In January, 2021, the Michelin Guide France awarded its first ever star to a vegan restaurant. ONA, which stands for 'Origine Non Animale' (non-animal origin) is located in Arès, near Bordeaux, in the South West of France.
Roasted cauliflower, fresh turmeric, squash oil, seaweed tartare, buckwheat tuile and citronella-saffron consomme; hot/cold asparagus, sweet potato gnocchi, grapefruit vinaigrette and timut pepper... These are just a few of the dishes that convinced the red guide, which is full of praise for chef Claire Vallée's cuisine. The guide said: "The dishes, aesthetic, are finely worked, with beautiful variations on fruits and vegetables... tasty journey into unexpected gastronomy, which is expressed in all its complexity in a seven-course evening menu. This original and creative table deserves your full attention."
The restaurant, which opened in the fall of 2016, almost never got off the ground, as Vallée recalls: "At the time, the banks closed their doors on me. I was told that a vegan restaurant wouldn't work in a region where we ate a lot of oysters and foie gras. Arès is a small town, I was self-taught, no one knew me and we didn't yet have much perspective on veganism ... In short, it was very complicated."
But there was never a question of her ever giving up. The chef swiftly started a crowdfunding campaign to raise sufficient money as well as being helped by ethical bank, the NEF. To put the finishing touches to her restaurant, a former pizzeria, Vallée launched an appeal on social networks and much to her surprise, many people volunteered to help. "I saw all people of all trades come and help me. These same people were my first clients."
A decisive trip to Thailand
Vallée, who holds a doctorate in archaeology, was never destined to become a chef. Waitressing through her studies, the young woman left for Switzerland one summer, for a season. "In the end, I stayed for eight years," she laughs. "Soon after, I was offered a place in a pastry shop, which I had never done before. Another restaurant offered me a place in the kitchen and after a while, the chef left and my employer asked me to take his place. I felt that I didn't have the skills for it, but he told me that I was capable and that if I didn't accept, I had to leave," recalls Vallée.
The young woman subsequently travelled around Thailand for a year, where she discovered vegetarian cuisine, herbs, spices, plants, as well as tofu and seitan. “There are no dairy products there and very little meat. I started to really get excited about cooking and the endless possibilities. Did you know that there are over 200 varieties of tomatoes for example? It's incredible."
After this experience, Vallée returned to France and worked in a restaurant cooking meat and fish, while consuming more. "I was really nauseated and I realised, as I made my creations, that meat was being relegated to the level of garnish. That's what prompted me to open my own restaurant."
Today, the forty-one-year-old is free to express her creativity at ONA which, in addition to having received her first Michelin star, was also awarded a green star for her sustainable approach. "We work with organic producers, we have a compost system, green energy ... Chefs have a real responsibility on these subjects, beyond the plate", she maintains.
Do you have to be vegan to dine at ONA? 95% of its customers aren't and yet all the curious gourmets who have dined there have apparently had a great time. Roll on the reopening of restaurants.
Where? ONA, 3 bis rue Sophie and Paul Wallerstein, Arès, France