Cedric Bechade’s Auberge Basque: An Oasis in the French Basque Country

I think there must be lots of ways to tell how passionate chef-owner Cedric Bechade is about food, but the easiest is to (bypass the gorgeous terrace and) walk up to the desk of the Auberge Basque, which is both a stylish inn and an extraordinary restaurant.  Stand at the hotel desk, look through the huge window and what you see is the kitchen!

And what a kitchen!  Open and completely state-of-the-art, it is as calm as a library.  Bechade and his very small brigade move through the space with the grace and quiet of dancers, looking out occasionally at the nearby tables and beyond them, through the glass wall that separates this almost zen-like retreat from the lush mountains, to the sunset.  It’s a spectacular setting that is at once warm and welcoming and spare and simple.

Bechade, a ten-year veteran of Alain Ducasse’s restaurant in the Plaza Athenee in Paris, is just 30 years old.  But, judging from the oasis he has created, accomplished beyond his years.

Cedric_bechade

I’m not sure what the traditionalists in the tiny town of Saint-Pee-sur-Nivelle make of Bechade’s newly renovated 17th century farmhouse, and I can’t imagine what they think of his modernist takes on the region’s classics, but what he is doing is groundbreaking and exquisite and I think it would be judged stellar in any part of the world.  That the auberge is in La France Profonde, and that the food is based on a cuisine known for its rusticity, makes it even more exceptional.

All of Bechade’s ingredients are local and many of his dishes are riffs on Basque classics.  I can’t do justice to this dish in picture or words, but what you’re looking at is a play on piperade, a pepper and egg stew.

Piperade_gelee

In Bechade’s dish, all of the flavors of the piperade are present, but you find them in different forms: the whole green pepper is filled with a gelee made from piperade juice and the dish’s egg is divided – the yolk is in the pepper and the white is whipped into a meringue.

Similarly, the corn crepe that wraps around foie gras is a play on the traditional corn pancake of the region, but Bechade’s is delicate, where the original is hearty enough to satisfy lumberjacks.

Foie_in_corn_crepe

I was glad we came to the Auberge after we had eaten several authentically Basque meals because we could pick out the region’s star ingredients and heirloom recipes and marvel at their translations.  But then, I would have been glad to have Bechade’s food at any time and anywhere – context made the dinner richer, but no more memorable.

After chatting with the chef and visiting some of the auberge’s rooms (each time we saw a room, I’d say, “This is the one I want to stay in, ” until I realized that I just plain loved them all; they’re all elegant but curl-up cozy), I asked him how much courage it took to leave Paris and the Ducasse Group and set out on his own in the countryside.

“Of course, I was nervous,” he said, “but I talked to lots of chefs, including many who were older and long established, and they all said the same thing: If you want to start your own business, do it now, before you turn 30; after 30, your path is more set and less easy to change.”

Bechade took their advice and he – and every visitor to the Auberge Basque – is happier for it.

As the French would say, this is a chef to follow.  I think you’ll be hearing a lot about him. 

(For more information about Auberge Basque and for reservations, click here.)

Dorie Greenspan

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