Michelin awards first-ever French star to vegan restaurant but not all chefs want to 'suck leaves'

Henry Samuel
·4 min read
Claire Vallée, Founding Chef of Restaurant ONA 
Claire Vallée, Founding Chef of Restaurant ONA

A vegan restaurant in southwestern France has made gastronomic history by becoming the country’s first serving only animal-free products to win a Michelin star.

Set in the city of Ares, near Bordeaux, Claire Vallée’s ONA restaurant, which stands for "Origine Non Animale" ("Animal-free origin”), is ”the first vegan restaurant to win a star in France and one of no more than a dozen worldwide,” according to Michelin boss Gwendal Poullennec.

“We have 3,300 restaurants in the French guide, some vegetarian, but only one truly vegan one,” he told the Telegraph.

ONA was one of 54 restaurants to join the one-star category, which signifies “a very good restaurant” in this year’s edition of the hallowed food bible. Only two new restaurants received two stars and just one the maximum three.

vegan food -  Cecile LABONNE
vegan food - Cecile LABONNE

Sadly for the beneficiary, her restaurant is currently closed due to the Covid pandemic.

Along with the classic star, ONA also received a green “étoile”, which the red food guide introduced only last year to reward sustainable gastronomy.

In a land of unapologetic meat-eaters, offering an all-vegetable menu may sound like a recipe for disaster.

Indeed, when Ms Vallée decided to open her restaurant four years ago after falling in love with vegan cuisine in Thailand, she hit a wall of resistance.

The chef was laughed out of the bank when she first sought a loan, particularly as she was setting up shop in the Arcachon basin on the Atlantic coast - famed for its un-vegan oysters.

"They said the prospects for veganism and plant-based food were too uncertain," she said. However, she bypassed the banks via crowdfunding and has gone from strength to strength.

The restaurant deviates from classic French fare
The restaurant deviates from classic French fare

“It’s true than veganism and vegetarianism have not been part of our food culture and animal products have pride of place,” she told the Telegraph.

“But things have changed a lot in four years, as this star suggests. Other countries have had vegan cuisine for some time but the French take increasing care about what they eat and vegan cuisine is part of this.”

“We can really feel people are curious. We have even had hunters say they enjoyed it. Other customers say they are gradually reducing meat consumption,” she added. “I hope other chefs take heart from this.”

Working with seasonal, organic and local produce, she grows 140 varieties of edible plants in her “green terrace” for her dishes, such as hot and cold asparagus with grapefruit and Timut pepper with sweet potato gnocchi.

All her energy is renewable and she has a compost system.

Some French food critics and restaurateurs called the star a positive step.

“Often vegan cuisine is linked to restricting oneself but increasingly that’s no longer the case,” said Thibaut Danancher, food critic at Le Point magazine. “It can offer all the gourmet pleasures of the table and has its place in our food culture,” he said.

But not all chefs were ready to join the movement.

 Claire Vallée Founding Chef of Restaurant ONA - Telegraph
Claire Vallée Founding Chef of Restaurant ONA - Telegraph

Meat-loving chef David Rathberger runs the Assiette restaurant in Paris’ 14th arrondissement and a podcast called “here we don’t suck leaves”.

“My customers are no vegans that’s for sure,” said the cook whose signature dishes include cassoulet, duck tart with foie gras and stuffed partridge.

“I’ve got nothing against vegan cuisine. What I can’t stand is cuisine that’s about appearance more than taste with no juice or sauce, no gourmandise, emotion or coherence,” he said.

Food critic Emmanuel Rubin, who co-founded Le Fooding, an alternative restaurant guide, said France had “a lot of catching up to do”.

“Culturally we are behind the curve. For years most vegan restaurants were frankly poor and you came out thinking: this is worse than the canteen.”

ONA restaurant in Ares, southwestern France - Telegraph
ONA restaurant in Ares, southwestern France - Telegraph

Given the wealth of game and farm produce, “it didn’t interest real French chefs” with a few notable exceptions such as Alain Passard, whose three-starred Arpège restaurant in Paris embraced vegetables as early as 1999.

But with meat consumption having fallen by 12 per cent in a decade, a growing number of top cooks had adopted vegetarian or even vegan dishes.

He accused Michelin of jumping on a culinary train that had already left the station.

“Better late than never but Michelin is yet again months, season or years behind. It’s proof it’s close to being comatose,” he said.

“I eat out six times a week and can say that there quite a few vegan restaurants deserving stars or at least to be in the Michelin guide. One address is not nearly enough. It’s not a revolution or even evolution; it smacks of brazen opportunism.”

Michelin Mr Poullennec categorically denied the claim.

“We don’t have quotas for women or vegan restaurants,” he said. “This is not a political act, it’s just a well-deserved award for talent and quality cooking.”