Arnaud Donckele was destined for a career in the culinary arts from a young age. With his father working as a caterer for a delicatessen, food and gastronomy were always part of his life and something he continued to be interested in as he grew up. Not to mention that he also wanted to make his father proud by pursuing a profession that aligned with his passions.
“I knew right away that if I wanted to capture my father’s attention, I had to be able to join one of his two passions: cooking or hunting. That’s how I landed this job as a chef.
“After completing my studies at the École Ferrandi, I joined Les Prés d’Eugénie in Eugénie-les-Bains with Michel Guérard as an intern — a pivotal moment in my career. Working and training with Michel Guérard was life-changing. He is intelligent and poetic, and I couldn’t have learnt from anyone better. I trained with him for three years until I discovered the South of France at Louis XV in Monaco with Alain Ducasse, and then in Saint-Tropez at La Vague d’Or, where I created my first dish. Provence became close to my heart, and I wanted to stay there and discover the various techniques and flavours of the region.”
And that’s precisely what he did. As the Head Chef of La Vague d’Or since 2004, Donckele has spent the last 18 years perfecting his craft in tune with Provence’s culinary landscape, which has been received with much reverence. In 2004, Gault&Millau awarded La Vague d’Or with four toques, and in 2010, the Michelin Guide lauded the restaurant with two stars, followed by a third star in 2013. As of 2016, La Vague d’Or now has 5 toques, and in 2017, Gault&Millau rated the restaurant with 19.5 points. In his personal capacity, Donckele was named Chef of the Year 2013 by Le Chef and voted The World’s Best Chef 2019 by his fellow culinary commandeers at The Chefs World Summit. In 2020, Arnaud was crowned Gault&Millau’s Cook of the Year.
Although all the awards are welcome recognition for the chef and his hard work, it was a touching moment with a diner at La Vague d’Or that Arnaud still holds as his most special achievement thus far.
“I met a client at La Vague d’Or and this lady was in tears at the end of dinner. It is this kind of moment, the feeling of transmitting real emotions, that I want to share through my kitchen.
“The leading principle of my kitchen is to give joy to customers, to bring them happiness. To make people live a moment that can touch them in the depths of their hearts. To create memories, recall the smells and flavours of a touching moment in their lives. Make them live a moment that marks them and brings comfort.
“Transmitting true emotions is the goal guiding my work. The table has a prominent place in each of our days, and it’s up to us to make these moments as memorable as possible. Being at the table is one of the strong anchors of our French way of life.”
From the food presented on the table to the way the table is set and the ambience surrounding it, all of this is considered as part of the experience in Donckele’s restaurants. From La Vague d’Or at Cheval Blanc St-Tropez to his newest restaurant, Plénitude at Cheval Blanc Paris, each restaurant uses meticulous attention to detail to reflect the character of each locale, both in the food and the setting.
“In St-Tropez as in Paris, I seek to bring art to the table by giving importance to every detail, from the napkin to the dishes. For this, we are fortunate to have crockery creations by Sylvie Coquet and Jars or beautiful pieces found by our antique dealer Mariane Daudré.
In St-Tropez, the restaurant’s atmosphere is imbued with sunshine and is inspired by the scents of Provence. There is almost no difference between the inside and the outside; there are many references to the environment, between sand and driftwood. Then comes this fresco by Capron, a huge Mediterranean sun, which follows all the features found in the St-Tropez Maison.
“In Paris, I try to bring an extremely poetic touch while creating a soothing atmosphere. The setting of Plénitude is quite different; we are close to the Pont Neuf, the mythical bridge of Paris. The view is very important; it offers a glimpse of the Palais de Justice and the less-classic, but just as incredible, Paris. I was able to build the room in perfect harmony with the architect Peter Marino. The presence of the stage allows all our guests to enjoy it. The work of the craftsmen is also showcased in the décor, whether it is with the bubble wall or the vault of the wines designed by Etienne Moyat.”
Donckele draws further on France’s character and culture in his cooking too, especially at Plénitude. Here, everything on the menu is guided by sauces, which are iconic in French cuisine. With every dish, a sauce is served, and it is this sauce that gives the dish its depth.
Just as the sauces are the inspiration behind the dishes at Plénitude, each of Arnaud’s creations is led by a will — a mother idea that guides the map behind each of his plates. But this is not done in isolation; it’s a team effort that include his fellow chefs as well as his producers.
“Everything is done out of passion; creativity comes by being curious about everything, exchanging with producers and teams. A man alone is nothing; it is necessary to establish correspondences between the arts and the craftsmen. A fisherman is an artist to me.”
With this notion, it comes as no surprise that many of Donckele’s dishes feature fish, along with other locally sourced ingredients that highlight the work of artisanal farmers and producers.
“It is in Provence that I have an incredible network of producers who understand my quest for quality. I have built a real relationship with these local producers. All passionate like me, we now have more than discussions, but concrete actions. We work hand in hand to develop crops and livestock. I also initiate this same approach in the Paris region. The cuisine in Paris is not only Parisian, but French. We have the opportunity to find amazing products. We always buy our products from our producers, not from central purchasing bodies.”
The producers play a key role in the success of the kitchens Arnaud helms, along with his passion and unwavering commitment to always offering the best. Above all, it’s integral to work with your heart, says the chef — you have to have a great sense of generosity with everyone from the producers to the teams and the hosts. In his eyes, the more one gives, the more one receives — and it is this sincerity that has always played a key role in his approach to hospitality.
“My culinary philosophy has not changed since I started. I’ve always had the same credo, offering a sincere cuisine of emotions that transforms the table into the most beautiful art of living. I have only one goal in mind: think about who will sit down, unfold his napkin and taste the first forkful.
“The kitchen is lived by all the senses. I want diners to find in my dishes all the sincerity with which we cook. Dinner is an emotion, and it must come out, whether through a childhood memory, the discovery of new flavours or the creation of new memories. All this is like an emotional heritage that is constantly being built with all the teams.”
It is clear that the diners’ enjoyment lies at the epicentre of the Donckele culinary experience, and when his diners are filled with content, this, in turn, brings him joy. But equally, continually sharing, exchanging and searching for gastronomic knowledge makes him truly happy. Forever pushing the boundaries and never settling for what already exists is what keeps his passion burning.
The LVMH Group, which Donckele has worked with since the purchase of Résidence de la Pinède (now Cheval Blanc St-Tropez) and La Vague D’Or in 2016, has always supported the chef. With their joint goals of creating avant-garde, emotional experiences, it’s always been a perfect match, underpinned by immense trust.
“I started by working for the Résidence de la Pinède, which was bought by the LVMH Group in 2016. I now serve at La Vague d’Or at Cheval Blanc St-Tropez and Plénitude at Cheval Blanc Paris, restaurants belonging to the same group. The management of LVMH Hotel Management trusted me, and it is very important for me to work in this state of mind. Trust is earned in good and bad times, and I thank my CEO, Olivier Lefebvre, who has allowed me to move forward and with whom we understand each other perfectly.
“Every day, every service is a challenge. As soon as you think you’ve succeeded, you fall. But I’m not alone; I have great teams which are my vital organs. I have the support and listening of my superiors, both in my pleasant moments and in the most complex moments.”
And there has been a fair share of these complex moments over the last two years, but armed with passion and the strength of his team, Arnaud remains hopeful for the future of fine dining. A future that he aims to fill with “cuisine thought and served with sincerity and honesty and without calculations.”
As we make our way through 2022, there’s only one thing on Donckele’s mind: to continue to serve his customers, bringing them all the happiness in the world. And with his standout cuisine, pure joy is what you’ll experience when dining at La Vague d’Or or Plénitude.
This editorial first appeared in FOUR’s 01.22 edition