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The Alps' Best-Kept Secret

Michelin-starred restaurant La Bouitte is a product of three generations of brilliant chefs. 

Ravioli in a clear broth with ham and onion (c) Matthieu Cellard

In a family, witnessing three generations of stellar chefs is a rare thing. Especially when the family is hidden away up a valley in an alpine village. Welcome to the Meilleur’s kingdom: La Bouitte, a Savoyard Michelin star restaurant and 1 key Michelin hotel.

It all started with René Meilleur: in 1976, the patriarch and his wife Marie-Louise decide to build “the chalet of their dreams” at 1500 metres high in the small rural hamlet of Saint-Marcel. The first iteration of the menu is simple and generous: it focuses on hearty mountain specialties like fondue and raclette. If it weren’t for René personality, attention to detail and passion for old alpine artifacts, there would be no sign of a gastronomic dynasty in the making.

A buffet table from the 18th Century (c) Matthieu Cellard

The first five years are predictable – hard work, seasonal success, more hard work – till the couple has dinner at Paul Bocuse’s restaurant in 1981. “In one dinner, I understood that, like the chef, I wanted my daily life in the kitchen to revolve around local produce, artisans and our mountain terroir: alpine herbs, fish from our mountain lakes, meat from our neighbors”, René recalls. At that moment, the couple started feeling proud of their mountain heritage and putting it forward: going from room to room in La Bouitte nowadays feels like stepping back into time with sculpted wooden trunks, collectible Savoyard plates, old religious crosses, artisanal tools, ornate jars, molds and cooking pots. More than a family home, La Bouitte is a slice of alpine traditions.

Free range chicken with celery root (c) Matthieu Cellard

Yet nothing feels old at La Bouitte. On the contrary. La Bouitte’s greatest strength today lies in the fact that it is not only family owned but run by a brilliant father-and-son duo: chefs René & Maxime Meilleur. “Transmission is a natural thing between us. After 25 years in the kitchen together, we function like an old couple with a lot of common sense. More than sharing the same education, we learnt and understood what becoming a Michelin star means. And we’re still not sure what it means! We’re just very happy to invent every dish together because together we are “Meilleur” (better)!”, explains René, whose son joined his ‘favourite playground’ in 1996 and never looked back. “My parents are true alpine souls: their door is always open; they are not only welcoming by they love to give and please. Many of our clients (who come to have lunch in their skiing gear) have become friends over the years; it’s our family’s true nature, we can’t do otherwise!”, adds Maxime.

When it comes to cooking, the recipe is as simple – yes extremely sophisticated. “For us cooking is all about translating the landscape and the seasons: “In winter, it’s all soft and snow dusted; in summer, it’s wildly green. The menu either follows the course of the seasons or the course of family stories. Or both!”, René adds.

La Bouitte in 1976

On a hand-crafted white ceramic plate that mimics the alpine relief, the signature trout dish is a beauty: caught the same day, it is kept alive in the old stone pool till the last minute before it is cooked in vinegar ‘au bleu’ – an ancient family recipe that gives the skin a blueish colour – and served with tow perfectly glazed heirloom carrots. A simplicity that gives any client the thrills. “We’ve proven that by sticking to traditions, we changed people perception of what a gastronomic dinner is: it’s not only about lobster and caviar, the most simple produce - when picked a few minutes being served - can surpass any expectations. Take flowers for example: they are a true gift of nature, and when you know where to find them and how to use them – again, longstanding family traditions - they add a whole new dimension to a dish”, explains Maxime.

Three generations of Meilleur, René, Maxime and Oscar (c) Matthieu Cellard

"When he’s socialising with the clients, I miss him in the kitchen: he’s my other half, my other set of hands. Yet we are different: I need to dream and escape whereas Maxime is more down to earth. I am too old now to accomplish all I want, yet I know nature watches over me: I will always need to build, it’s a disease we all carry in the Alps. We’re only reassured once we have stone walls around us, wood for the winter, milk from our cows and jams to sweeten our days! Looking back, my life has been easy: I feel like I’ve never worked a single day in my life!”, adds René, smiling. 

“I know I inherit the workload, that I need to keep building and growing my own garden, and I wouldn’t like it any other way. It makes me very proud every day! At least as much as seeing my son lead the way forward (his son Oscar has recently joined chef Arnaud Donckele’s close team at Cheval Blanc)”, concludes Maxime proudly.