Fifteen gardens and a Mediterranean sea are all you need for a food revolution.
A STONE’S THROW AWAY from the French Riviera in the perfume capital of the world, Grasse, the landscape abruptly changes from one of a rocky coastline to rolling hills, canyons and forests. Its distinctive geography that has blessed the town with majestic flower blooms perpetuating its 500 year-old perfumery tradition, is also the catalyst to its best kept secret — crisp, sweet and delectable baby vegetables. The almost year-round temperate climate coupled with fertile soil gives rise to gardens producing across seasons, and it was this that had chef Paolo Sari knocking on the doors of Grasse’s local farmers. Sari, now the only Michelin chef in the world with a third level organic certification, had embarked on a mission three years ago in pursuit of sustainability from both a food and social context. From Grasse, he went on to develop a network of vegetable producers all within 150 kilometers of Monte Carlo, where his signature restaurant Elsa is based. “By the hill, by the coast, to the mountains. The idea is to work with natural weathers and varied landscapes to have fresh produce all year long,” Sari explains.
Traveling to little nearby towns like Albenga, Ventimiglia and Piedmonte, and connecting with the locals sparked off not only an organic movement but new economic opportunities. When word got out that there was a demand for fresh produce, people began returning to the countryside to work on their land.“ Here’s an idea that could be adapted to other parts of the world. We brought people back to their roots,away from the saturated cities to work on something sustainable, not only for the environment but their own consumption,” Sari says. It’s serious business for the rural gardens; from complying with organic regulations to meeting Sari’s kitchen orders. Sari’s team serves up to a hundred and fifty thousand meals every six months in all the establishments within Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel, including the Michelin-starred Elsa. “Flow of information is two-way,so we can organize with the producers seasonally on how much they need to plant,” Sari says. The chef’s unofficial role as ‘head farmer’ is as endearing as his self-moniker of ‘fish bidder’, referring to the phone calls with his fish broker, who manages the local fishermen. Eschewing red meat, fish is just about the only other thing that appears in Sari’s recipes other than fruits and vegetables.“ Only wild-caught fish, from the surrounding sea,” he stresses.The tenacity of Sari in the organic way comes from a personal doctrine, colored by his nomadic professional journey allover the world, but he references his time in Asia as especially valuable. “I captured something from every place I was, and inevitably developed a sensibility towards nature. The vitality of the Asians because of their diet of vegetables, fishes and rice, is no secret,” he says,describing the way of eating Sari has adopted for himself too. “But it’s just a sense of how humans have been abusing nature. It is my time to give back to nature because if we just keep taking, nothing will be left for the next generation,” he says.
From a culinary perspective, Sari contemplates why meat always needs to be worked on and transformed before it is edible, while vegetables and fishes can be eaten in its most natural form. “The overproduction of livestock to meet the world’s appetite has negatively affected the quality of meat. It’s increasingly difficult to find good meat, so why don’t we focus on what we have in abundance here?” he asks.And at the ancient Roman empire’s agriculture and gastronomy epicenter, the French Riviera does indeed have much to offer with a micro-climate that allows cabbages and avocados to grow side by side.Sari’s arrival at Monte-Carlo Beach in 2012 brought a new culinary vision that now permeates the hotel’s identity. After the removal of red meat, and foie gras (“It’s just so cruel,” he says) and eventually all non-organic food from the menu, the hotel successfully acquired certification as a fully organic establishment. The next hurdle was to refresh the mindsets of traditional hotel guests, but Sari’s philosophy has always been to propose organic healthy food in an exciting way that leaves no room for comparisons or complaints.
At Elsa, every meal is preceded by the chef’s signature Bio Sama, a cross between a garden extravaganza of seasonal vegetables and a thematic spring art installation designed to bean Instagram star. The ritual continues with an olive oil tasting, where Sari curates a journey following the ancient fruit from its beginnings in Andalusia, to Umbria, in four bottles of single origin oils. If there was ever a time to skip the bread basket, the more expressive way to enjoy the oils would be with Sari’s selection of naturally gluten-free accoutrements. In his private garden some 500 meters above the Monte Carlo coast, artichokes are in full bloom and will soon give way to asparagus,green beans, fava beans, apricots, peaches, citruses, tomatoes and courgettes as the season progresses. Sari is a native of the Italian food region of Treviso but for now has his eyes on a food revolution in the glitzy Riviera city he currently calls home. “Let’s make all of Monaco organic. The dream is to have everyone here think organic, buy organic, and understand that it's better to respect nature,” he says. And to detractors who insist that it’s all a fad, “Perhaps for them, but I will never go back to putting chemicals and poison into my body.