Breaking the rules of Marseille bouillabaisse, by Tristan Rutherford
South China Morning Post, 28 December 2017
Triple Michelin star chef Gérald Passedat gazes over the Mediterranean from his Marseille restaurant, Le Petit Nice. “Bouillabaisse was originally a poor dish for poor people,” he explains. “The ingredients come from in there.” Passedet then gestures to the lapping sea below his restaurant terrace. Here rascasse rockfish, cigale de mer crustaceans and étrille velvet crabs munch on local algae.
In centuries past, these hard-to-sell sea creatures were landed in Marseille’s Vieux Port and boiled dockside (bouillir in French) in seawater. When larger fish were added the heat then was lowered (abaissé). And with that, the humble ‘bouillabaisse’ was born.
How times change. This simple fisherman’s stew is now dished up at Le Petit Nice as part of a €200 bouillabaisse tasting menu. Travelling gourmand Anthony Bourdain recently flew in to make the traditional dish alongside Passedat. Some top city chefs are even serving Bouillabaisse Milkshake and Hamburger de Bouillabaisse. Akin to serving ketchup with foie gras, such creations shocked locals.
Bouillabaisse’s global brand awareness stems from the dish’s strict codification nearly 40 years ago. “The Bouillabaisse Charter was created in 1980 to stop bad chefs selling bad bouillabaisse,” continues Passedat. “Some cooks were even importing frozen fish!” The Charter stated that at least four types of local fish must be used, including scorpion fish, red mullet, conger eel and John Dory. The original signatory restaurants included Le Miramar, which now offers bouillabaisse cooking lessons in both English and Chinese.
But after the bouillabaisse rules were set, experimentation started. The classic dish of stock-sautéed fish bathed in an ocean potage, with a potato alongside and garlic croutons floating on top, became a framework that Marseille chefs could push to the limit. “People travel from the world over to eat our home dish,” says Passedat. “The recipe changes you now see make headlines.” And the best way to taste the change that’s in the air? That would be by consuming three bouillabaisses in one day.
The following morning I explore the Vieux Port, the old harbour a mix of the tradition and the contemporary. The fish market where bouillabaisse was born is now sheltered by a vast mirrored ceiling designed by Foster + Partners. iPhones snap the same rockfish ingredients that have been caught locally since Greeks settled here in 600BC. Fishing yachts sail in – as superyachts sail out.
The InterContinental Hotel Dieu, a 500-year-old hospital converted into a five-star hotel, offers panoramic vistas over the port’s terracotta rooftops. It’s here that I meet head chef Lionel Levy, the creator of the Bouillabaisse Milkshake, in Alcyone, the panoramic hotel restaurant that holds his single Michelin star.
“The Bouillabaisse Charter is respected,” says Levy. “But the recipe is as ancient as the port city you see from our restaurant window: every family has their own version.” Levy has therefore taken the Charter’s first line, Il n'est pas possible de normaliser la cuisine (“It is not possible to normalise cooking”) to absolute extremes.
“When I was a young chef I wanted to prove something, so I created the Milkshake de Bouillabaisse.” The multi-coloured mousse I’m served scandalised Marseille society. The base layer is a spicy rouille of olive oil, garlic, potato and saffron. Next a frothy section of eggs and mascarpone has been soda siphoned on top. A hunk of seared John Dory is placed upon this foamy bed, before the tall glass is topped with fish stock. “You must eat all layers at once,” explains Levy. “So you feel the original dish’s pungent spice, then silky texture, then punchy flavour.” It’s a taste of France’s most innovative city in a glass.
As much as Levy champions the reinvention of bouillabaisse, he understands that it remains the city’s “must-eat”. His personal go-to establishment is Chez Michel, and Levy still serves a version originelle of bouillabaisse on Alcyone’s daily €99 three-course menu. The brand, if not the Charter, is so powerful that Marseille’s Tourism Board invites foodie Instagrammers to eat the dish and promote the city’s foodie roots. Could the recipe even evolve from its age-old home? “If a Chinese chef in Hong Kong creates bouillabaisse with local rockfish and soft shell crab, that’s very interesting as dishes have to evolve,” says Levy. “I’m not sure if they’d produce bouillabaisse but it’s something I’d love to try.”
Back across the Vieux Port, young chef Sylvain Robert claims that current bouillabaisse experimentation runs in tandem with Marseille’s inventive food scene. At his gourmet restaurant L’Aromat, where lunchtime set menus costs €22 including wine, he’s sailing the Charter even closer to the wind. “Twenty years ago Marseille food was bouillabaisse and pizza. Now the city has exploded into oriental patisserie, fresh sardine shops and organic ice creameries like Ego. There are even communal tapas tables like Marché St-Victor.” For Robert, his now infamous Hamburger de Bouillabaisse is emblematic of a culinary city in flux.
The €15 starter looks fabulous. My ‘hamburger’ is presented like a tasting menu course, with a shot glass filled with the glossy fish soup. Plus a paper cone of panisse chips made from chickpea flour, an everyday ingredient in Provence. A mini slab of John Dory is squished between tomatoes and rouille, then sandwiched between toasted bread. It’s Marseille’s immortal dish served in three triumphant mouthfuls. A Filet-O-Fish for royalty, where quality ingredients conform to the spirit of the Charter, if not the letter.
“Some older Marseille people were shocked,” laughs Robert. “However, I want my creations to amuse, educate and please. If not, why bother going to a restaurant?”
That said, one thing that bouillabaisse chefs young and old agree to respect is the price. “Good fish, oil and saffron aren’t cheap,” warns Robert. “If you pay €15 for bouillabaisse it won’t be good. Instead pay €60 at restaurant like L'Epuisette for food that memories are made of.”
Even Michelin three-star chefs like Gérald Passedat have pushed the boat out. That evening I dine at his Restaurant Le Môle Passedat atop the Mucem Mediterranean history museum, along with Emmanuel Perrodin, Marseille’s leading food historian. Before us the twilight sea glitters with passenger ferries en-route to Algeria, Tunisia, Italy and Morocco. “And below us,” chimes Perrodin, “are millennia-old artefacts that describe the infusion of flavours that make modern day Marseille”. These exhibits include olive oil amphorae from Turkey and wine jars from the Adriatic.
Passedat’s culinary deconstruction of bouillabaisse is priced at €38, or as part of the spell-bindingly good €75 set dinner menu. It’s outrageously photogenic, with red mullet and monkfish are scalpel-sliced into triangles of ozone-fresh flesh. There’s a copper pot of moules. Langoustine are scattered into a vast bowl, followed by lashings of fish soup over the entire ensemble.
Perrodin enjoys the flavours but tastes a wider trend. “Bouillabaisse has evolved with the city,” he explains. “First the Ancient Greeks brought their olive oil. Then Spanish brought saffron. Before tomatoes from the New World completed the dish in the 18th century.” The most exciting question is what Marseille’s most famous dish will evolve into next.
Read more French food and drink travel features from Tristan and Kathryn