At the head of a 100% female brigade at the Perchoir Ménilmontant in Paris, where he directs in residence until the end of the year, chef Manon Fleury wants to make his voice heard in a very masculine environment. At 31, the one who was formed in the “Michelin” stars conceives fruit and vegetables as the only “luxury products” to put on her plates with cereals in the center. In September you also dedicated a very appetizing book to them, “Céréales, the recipes of a committed chef”.
Get out a cereal cookbook. Why this choice?
They have been an integral part of my diet since childhood. I’ve always eaten buckwheat or quinoa. Aside from wheat, in my classical cooking apprenticeship I worked very little with cereals. I had to go to the United States, to Dan Barber, to do it. I saw that he worked closely with a self-sustaining farm and researchers to create a horticultural ecosystem where grains enriched the soil between two crops. His emblematic specialty was the “risotto rotation”, with seven cereals, some of which are very old. I realized that we could then serve a gourmet dish that tells the story of the camp. When I started making my own chef dishes, I always offered a vegetarian one with cereals. And it was popular, if not more, with white-collar meat platters.
Why are they cooked so little and so badly in France?
Bread is the basis of our grain intake. From the moment we appropriated the grain, we abandoned others. While in France, cereals have grown endemic, such as buckwheat in Brittany or corn in the Basque Country. Today we know the Breton buckwheat pancake, but the Basque taloa did not survive. Over time, agricultural diversity has become impoverished. Likewise, the French have never developed an interest in cooking rice because it comes from afar. There is Camargue rice, which is of high quality, but still doesn’t come close to Japanese rice. My role is to try to change behavior and provide the techniques. Too often we get the image of a bowl of “healthy” cereal that just doesn’t make me want. I want to bring aesthetics and gluttony. It is also a militant and political approach, as it helps to allow producers to grow other varieties of cereals, thus contributing to France’s self-sufficiency in this area. With the war in Ukraine, my approach may have an echo. Finally, it is also a dietary commitment from a health point of view, with the replacement of animal proteins.
For consumers, the best thing is to get as close as possible to their home, favoring direct sales or Amap networks.
From a culinary point of view, how do you see the debate around meat crystallize?
Since opening the Pandora’s box of plant-based cooking, working with animal meat interests me less and less. I want to push the logic all the way through. But from a political point of view it is different. I talk about it with horticulturists who tell me that peasant agriculture, grazing and respectful of animal welfare, can be beneficial, if not indispensable. He is virtuous. But I want to show, without being dogmatic, that you can have fun with plants by working on textures. This is necessarily part of a more global reflection on the disappearance of resources, as in the case of fisheries.
What is a good product?
As a chef, I need to know the people who grow vegetables to understand their procedures and their problems. It is the sensitivity of the cook that allows you to see a good product, just as my florist has an eye to distinguish a good flower from a bad one. For consumers, in everyday life, the best thing is to get as close as possible to their homes, favoring direct sales or Amap networks. It is important to focus on the seasonality of the products. With inflation, vegetables are expensive. But if you buy a kilo of lentils, a kilo of rice and vegetables, the basket isn’t that high. Above all, it is cheaper than a prepared meal. But it takes longer. It is an investment in health: eating better costs less. All of this means reorganizing our lives when we can.
The French eat less and less at the table. Are you worried?
Getting away from the table is always a problem because it is the place where things are said. Usability is essential. At the table we eat less and better. In the United States, I’ve seen people who don’t even sit down to eat. Spending two or three hours at the table is precious, it is a tradition. Every day, cookbooks can favor cooking because they are instruments of transmission and of poetry.
It is also a militant and political approach, as it helps to allow producers to grow other grain varieties.
Do great leaders have a social role to play?
Of course, because we are bound to a certain exemplarity. Our influence is enormous on consumption, like the great fashion designers. When we appropriate certain products, the manufacturers seize them. We saw it with yuzu, a kind of lemon that we imported from Japan. Now, citrus growers in the south of France are growing it. And yuzu becomes accessible to the general public.
How do you integrate the climate challenge into your kitchen?
Many products have not grown before in France. With climate change, it’s different. For example, we grow tomatillos, which come from Mexico, in the Allier. It’s up to us to adapt and now I make a green sauce. As horticulturists incorporate the new temperatures into their culture, the same is done by cooking their new products.
Don’t negotiate prices with your producers. How come ?
The margins of horticulturists are very low. I work directly with them, without intermediaries. It is normal to pay the right price. Especially since I’m profitable in my restaurant ecosystem, as long as I don’t add luxury products. My luxuries are fruits and vegetables, for which I will pay a lot of money, rather than caviar or truffles.
At the restaurant “Le Perchoir” the menu costs 95 euros, not accessible to the greatest number of people. How to democratize haute cuisine?
We have to find other forms. I will only be able to do this in my restaurant: I need to have an anchorage place where I can receive people at home. But I make the parallel with fashion: choosing a gastronomy with high prices also means knowing how to do research, elaborate recipes, push a discourse. Something harder to do in a bistro where you have to feed people in a more invigorating way.
I work directly with horticulturists, without intermediaries. It is normal to pay the right price.
In recent years we have seen a democratization of gastronomy through the success of television programs such as “Top Chef”. What do you think ?
They changed the world of cooking and made a positive impact by serving as a springboard for young chefs such as Mory Sacko, Adrien Cachot or Chloé Charles. But these programs also give a distorted image of the profession by giving it glitter. We don’t cook like in a game where we create recipes from a basket of products. It is a laborious profession where you have to work a lot to get there. Many people have wanted to experience adventure after seeing these shows without realizing the reality.
What does it mean to be a woman in the very masculine world of haute cuisine?
As soon as you go to excellence, there are above all great male chefs. Also because women who choose this path are less attracted to stars, medals and competitions. When you are a woman you have to sacrifice yourself: being pregnant in the kitchen is complicated. Women have been discouraged, while in cooking schools they are the majority. Three or four years later, they disappeared from positions of responsibility. Personally, I have dealt with male-dominated atmospheres but I have found chefs who have trusted me. Since I talk about it a lot, I get a lot of CVs from women. Result: my team is 100% female. I am happy that they think this environment can be benevolent. They can then spread the message.
You say you cook on the left?
Yes, despite the price of the menu. I try to build a politically oriented kitchen. I feel close to environmentalists. I want a cuisine with a virtuous, fair and sustainable ecosystem.
1991 Born in Dijon
2008 French junior saber champion
2015 Join Dan Barber at New York’s famous “Farm to table”
2018 He takes the reins of “Mermoz” where he bluffs all of Paris with his vegetable cuisine
2021 In residence at the “Perchoir”, the Mecca of Parisian gastronomy
2022 Present at the Festival of Humanity