The most luxurious thing in the world? A plate of garden-fresh veggies.
So posits chef Paolo Sari of Elsa, the world’s first 100% organic restaurant to obtain a Michelin star (2014).
Elsa is not located on a far-flung farm, however. Commanding a Mediterranean-facing perch in some of the priciest real estate in the world, the restaurant is part of Monte-Carlo
Société des Bains de Mer (Monte-Carlo SBM), the group which has managed most of the Principality’s glittering hotels, casinos, restaurants and nightclubs since 1863.
Monaco is home to jaw-dropping mega-yachts, the Formula 1 Grand Prix, and more supercars (Bentleys and Lamborghinis galore) than, possibly, Monégasque citizens. But this adult playground is also home to an inspiring organic food revolution. It’s here where super chef
Alain Ducasse first made waves at Louis XV, the recently redesigned Michelin three-star restaurant inside the Hotel de Paris, with Riviera-sourced, vegetable-centric haute cuisine. (On the menu since 1987, the signature “Provence garden vegetables cooked with black truffle” goes for 96 euros, or $108.) And HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco helms a foundation dedicated to environmental protection and policy.
High in the hills above Monaco and the Côte d’Azur, chef Paolo Sari has nurtured relationships with local farmers and purveyors to supply the
Monte-Carlo Beach hotel, the chic, retro-style resort where Elsa reigns supreme. The restaurant is named for gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell, who was employed by Monaco in the Roaring Twenties to lure American socialites to a “new” glam vacation destination. In fact, it was American expats who first introduced beach culture and water skiing to the French Riviera.
That plate of assorted vegetables is an Elsa signature. Called Bio Sama, it’s sourced from seven gardens and arranged like a colorful bouquet with herbs, flowers,
Taggiasca olive oil and fleur de sel. “The combination of vegetables and raw herbs with Camargue salt is an ode to both local products as well as the farmers who cultivate them,” Sari tells USA TODAY. “It’s a real luxury because this dish is prepared daily with vegetables plucked from the gardens early in the morning.” A symbol of Sari’s philosophy, Bio Sama expresses “a form of respect that is attached to something important — thanking the earth for what it has provided for us” in Japanese.
In a time of “green washing,” Sari’s cuisine isn’t just a nod to being green; he lives and breathes the mantra. He works directly with 24 Mediterranean fishermen, championing transparency in the buying of sustainable products. Sari won’t serve beef because there isn’t an organic livestock farm within a reasonable distance of the restaurant. All the kitchen’s leftover peelings are composted in the chef’s vegetable garden. Every ingredient is organic, including the ground pepper, and bien sûr, the champagnes and wines paired with the meals.
Sari has now extended the organic focus to the other restaurants at the Monte-Carlo Beach hotel: fresh seafood at Le Vigie, brasserie-style fare at Le Deck, and even authentic pizzas. Overlooking the signature striped cabanas of the beach club, La Pizzeria serves up organic, wood-fired pizzas prepared by Neopolitan pizza gurus Giovanni Pignieri and Tommaso Rosolia. They scored “Best Pizza in the World” at the 24th Pizza World Championship in 2015 with the "O Sole mio", prepared with yellow tomato sauce,
Buffalo mozzarella, basil, Kalamata olives, Cantabrian anchovies and Poutargue fish roe. Before you dig into your pizza, order the basket of crisp, fresh vegetables, paired with three dipping sauces.
“Since I arrived in Monaco in 2012, I have made it my mission to challenge the perceptions of what makes haute cuisine and share the beauty of nature and organic cuisine with my guests,” Sari tells USA TODAY. “In order to gain access to the organic produce I need while maintaining the level of excellence expected by the guests, I have been working with local farmers to develop 15 gardens within 90 miles of Monaco, guaranteeing 330,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables a year for our five restaurants at Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel.”
From October 12-16, Paolo the pioneer is hosting a big organic culinary festival called the Route du Gout. It will be a five-day epicurean blow-out showcasing the region’s producers and winemakers. Monaco is the perfect destination for the event, says chef Sari, because it’s the “intersection of the agricultural and gastronomic art of Italy and France.” There will be gala dinners, children’s workshops, a youth tennis competition, an eco-car showroom, and an organic market set up on the Quai Antoine 1er with tastings and chef’s demos.
“Organic cuisine has always been the formation of my philosophy as a chef,” affirms chef Sari. “I love to see other chefs going in the same direction but what is more important is that individuals begin to go organic in their personal lives. If everybody does a bit, this will make a huge difference. Organic means love; everything made with love is a success. This is the message we hope to share through La Route du Gout.”