Jacques le Divellec
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Jacques Le Divellec

by Philippe Broad

ARIS, 22 September 1997 - If you were looking for a synonym for "seafood", you might say Le Divellec. At 64, this chubby, blue-eyed Breton is the proud owner of a Michelin 2-Star flagship restaurant moored on the Esplanade des Invalides in Paris, and has recently bought back his former restaurant on the harbour at La Rochelle, which launched his career.

A workaholic, Le Divellec also oversees two franchised restaurants: the Michelin 2-star, Le Sea Grill - Jacques Le Divellec in Brussels, and the recently opened La Cocina del Mar in Madrid. Further franchising plans exist but are held secret. His sixth book, Le Régime de la Mer (Staying Trim with Seafood) has just been launched by Hachette, and his love of organising Seafood Festivals around the world had him cooking for yachtsman at Cowes on the Isle of Wight in July. He will also help set up a French hotel school in Vietnam when French-speaking nations assemble there this fall for their annual conference.

Le Divellec's fascination for the sea dates from earliest childhood. Although born in Paris, the family moved to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast when he was three. Holidays were invariably spent at the grandparents' home on the Ile aux Moines (Isle of Monks), a small island off Brittany. Le Divellec recalls endlessly roaming the beaches and coves, or going fishing with his grandfather who was a professional sailor. During the school-term in La Rochelle, he often looked by the fish-wharf on his way to school to see what the fishermen had brought in. The sea and its creatures were soon to hold no secrets for him, and his mother's and grandmother's, passion for preparing anything edible he could catch did the rest.

At 15 his mind was set and he opted for hotel school. After a few stints in hotel kitchens learning to work in a brigade, he did his military service as a chef in the Navy. As with many French chefs, this was the real start to his career. Aboard, they like good food! Grounded, he was posted as chef to Marshall Juin. The next two years were spent at Paris' Grand Vefour, learning everything that Raymond Oliver could teach him---until the sea beckoned again.

In 1958, the twenty-six-year-old Le Devellec opened his first bistrot-restaurant, Le Chat Noir, on the harbour at La Rochelle and within four years earned his first Michelin star. In 1973 Le Chat Noir became a comfortable hotel and restaurant rebaptised Le Yachtman. By 1983 fame and heavy pressure from friends lured him away from the sea to set up in Paris. Within walking distance of the French National Assembly, Ministries and the Elysée Palace, the restaurant soon became one of Paris' smartest "canteens" for politicians, diplomats and local lobbyists.

Here he is Chef (in French, aptly both "Boss" and "Cook"). When he is not directing his kitchens, he works from a small office behind the restaurant piled high with books on the sea and its riches, including his own volumes. Two wall-boards abound with photos of celebrity patrons, from international film stars to well-known political figures, including Presidents Mitterrand and Chirac. The telephone rings constantly with requests for special events in France and abroad. A harried assistant interrupts with questions like, "Chef, what are we going to do? A man has just booked a table for the third time this week and we haven't changed the menu!". "Tell the kitchen to be creative", replies Chef.

Like all good ships' masters, Le Divellec knows how to delegate to take in other activities. In the restaurant, the ubiquitous Madame Le Divellec ensures that everything runs like clockwork. "In the kitchens, I have two second chefs, not just one---two", insists Le Divellec. "This means I can get away". Over the last 30 years, Le Divellec has travelled the world to discover what abounds in the oceans elsewhere or to teach what he himself has learned. A favourite pastime is Seafood Festivals. "We take over a restaurant in a top-flight hotel in a major city for two or three weeks and prepare French cuisine using local seafoods", says Le Divellec. "We have worked for years with Hiltons and other hotels throughout the Far East, as well as in Canada and the United States. People love it, and you pick up a lot, too".

When asked about spare time, Le Divellec jokes that he works most of it managing his four restaurants or preparing new books. Trips to Brussels, Madrid or La Rochelle are usually made at week-ends so as to be in Paris during the week days when his most influential clients are present. His co-authors and publishers are also more easily available on these days.

Books are written in partnership with food-writers or diet specialists. "I write myself and dictate recipes into my machine. My co-author completes this with research and polishes the copy. I wrote my first book, La Cuisine de la Mer, with Céline Vence while still at La Rochelle. Céline is one of France's finest and most knowledgeable food-writers. She is an absolute stickler for detail. It has become a work of reference for all hotel and cooking schools". Published in France in 1981 (Robert Laffont), the book was to be a great succes in Japan two years later when the Paris restaurant opened. It has seen a steady flow of Japanese patrons ever since.

The latest title, Le Régime de la Mer, is a project that took years to put together. Co-authored by pharmacist and dietician, Yvette Pécau, it contains some 180 recipes from Cod's head consommé at 40 kcals to Ailloli (a delicious dish from southern France of salted cod and garlic mayonnaise) at 595 kcals per portion. Cookbook fanatics and diet enthusiasts should find it a bargain at Frs 95.

Despite the fact that he caters mainly for those with a comfortable bank account, the man himself retains the simple likes of his childhood days. A working lunch among friends is more likely to be a fricasée of cockles and clams with pasta than lobster. Le Divellec's books reflect this outlook with recipes for every purse.

As a parting question, I asked Le Divellec how he saw his personal contribution to the cuisine of the sea:

"Defending the cuisine of the sea, promoting its products and teaching people about seafoods. I am highly critical about a lot of what goes on still. Eating fresh fish is essential. That is why only two types of fishing should be considered. Coastal fishing where the fish is sold within 48 hours of being caught, or deep-sea fishing where the catch is frozen immediately. I would also like to see a legal difference made between wild and farmed fish so that people know what they're eating. We also need to widen the choice. There are some 300 edible species in French coastal waters and we only eat about 20 of them. That will be a topic for a future book, De la Piballe à la Baleine (From Tiddlers to Whales), describing the varities commonly found around the main fishing ports. This October my next book giving some 280 recipes with 130 photos, Le Poisson en Majuscule, will be published by Solar. Shortly, I hope to start publishing recipes on the Internet....."

We got cut off by yet another in-coming call.

Le Divellec
107, rue de l'Université 75007 Paris.

Tel : 33 (01) 45 51 96 96
Fax : 33 (01) 45 51 31 75
E-mail : ledivellec@relaischateaux.fr

Clientèle : Businessmen, Politicians, Show business, International

Accepted Credit cards : Visa, Amex, JCB, Eurocard-Mastercard, Diners

Menus : Frs 290 - Frs 390 (service included (Lunchtime only)
Carte : Frs 550 - Frs 700 service included

Pets not accepted

Closed Sunday and Monday, and from 24 December to 3 January

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