Only two percent of the earth is blessed with a Mediterranean climate: mild, sunny, warm, dry, pined-for by the other 98 percent of the world 100 percent of the time they’re not vacationing there. So I knew I was truly fortunate when I found myself in Marseille, France, on a glamorous patio at Le Petit Nice, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant built on a rocky natural ledge that kisses the famous sea. Buttery sunshine poured down and covered the ancient city. I could almost taste it.
And then I did. Over to my table came chef Gérald Passédat, the owner of Le Petit Nice, to introduce himself and welcome me. He pointed out the two white porcelain bottles on the table, and told me they were olive oil, one from Tuscany, Italy, and one from Nice, France. This was the liquid sunshine that coursed through Southern France and provided the starting point for my sybaritic adventure. He would be taking me on a dive into the ocean, he said, with exquisite seafood from different depths, then slowly to the surface again with one of his desserts specially engineered for the task.
Fresh-baked breads came out first. One was a seaweed bread, which, when dipped in the olive oils, sent the simplest picture of Southern France to all my senses. I waded further into the next course with a beautiful fish skin the colour of tidal rocks at sunset. Italian-style raw squid with parsley followed, then the chef’s signature bass dish, named after his grandmother, Lucie Passédat. Next, Le Marin Jardin looked like a garden grew in the bowl along with shellfish and lobster claw, the stew was dense with life and full of succulent flavours.
For dessert, fragrant, tart, ultra-refreshing lemon balanced each sweet bite of white chocolate vanilla mousse and fragrant pear cubes. A spoonful of ice cream beside it on popped rice had the scent and flavour of fresh-cut tarragon and signaled our return to dry land.
I could still taste the last course when chef Passédat came out to see me again. Like a director who had just put on a wonderful show, he humbly accepted my praise. The waiter served coffee and we chatted.
When he was 12 years old, Passédat already knew he wanted to be a chef. He cut his teeth in the kitchens of several greats before beginning his career at age 27 at Le Petit Nice, which his grandfather founded in 1917. Passédat spent 10 years discovering all the things he loves most about Marseille’s cuisine, then devoted himself to sharing its essence with food lovers from around the world. The restaurant’s first Michelin star came while Passédat’s father was at the helm in 1977. A second star followed in 1981. Building off of the experience of his predecessors, Passédat’s efforts were awarded a third star in 2008, which he’s held ever since.
To me, Passédat has the easy manner and natural good looks of a painter or performer. An artistic streak, I found out, runs in his family. His grandmother was a famous opera singer and modeled for the Lumière brothers who invented the motion picture camera. (He showed me her photos hanging on the wall near the veranda). She loved refined things and taught her grandson to appreciate beauty and taste. The dish named in her honour is so lovingly prepared and delicate that the bass fillet flakes apart when touched and has to be eaten with a spoon. Lemon from France’s Menton region and local truffles headline amidst a classic Mediterranean ensemble of basil, coriander, fennel, cucumber, tomato, zucchini, Camargue salt, and olive oil. Passédat seemed especially pleased that I loved this dish. The mark made by his grandmother’s support and encouragement is evident.
Gerald’s father performed opera for years before returning to the restaurant full time, then continued singing part-time throughout his life. The double gifts of art and cooking seem at ease in the current restaurant owner.
“I’m not an extroverted person,” Passédat said. “I don’t like to show off in front of others. I don’t often show up among customers. But I am good at listening to others. I like to meditate and spend time quietly looking out to sea. Art and beauty is a very important part of my life. Since I’m not a performing artist, I express my understanding of art in cooking.”
He works hard on the colours and visual composition of the dishes to make them consistent with the scenery. “The sunshine in the Mediterranean is very strong. The scenery and colors are particularly bright and clear. I make my dishes correspond with the colors.”
France has a lifestyle that’s distinct from other Mediterranean countries, Passédat tells me. “French lifestyle is elegant with an emphasis on courtesy. People love delicacies and like to gather together. A chef is, of course, an important part of this French lifestyle. Like a conductor who masters the music notation, a chef should master the rhythm, decoration, and arrangement of a recipe.”
I was relishing my time with Passédat, but pairs of eyes were nervously peering out of the kitchen; people were waiting for him. By now, the sun was glinting off buildings from a wholly different angle, telling me that even the length of my lunch was authentically French. I bid adieu to my charming host and promised to visit again next time I was in the Med.