Alpine fine dining with Maxime Meilleur
Whilst, undeniably, the many kilometres of slopes which make up the French Alps are the region’s strongest pull, there is another important gravitational force in play too: the area’s constellation of Michelin-starred restaurants.
All photography courtesy of La Bouitte
For many, the Michelin guide represents the gold standard of fine dining and France, the birthplace of the guide, has one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. Whilst Île-de-France, which encompasses the capital, leads the way on a regional scale, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, where you’ll find the French Alps, takes the second position. The number of restaurants in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes to be awarded a Michelin star has steadily grown. Back in 2016, an impressive 92 restaurants were awarded at least one star, as of 2021, this figure has risen to 97.
Interestingly, the same region is also home to the highest number of Michelin ‘green star’ restaurants in France. A relatively new accolade, this award is given to restaurants which take a sustainable approach to gastronomy by using local ingredients and minimising waste.
Despite the unusual nature of 2020, COVID did not dampen the global appetite for fine dining and the Michelin guide, published earlier this month, awarded 54 restaurants their first Michelin star, including two restaurants in Annecy and one in Tignes.
Maxime Meilleur, one half of the passionate father-son duo behind La Bouitte and Simple & Meilleur bistro in Saint-Martin-de-Belleville and Le Bouche à Oreille at the top of Roc de 3 Marches lift, joins us to discuss all things gastronomy and Alpine art de vivre
Meaning ‘best’ in French, Meilleur is an apt name for the family whose La Bouitte restaurant has been awarded three Michelin stars.
A true autodidact, Maxime’s father René Meilleur taught himself the art of cooking and his son has worked alongside him for 25 years. However, Maxime’s passion for cooking stems back to his childhood. “I have always had an affinity for eating well and was an open-minded child, willing to try anything. My parents also educated me in fine foods from an early age,” comments Maxime.
Whilst he has always had a love of cooking, Maxime never expected that he’d pursue a career in it. Drawn to sports and the mountains, Maxime was a biathlete in the Junior France team. However, after suffering an injury in 1996 he started helping his father in the kitchen of La Bouitte by preparing custard and never left.
La Bouitte is built on an ethos of creating a tailor-made experience for each guest using the finest and freshest of ingredients. Maxime explains:
“Our Carte Blanche menus, which comprise three to six surprise dishes, are a unique offering where the expectations of the guests, the best products of the day, our creativity as cooks and the sensitivity of the sommeliers converge. You tell my partner, Delphine, your preferences and, working with the morning’s deliveries, we invite you to experience a real culinary journey with menus that sharpen and tease your senses. The experience is different and personalised for each table.”
At La Bouitte, the menu offers guests the opportunity to rediscover something they may not ordinarily eat such as rabbit, snails and sweetbread. It is clearly a recipe for success as Maxime reveals that 80% of guests are regulars – a true record among 3* restaurants.
The family opened Simple & Meilleur at the end of 2018 and the restaurant was soon featured as a Bib Gourmand in the 2020 Michelin guide. Maxime explains that the project was firstly inspired out of friendship as the developers of the beautiful collection of chalets for sale in Saint-Martin-de-Belleville‘s Caseblanche neighbourhood, who are close friends of the family, requested a helping hand.
A perfect complement to its sister restaurant, this bistro offers a modern version of the dishes served in La Bouitte back in the 80s, before it became a destination for haute cuisine. Whilst high-quality local products are a fundamental part of Simple & Meilleur’s offering, the food here is simpler, mountainous and delightfully cheesy.
High altitude meets haute cuisine
Recently awarded the esteemed Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant label, tradition, authenticity and a genuine love for this unique location are key threads in the philosophies of both La Bouitte and Simple & Meilleur. “The atmosphere, the decoration and the culinary identity in our restaurants simply stem from the beauty of our territory, from its natural, culinary and historical heritage. Everything can be traced back to the education we have received too: a taste for work, effort, respect for nature and people, openness and sensitivity to all that is beautiful and good,” explains Maxime.
"We keep renewing our score to compose a cuisine dedicated to nature, a hymn to the valley, lakes and mountains. The House and our dishes are like us: a teasing and skilled cuisine which awakens the Savoyard culinary heritage by paying it real homage. The challenge is to give delicacy, lightness, subtlety and nuances to products that we thought we knew by using our research and sensitivity. This allows the ingredients to take on unknown dimensions."
When asked what key factors make a resort worthy of a Michelin-star restaurant, Maxime identified three core elements: “It is the combination of a territory with a strong heritage and identity, a chef who gives it a unique and exciting interpretation and an audience of epicureans. It is the customers who push us to grow, to constantly question ourselves. Their happiness is our happiness.”
What’s next for Saint-Martin-de-Belleville and the Meilleur family?
To add to Saint-Martin-de-Belleville’s growing culinary scene, Maxime would love to see an authentic tea and coffee shop open near the village's baroque church and museum.
Outside Saint-Martin-de-Belleville, Maxime identifies Courchevel and Megève as the next two most important gastronomical destinations in the French Alps. Indeed, both of these upmarket resorts have a burgeoning portfolio of acclaimed restaurants and have 20 Michelin stars between them.
However, when asked where he would like to open another restaurant, Maxime reveals that he would like to open a restaurant in the middle of the mountains, a bit like a montagnette. Going back to what his grandparents used to do, it would represent a real return to nature and his roots.