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Vegan Restaurant Gets Michelin Star in France, a First

PARIS — Lemongrass, seaweed and fir — yes, the tree — are not the sorts of ingredients that once earned French chefs plaudits in the Michelin …

PARIS — Lemongrass, seaweed and fir — yes, the tree — are not the sorts of ingredients that once earned French chefs plaudits in the Michelin Guide, but on Monday the thick red bible of gastronomy announced that it was giving its first star to a fully vegan restaurant in France.

The bestowal of the star to ONA, a restaurant near Bordeaux, is more evidence that a country long renown for classics like coq au vin, blanquette de veau and boeuf bourguignon has opened up to animal-free cuisine. A growing number of chefs are cutting meat from their menus, sometimes entirely.

“It’s a new movement in France, where diets are still very meat-based,” said Claire Vallée, the chef at ONA, which opened five years ago in Arès, a small Atlantic Coast town about 25 miles west of Bordeaux.

“Each has its place,” Ms. Vallée said. “We want to show that you can eat differently.”

The restaurant’s very name speaks to France’s shifting culinary landscape: It stands for origine non-animale.

Vegan establishments have already received Michelin stars in the United States, Spain and Germany. But this is a first for France.

ONA shuns all animal-based products, Ms. Vallée said, even in its decorations and furnishings. It does not, for instance, use wool or leather.

Last fall, its seven-course menu featured dishes with intriguing combinations of fir, boletus mushroom and sake, or dulse seaweed, lemongrass and galangal, a relative of ginger. The restaurant is currently closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Michelin Guide, in a statement this week, said Ms. Vallée had given vegan cuisine its “letters of nobility.”

Gwendal Poullenec, the international head of the Michelin Guides, noted that the move away from meat was not entirely new.

Alain Passard, the owner and chef at L’Arpège in Paris, removed meat from his menu two decades ago, and Alain Ducasse, perhaps France’s biggest culinary superstar, also decided to drastically reduce the amount of meat used at his flagship Parisian restaurant.

But awarding a star to a restaurant that is not just meatless but avowedly vegan has the potential to shake things up even further, Mr. Poullenec said.

“The general public might not associate pure veganism with a gastronomical experience,” he said. A Michelin star might “liberate” chefs who are still reluctant to explore plant-based cooking, he said.

Gwendal Poullenec, the international head of the Michelin Guides, on Monday.Credit…Francois Mori/Associated Press

Movements like veganism and the push for animal rights are growing but have been met with some resistance in France, where meat consumption has declined only slightly since the 1990s, and where animal-based dishes are still a central facet of the country’s culinary identity.

“It’s not easy to do top gastronomy when you break with a cultural marker as powerful as meat,” Mr. Ducasse told the newspaper Le Monde in 2016.

For decades, he noted, vegetables were often regarded as a mere side dish. He acknowledged that meat was still on the menu of many of his restaurants, but said, “We have to eat less in quantity and better in quality.”

ONA was also among 33 restaurants around the country to receive a green star, a new category created by the Michelin Guide last year that rewards restaurants that are “committed to advocating a virtuous, sustainable approach to gastronomy.” Mr. Poullenec said inspectors looked for restaurants that work with local producers, grow their own fruit and vegetables or limit the amount of waste produced in the kitchen.

To the despair of chefs around France, restaurants remained empty for most of 2020 because of the pandemic.

They were forced to close a first time in the spring, when the authorities imposed a strict nationwide lockdown. After a brief summer reopening, restaurants, cafes and bars were shuttered again in November — and will remain so until February at the earliest.

But the Michelin, unlike other culinary guides, has continued to hand out its coveted one, two and three stars, which can vault a restaurant out of obscurity but also put immense psychological or financial pressure on chefs to maintain their rating.

No three-star restaurants were demoted in the guide’s 2021 edition, which was presented on Monday at a ceremony at the Jules Vernes, a restaurant in the Eiffel Tower, with only a few chefs in attendance. The event was livestreamed on social media. Only one restaurant, run by the chef Alexandre Mazzia in Marseille, was promoted to three stars this year.

Ms. Vallée, who is originally from the eastern city of Nancy, is an archaeologist by training who fell in love with cooking after she took a summer job in Switzerland. She decided to hone her skills over several years, including one in Thailand, where she discovered the potential of a tasty cuisine focused on plants, spices, vegetables and herbs.

But in 2016, when she pitched her project for a vegan restaurant upon returning to France, traditional banks saw little potential.

“Maybe in Paris it would have been different,” she said, but in the Gironde region, where Arès is located, “no one was doing that at the time.”

So Ms. Vallée turned instead to crowdfunding and to La Nef, an organization that specializes in loans for “ethical” and environmentally friendly businesses. She raised thousands of euros, and about 80 volunteers helped her team with the construction work.

She is hardly the first chef to explore vegan cuisine, Ms. Vallée noted. But if a Michelin star can increase its visibility, she said, “that’s also what we are here for.”

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