art of hosting. He enrolled in a catering school as soon as he turned 15.
After spending 10 years in prestigious Parisian establishments such as la Tour d’Argent, Taillevent and Jules Verne, Eric Guérin yearned to go on a more individual and rural adventure.
As a child, he spent his holidays on the island of Fédrun, in Loire-Atlantique, near Nantes. He enjoyed shooting waterfowl with his grandfather and fishing. There, he developed a passion for nature, and a deep respect for animals. In such an environment, he also realized that cooking would be nothing without nature. It takes something from nature, and “the cook must respect this to give it a second life on the table.” He does not even want to highlight his local and responsible sourcing. “This is just natural and normal…”
This is why, at La Mare aux Oiseaux, he uses the local products from the Parc Naturel (nature reserve) and the marshes of Brière, such as frogs, eels and other local fish, and also locally raised ducks and beef.
A visual and emotional approach to cooking
As Eric Guérin specifies on the menus he hands to his guests in his original Mare aux Oiseaux restaurant: “everything starts with a sketch, a design, a colour, an emotion. He scribbles and draws moments of his life or what crosses his mind, with as much variety as there is in life. He creates his dishes by looking for the shapes, textures and colours that will help him tell his story.”
This is how his signature dishes are born: first in his imagination, of course, “according to the moment’s state of mind, energy and mood,” but then on paper that quickly becomes covered with drawings and names of ingredients and products.
No recipe or multiple tries in the kitchen here, but a black-and-white sketch, as close to a painter’s approach when he drafts the first lines of his work before bringing it to life on canvas. And for this artist chef the canvas is 3-dimensional: it is the plate !
Using this sketch as an indicator, the teams order the necessary ingredients. Eric Guérin then creates the first version of every dish. And the teams’ responsibility is to reproduce it for every meal, under the Chef’s watchful eye. This is how creation works at La Mare aux Oiseaux.
At Jardin des Plumes, the approach is slightly different, and the local chef is more directly involved. He gives Eric Guérin “a list of products he wants to work with, and from this list Eric imagines dishes and represents them with sketches that will be reproduced in the plates.”
However, in his two restaurants, the Chef tastes the dishes. But he chooses to do so “in the same context as the clients, i.e. in the dining room.” An unusual approach, that seems to be the right thing to do, as going out to a restaurant has become an experience, in which one wants to eat of course, but also to enjoy the place’s atmosphere.
Theater and poetry on the menu
Tasting the food in the dining room is also a way to show appreciation for the work of those who are not in the kitchen. For Chef Eric Guérin, who admires the work of his maitres d’hotel, sommeliers, head waiters and waiters, it is essential to “create a common spirit and a group energy.” His restaurants, which are living spaces for his customers, are too for his teams since they spend a lot of time working there together.
His principle: “Everyone should feel valued and happy. Everyone’s experiences should help others grow and become better men and women.” This is why he leaves a lot of room for everyone to exist individually.
For instance, there is no uniform or dress code in the dining room. But every other week everyone takes an acting class together. Besides the team-building gains, these moments help everyone acquire confidence and poise for a smoother service. And no one has to learn and recite a set dish description. Everyone is expected to describe Eric Guérin’s dishes with his or her own words, emotions and personality.
The Chef sometimes enjoys bringing poetry to his restaurant. As those nights around La Fontaine’s Fables, during which he created special dishes themed around specific fables (for instance a double potato dish for The Grasshoper and the Ant, with white gnocchi for the grasshopper and black truffle ones for the ant). And with of course a theater troupe who recite the Fables between dishes.
A Chef who serves the arts
In his hotel and restaurant Le Jardin des plumes in Giverny, a few steps from Claude Monet’s house and the Impressionists’ museum, Chef Eric Guérin has made room for his artist friends.
On the tables, the tasting menu has been created in collaboration with painter Olivier Masmonteil. “The idea is not to refer to a particular work of art or artist, bur to share their interpretation of impressionism through cuisine.” They play on lights, colours, textures, etc, over a seven-step dinner.
In the hotel and its gardens, one can find art work on the walls and lawns. These days the painter and engraver Claire Illouz is exhibiting, along with sculptors Yannick Connan, Bruno Guiheneuf, Pascale Profitt, Jean Suzanne and Michel Thamin.
The exhibition is open to all, free of charge (with limited visiting hours): Eric Guérin does not want art to be for his guests only.
And the art world now offers him to… take his cooking to the museum! Since last summer, the Nantes Art Museum has called upon him to operate its Café, with a tasty and creative selection of dishes. Besides the technical and economic challenge (the kitchen has very little equipment owing to safety regulations, opening hours are not very convenient, the Café must offer quick snacks for visitors in a hurry), the Chef was excited by the opportunity to be at the center of a place of culture. And this form of culture is as always open to everyone, since the Café is accessible to all, with or without a ticket to the museum.
What he wants to do in this new experience is “to create dishes in connection with the current exhibitions and the artists being showcased, as an echo of his artist-cook’s sensitivity.”
Here is a Chef who has a truly artistic approach to cuisine. From creation to exhibition, the way he shares his emotions will move every guest. An all-round artist, whose work should be discovered and enjoyed… before it is completely out of reach!
- 1970 : Born in Toulouse
- 1995 : Bought his first hotel-restaurant, La Mare aux Oiseaux, on Fédrun island (Loire-Atlantique, Western France)
- 2000 : 1st Michelin star
- 2012 : Bought a second hotel-restaurant, Le Jardin des Plumes, in Giverny (Eure, West of Paris)
- 2015 : 1st Michelin star for the second restaurant - wrote « Migrations: voyages, émotions, cuisine » (Editions de la Martinière)
- 2017 : Opened the Café in Musée d’Arts de Nantes (Nantes, Western France)
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