AFTER A CAREER OF STELLAR PROPORTIONS CHEF MARC DE PASSORIO, OF AUCKLAND’S HARBOUR SOCIETY RESTAURANT, IS HERE TO GIVE BACK, SAYS NIKKI BIRRELL.
For most, sneaking out of bed as a seven-year-old usually involves mischief in the form of late-night TV or sticky fingers in a bikkie jar. For Marc de Passorio, it entailed cooking up leftover chicken with a preparation of rice, onions, spices and vegetables – a portent of what lay ahead for this Michelin-starred chef, who just truly adores cooking. “When I have my two days off, I cook every time; it’s my life,” says Marc.
The other five days of the week for this Frenchman are spent on the 15th floor of Auckland’s swish SO/ hotel. Here, at the Harbour Society restaurant, his mission is to impart everything he’s learned. “I’m not young, I’m 50 years old, and my experience, my star Michelin, my Gault Millau d’Or,” he says rattling off his boggling credentials, “I give to my staff. This is really my life now.” For those working under him, that’s quite a coup.
Lucky for them, and us, that Marc’s previous trips to New Zealand some six to eight years ago – to help open Bistro Gentil in Wanaka – cemented a desire to call our shores home and so when the opportunity at Harbour Society came up, he moved his young family here without hesitation.
Part of his teaching is instilling in his team the values he’s passionate about, one of which is an exacting standard when it comes to produce. “My kitchen is live, all the time. Because every day the suppliers give me the product and every day I decide if it stays in the restaurant or doesn’t. I want my staff to understand this. For example, if I have avocado on the menu, and the avocado is not good, then I change the menu. The ingredients, for me, is everything.” Some ingredients that he rates here in New Zealand are our clams, salmon, royal scallops, lamb, carrots and herbs.
His vision may be uncompromising but his teaching methods are never aggressive, he says. “My style is to give responsibility to the people. I show them and sometimes I push. But I want people to take initiative.” If the team has the desire in the kitchen, he asserts, anything is possible – something he knows a thing or two about.
Marc’s own education started on Réunion Island, from where his family hail, a small French overseas department east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. His mentor here, Lucien Mongelly, was like a second father to him. He recalls their conversation at the end of his exams, when Mongelly asked what Marc would do now. “I go to France and learn the maximum,” was his answer. “Because I want in the future I am the first star Michelin chef in the Indian Ocean.” The lofty goal was met with raised eyebrows from his friends and fellow students and even his teacher wished him luck for this very difficult task.
He was true to his word, leaving to soak up as much knowledge as possible. He cites Bernard Loiseau as an influence, “This man, every time, told me ‘le gout, le gout, le gout’. Taste, taste, taste. Close your eyes and taste.” He credits the late Joël Robuchon – whose loss he still grieves – as seminal to his career, too.
After learning from the best, Marc personalised his approach. “You open your heart to all the kitchens in the world and after you decide what you want to cook. I use the Japanese style to cut my fish. The lamb, I use the Argentine style. For vegetables I use the French style – because vegetables are my favourite. I love vegetables. I use the techniques, but my style is very my style. It’s the product, the vegetable and just a little jus. You don’t have my plate with a lot of spices, a lot of sauce – no. For me, it’s very important the product itself is very good on your tongue.” In other words, simplicity. But as Marc acknowledges, simple is often the most difficult, as demonstrated on the Harbour Society menu by items such as his lauded vodka crayfish, or a scallop main with cauliflower cream, golden kiwi and avocado oil, a charcoal lamb rack with hummus and raspberry harissa lamb jus with green rosemary. Marc’s exquisite simplicity eventually resulted in his first Michelin star, received while proprietor of his eponymous restaurant at a hotel in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. “After my first star Michelin, I told my teacher [Mongelly] and cried with happiness. Because I am the first star Michelin chef from Indian Ocean,” he says.
Another star followed for his restaurant L’Esprit de la Violette in Aix-en-Provence. Of this second affirmation of his talent he says, “[It was] very, very strong for me because it’s very hard.” However, the most important moment of his professional career came at a dinner for president Vladimir Putin in Moscow. “I cooked Russian products but with my French style. And after the dinner this man was very happy and a lot of people applauded. A very strong emotional moment.”
Despite all this cachet, Marc insists he’s a simple man. His meals at home are much the same as could be found on your average family dinner table: vegetable stir-fries, chicken with soy sauce, mirin and sesame oil, pasta with good tomatoes and basil… But perhaps Marc de Passorio is simple in the same way as his restaurant food – deceptively, creatively, so.