We’re in the south of France on our first official shoot day with Paris-born, Toronto-based chef Pascal Ribreau. He’s assembled a filming crew from Toronto to help him breathe life into a long-dreamt idea of his: he’s going to shoot a pilot about French food and culture. Mostly, he’s on a mission to prove Michael Steinberger wrong- the author of “Au Revoir to All That: The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine,” in which Steinberger theorizes that French food is pretty much dead.
We all warn him about the fickle nature of TV these days and broadcast executive’s shifting moods that sway somewhere between docu-soap, reality TV and what I call “humiliation TV.” Ribreau is undeterred. And here we are in the idyllic town of Uzès, in France’s Languedoc region, at a little bistro called “Terroirs” where troubled youth do the serving and fabulous local fare is du rigueur. “To our first day all together and to being here,” says Pascal with a raised wine glass adding, “Four years ago- I was in a coma. I didn’t know whether I’d be here today. I’m so happy I am – Thank you Viagra! And thank you all!”
We toast to that and laugh because we know Pascal and understand the subtext. I personally call him the “miracle man.” After successfully opening Alumette in Montreal, a car accident threw Pascal from the vehicle leaving him wheelchair bound for the rest of his life. But that didn’t stop him from opening the much-lauded Célestin in Toronto (he designed a special wheelchair that allows him to stand so he can cook). It was after that that Pascal suffered a variety of health complications including a series of mini-strokes leaving him in a coma four years ago in Toronto. As a final attempt to resuscitate him, doctors gave him an overdose of Viagra- originally meant as a blood vessel booster- and as if on cue, the chef awoke from his four day hiatus. My point is if anyone can make this work some way, somehow, against broadcaster odds, it’s assuredly Pascal Ribreau- the most positive human being I’ve ever met.
The next day, after months of planning on behalf of Pascal and his wife Laurie, we head off to the one of France’s best kept secrets- the Camargue region. Here, French cowboys have been roaming the plains and swamp lands inhabited by majestic black bulls, white wild horses and rice paddies since the seventeenth century. And I’m not talking about your garden variety cowboy. These lads are called “gardians” and their dress is far from denim rugged. Colourful Provençal shirts peek out from underneath neat vests, a hat somewhere between a fedora and a bowler hat crown their heads and grey stovepipe pants with black piping cover up athletic legs. Yes, we ladies had much eye candy to behold.
We head out to Le Mas de Peint in the sleepy town of Le Sambuc where Lucille Bon and her late husband Jacques created five-star opulence in the heart of France’s “wild west.” Apart from the luxurious boutique hotel that whispers luxury with a Provençal country accent, the estate is a working ranch or “manade” as they’re known here. Amidst the hotel’s signature sage green and soft yellows, Pascal meets with resident chef Julien Banlier (a disciple of famed French great Alain Ducasse) and together, they prepare a gourmet version of the local favourite- Bull Cheek Stew or Gardiane de Taureau.
Usually made with cubed bull meat, this elegant version created by Julien includes braised bull cheeks marinated for two days in star anise, marjoram, onion, local red wine, ginger, garlic, fennel and shallots. Think beef bourguignon but lighter and yet somehow more intense. The bull cheeks melt in the mouth as do garden-picked vegetables prepared the Ducasse way- with a little broth and olive oil to bring out their natural sweetness and essence.
Under a fragrant wisteria –lined terrace, we sit down to a typically Camarguaise meal with two happy chefs who have resurrected and refined a classic French favourite. French food dead? Not if Pascal has anything to say about it. And he’s got plenty to say about the matter- hopefully, coming to a small screen near you.