Artisan vegetable farmer Joël Thiébault could start a galaxy with the number of Paris's starred chefs whose audacious dishes are inspired by his couture crops.
If you've eaten at any of Paris's Michelin-starred restaurants over the last decade, you've tasted a bit of the 500-year history that flows through the roots of artisan vegetable farmer Joël Thiébault's couture crudités.
What is your definition of luxury?
Having the time and taking the time.
If luxury were a person, who would it be?
That's too much of a dangerous question.
If luxury were a place, where would it be?
A place that I haven't yet discovered.
If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
A moment of reprieve during the day, when you feel yourself transported somewhere else but you don't know why.
If luxury were an object, what would it be?
An object that makes me think of a beautiful moment, a memory, a person in my family that I never knew but who is part of my history.
It's 9:00am on a brisk Saturday morning at the open-air market along Paris's swish Avenue President Wilson. Artisan vegetable gardener Joël Thiébault—arguably one of the city's most solicited farmers of rare and exotic produce—is fielding questions and giving advice about his crop of the day. Holding up a basket filled with wildly-colored, strangely-shaped, earth-dusted delicacies, such as miniature white eggplants, red carrots and sunburst-yellow zucchinis, one client asks shyly, in broken French, for Thiébault to throw in a vegetable of his choice. Snatching up a bunch of walnut-sized red onions from the back of his abundant stand, he smiles and says, "I know how well you cook vegetables at l'Arpège, try these at home and tell me what you think."
Part of the new brigade of young Japanese chefs working in the kitchens of Paris's starred restaurants for their prized culture of cooking fish and legumes, this budding talent, Thiébault explains, is one of his many fans to traverse the city each week to snatch up ingredients at his market stand to experiment with at home.
Crudité couturier, artisan agriculturalist, celebrity chef supplier—call him what you will; since Thiébault began working his family's centuries-old farm on the outskirts of Paris at the age of 18 (the same land that his ancestors started tilling during the Middle Ages), he has slowly cultivated a following that reads like the index of the Michelin Guide.
What other farmer has chefs such as Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Passard, Pascal Barbot, Hélène Darroze, Pierre Hermé, and Iñaki Aizpitarte programmed on speed-dial?
Granted, it's at Thiébault's stand that the inspiration for their market-driven cuisine—which exalts the quality, diversity, seasonality and provenance of its ingredients over all else—is undoubtedly born.
Passionate about the history of plants and their migrations across cultures, customs and centuries, Thiébault has pioneered a local agricultural revolution that has helped transform the textures and tastes of the capital's contemporary cuisine.
Reviving and sustaining varieties that have faded from view due to the standardization of the global food supply—even at the top tables in Paris!—Thiébault spends his time tirelessly tracking down specific strains from as far as Kyoto, the Czech Republic or even the United States.
"Thirty years ago, I couldn't do what I do now – first, because I didn't have the knowledge, and second, because there was no demand," says Thiébault through a huge smile, as much a signature of the house as his unconventional products. "Back then, the starred chefs proposed menus that were very strict and rigid. They didn't work with local gardeners and producers because they kept the same menu over several months and were searching for continuity, as opposed to seasonal variances. Of course, there were local bistrots that shopped at the market for their 'plat du jour,' but now market cuisine has become much more sophisticated and elaborate, and is found at the some of the most exciting and innovative restaurants. We're able to work with the same chefs all throughout the year, because their focus has shifted. Cuisine today is much more flexible and open."
When he's not tending to the 1600 varieties that he grows throughout the year on his farm in Carrières-sur-Seine, just 7km to the northwest of the Eiffel Tower, the affable Thiébault can be found several times a week animating the same market stand that his great-grandparents set up in 1873. He is one of the few remaining farmers to sell directly to the public and control all aspects of distribution—what stirs Théibault out of bed in the wee hours of the night is the convivial contact and creative collaborations he enjoys with his clientele.
"This constant communication between the chef and the vegetable gardener allows both of us to perfect our products," explains Thiébault, who is known to hand out oddities, be they new varieties or plants plucked at strange stages of maturation, to his close community of celeb-chefs to test drive in the kitchen before harvesting an entire crop.
The challenge of turning one of his bizarre beauties into a show-stopping delicacy is what keeps these chefs zealously faithful fans. "Pierre Gagnaire says it's dangerous for him to come by the stand because he winds up walking away with more stuff than he knows what to do with," laughs Thiébault, remembering a nervous phone call from Gagnaire's sous-chef, baffled as to how to prepare the impossibly bitter, yet fantastically fragrant artichoke flowers that Gagnaire snatched up at market as an ultimate culinary dare.
You don't have to have a star on your apron to become addicted to Thiébault's imperfectly perfect products, however. A revived interest in locally sourced produce and seasonal ingredients combined with Thiébault's rising reputation has made him a Parisian produce Prince. Home chefs and the culinary-curious stand patiently for up to half an hour during market rush hour for a crack at the daily crop. "More and more often, clients come by with their bag and ask, 'What should I eat this week? What do you suggest?' he says, spontaneously suggesting a yellow tomato gazpacho garnished with red scallion shavings and coriander flowers, and baked Parmesan showered zucchini flowers as two quick seasonal favorites.
In the last two years, Thiébault's scope has grown exponentially at the initiative of two enterprising friends who have thrown together an exciting home delivery service called Le Haut du Panier (www.lehautdupanier.com) that keeps Parisians stocked up on Thiébault-signed veggies without having to leave the home.
At 53 years old, with a thriving business built on word-of-mouth endorsement from the best names in the industry, Thiébault could well live off the fat of the land and take it easy. But his ultimate dream could prove his greatest challenge yet: growing limited-edition vegetables personalized for specific chefs. The haute couture of horticulture if the project flourishes, it would be the ultimate expression of his inimitable expertise and symbiotic relationship with the industry's taste-making talents. "One could say that I've seen all there is to see of the restaurant business, but I still want to find out if there's something else that can be done. It would be an absolute luxury, and I would do it in such a way that the knowledge and savoir-faire that go into cultivating each product could be passed along."