Settling in at the Château of the Gods

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In an exclusive interview with Tootlafrance, Michelin-starred chef and self-confessed Ireland fan Julien Poisot talks about life at the Château de Mercuès

It’s a warm day in the southern-central Lot department of France. I’m sitting in the opulent surroundings of the lounge just off the main dining room in the Château de Mercuès – 13th-century edifice and former summer residence of the Bishop of Cahors. For the last three decades, it has been a luxury hotel owned by the Vigouroux family, who have also developed a superb vignoble from a 32-hectare vineyard, whose award-winnning produce has earned the Château membership of the exclusive “Grands Vins Seigneurs” Association. The next crop of dark Malbec wine is maturing in the enormous cellar beneath the huge terraced garden.

The Château enjoys a commanding position high above the River Lot with panoramic views of the surrounding vineyards and pastures. The atmospheric town of Cahors is just 5km away from here, even though the peaceful surroundings make it feels like you’re in the Belle Vieille France from many decades ago. I’m seated opposite Mercuès’s head chef, next to a window that overlooks the courtyard where I’ve just had lunch consisting of some superb local foie gras and some samples of The Château de Mercuès’ finest wines. It doesn’t get much better than this.

“You’ve got a beautiful country in Ireland too,” counters Julien Poisot.

The fresh-faced young chef (who could easily pass for an Irishman with his fair complexion) is enjoying a very prestigious position at the age of 31 – a posting he began in May of this year. His career to date has been something of a meteoric path that began when he was appointed head chef at La Manufacture – a high-end restaurant created for the Colbert hotel in Châteauroux. Poisot’s distinctions include a second placing at the Toques d’Or Internationales in 2006 and the prize of Chef Espoir (best Young Chef) from Chef Magazine in 2010.

“I worked for six years for the Loiseau group,” he says, referring to the group of restaurants founded by the famous late 3-star chef Bernard Loiseau. “I was three years at the Tante Louise in Paris as head chef and three years as sous-chef at the 3-Michelin-star Relais Bernard Loiseau.”

This period under the guidance of the Loiseau spirit was, he says, a defining one for him as a chef:

“It was really since I began to work in the Loiseau restaurants that I really started to develop on a professional basis – in my culinary personality, if you like. That’s why when I talk about my career to date, I talk almost exclusively of that period.”

Bernard Loiseau was a legend in French and world cuisine. He committed suicide at the age of 52 in 2003 when it looked as if his restaurant “La Côte-d’Or” was going to lose its 3-star status. It is still located in the Burgundy village of Saulieu, right next to where Poisot grew up.

“For me growing up, it was a legendary name and to find myself working with the Loiseau brand in a position of responsibility was something very…(searching for an appropriate word) …very important, let’s say!

“So I took up the position of chef here because I wanted to see if I could put into practice all that I inherited at the Maison Loiseau without having anyone else looking over my shoulder, as it were… to see if I could create a beautiful cuisine in a beautiful establishment such as this one.”

Julian Poisot on the terrace of the Château de Mercuès: "I wanted... to see if I could create a beautiful cuisine in a beautiful establishment such as this one."

Julian Poisot on the terrace of the Château de Mercuès: “I wanted… to see if I could create a beautiful cuisine in a beautiful establishment such as this one.”

There’s no doubt that the surroundings here are inspirational. Set atop a cliff overlooking the wide serpentine River Lot, the former residence of the Bishops of Cahors is certainly a special place. Its name stems from a temple dedicated to the Roman Mercury that was originally built on this site.

So is it working so far?

“It seems to be, he laughs, sipping his coffee. Of course, we’ve only been working here for a couple of months yet, but it’s a really nice region and a really nice place.”

Poisot seemingly had plenty of offers in his chosen trade, particularly after working at the highest level for so long.

“I chose the Château de Mercuès because it’s a place with a lot of character. It’s something of a challenge to come here and make a cuisine to match the Château. When you arrive at the Château first, you just go ‘Wow!’ and you realise that you need to come up with something special of the level of the place itself!”

One of the defining characteristics of his spiritual home in Saulieu was the fact that the late Loiseau stuck to a traditional French approach rather than become seduced by the fashion for Oriental-inspired fusion cuisine. If Poisot has been given free reign at the Château de Mercuès, what kind of cuisine can people expect?

“I think that every chef has his own culinary personality and that if a place like this takes on a chef that is too ‘modern’, then it won’t necessarily be a good fit. I think that the restaurant here has been going well so far but it’s obviously important that they maintain a cuisine that works with the surroundings and tradition of the place. So if you have a chef who has a molecular cuisine or something that’s too modern, it just won’t work with the Château here.

A section of the Château de Mercuès wine cellar

A section of the Château de Mercuès wine cellar

“I have a cuisine which is quite classical but which likes to surprise a little too – with certain spices and things like that – but which remains within the spirit of a cuisine that can work with the image of this Château.”

Is that what visitors to the Château de Mercuès expect?

“I think so… when you arrive at a 13th-century castle, you don’t expect to be greeted with meals involving smoke effects and suchlike… you have to be able to astonish people whilst still keeping it relatively simple. Voilà.”

In Ireland, I tell him, there has been a recent return to trying some of the traditional things that our grandparents used to eat – sheep’s heads, hearts and other items that had become unfashionable, but which are now enjoying something of a rejuvenation in Irish restaurants. Has there been a similar trend in France?

“Some of that kind of stuff that was lost has also come back to a certain extent. My parents, for example, would have eaten a lot more offal than I ever did – kidneys, calf’s head, cow’s tongue… that kind of thing. And it’s true that the generation after that eats more of the ‘noble’ cuts of animals. But there has always been a certain clientèle that love that kind of produce. I do ris de veau (made from the gullet and/or pancreas of a calf), for example and there’s a certain section of people that just love ris de veau.”

Poisot also tries to keep to a minimum the distance that produce needs to travel and to maintain a largely regional cuisine. the wine served here only has to make the short journey from the cellar (via the bottling plant) as the Château de Mercuès is a hotel/winery.

“We don’t have the sea here, of course, so a lot of our fish has to travel! But otherwise, I try to keep the menu as regional and as French as possible. With vegetables, I work 85% of the time with local produce and with trout, for example, I also get it from a local fish-farm.”

Paradoxically, one of the items that he has to import are frogs. As of this moment, there is almost nobody in France producing frogs for consumption.

“Yes,” Poisot smiles, “In France, we eat plenty of frogs but there’s no-one producing them – or at least, very very little. There’s a similar situation with freshwater crayfish; we’re no longer allowed to fish them in France for the moment because their stocks have become so low. It’s partly because the American crayfish was imported and decimated a lot of the local species.”

Divine Lunch - eating al fresco in the courtyard of the Château de Mercuès

Divine Lunch – eating al fresco in the courtyard of the Château de Mercuès

Speaking of EU rules and regulations, I ask him if he’s heard of the new one coming into effect on the 13th of December 2014, obliging all restaurants to list on their menus any potential allergens. Interestingly, the awareness in Ireland – where EU regulations are enforced with zealous abandon – seems to be far higher from talking to chefs there. Poisot hasn’t heard about it. I mention that EU regulations forbid the sale of fish from a chef of a restaurant to a member of the public. In Ireland, this law is strictly adhered to. I’d been told that in France, it’s not. He laughs as he confirms that French restaurants are probably not even sure what is allowed or not in that regard. In any case, that particular law is not enforced.

Lunch was divine and Poisot is at pains to point out to me on a number of occasions that the evening dinner is where it’s really at. Before I leave, I tell him that I hope to see him in Ireland some time. Some years previously, he told me, he had begun a motorcycle adventure across Celtic countries that was to have included Ireland but on which he only made it as far as Scotland.

“Yes, hopefully,” he smiles, seemingly eager to reignite his dream of visiting the Emerald Isle. It’s a shame there isn’t time on this trip to sample the main work of art at dinner time. In any case, if it’s even half as impressive as the lunch, then it’ll be worth a return trip.

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