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MEET MICHELIN MAN

SA-born chef Nick Honeyman’s culinary mélange in France

SA-born chef Nick Honeyman’s culinary mélange in France
Chef Nick and sommelier Sina Honeyman (right) at Le Petit Léon (centre) and pigeon Pigeon, jerusalem artichoke and beurre noisette crumble, spinach and flowers from their garden. (Photo: Supplied)

In a tiny French village, another South-African born culinary star is on the rise. This March, deep in the heart of the Périgord countryside, chef Nick Honeyman landed himself a Michelin star.

You can’t simply catch an Uber from the closest airport or station if you want to dine at Le Petit Léon; you’ll have to go the extra mile, literally. But the dishes that chef Nick Honeyman and his team create in a tiny restaurant on the banks of the Vezère River will make the detour worthwhile.

Le Petit Léon had been an almost jealously guarded secret among foodies in this corner of France ever since Nick and his German wife Sina opened their seasonal restaurant, operating only in the summer months, about five years ago. All that has changed since they gained their first Michelin star in March. This summer it will definitely be more difficult to drop in for a meal at short notice.

Luckily I’d decided last year already that I wanted to take a group of South Africans, including expats from Germany, England and Australia, to the restaurant in St Léon-sur-Vezère as part of a tasting tour of the Périgord region, so when the news of the Michelin star broke, our table for nine had been booked months ago. We went there on an ordinary week night, and with the weather being too frisky to dine outside in the garden, every table inside was occupied, the place quietly buzzing, staff moving around unobtrusively, the atmosphere charged with diners’ excitement.

It turned out to be the highlight of a week of extraordinary tastes and flavours. 

We chose the seven-course Menu du Chef with wine pairing provided by Sina – who is not only the capable manager of the restaurant but also a trained sommelier – and were presented with sealed menus which certainly added to the sense of anticipation. The idea was that you resisted opening the menu until the end of the meal, to ensure that each course stayed a surprise as it was served, and then you could take the menu home as a keepsake. Ten days later my mouth still waters when I read the menu and remember the gourmet combinations.

The very first item among the hors d’oeuvres was appropriately named Culture Clash – a morsel of bright-pink trout on a snow-white meringue-macaron – setting the tone for the rest of the evening. Not that anything we tasted clashed with anything else, but the imaginative culinary mix was the perfect illustration of Nick’s own multicultural background and adventurous food philosophy.

Nick, nephew of South African theatre legend and pantomime queen Janice Honeyman, was partly raised in Perth, Australia, after his parents emigrated in the Eighties. They returned to Cape Town after the first democratic election in the Nineties and Nick was enrolled to study architecture, but his heart wasn’t in it, so his parents encouraged him to spend a gap year travelling and working around the world. His first stop was Sydney, where he washed dishes in a restaurant and fell in love with the electric energy the moment he walked into the kitchen.

“The head chef was like a captain on the rugby field, driving his team on,” he later told a New Zealand newspaper, “and it was just awesome.”

He found his calling, whizzed through a four-year chef’s course in Sydney in three years, gained experience in some of the city’s five-star hotels as well as a top restaurant in Tokyo, and spent a year in Paris working for Michelin-starred chefs Alain Passard at L’Arpège and Pascal Barbot at L’Astrance.

The Paris experience defined his style, a cultural mélange based on local products and classic French principles, and eventually led him to Le Petit Léon in the Périgord-Dordogne region. He now lives between France and Auckland, New Zealand, where he is co-owner of another award-winning restaurant, Paris Butter, and known as the star of the TV series The Best of New Zealand with Nick Honeyman.

Although Nick and Sina are both dedicated to their French restaurant, and the Michelin star still has the slightly unreal quality of a dream come true, they also seem to be aware of the toll a chef’s professional life can take on his personal life. They are equally committed to their two young daughters, Nika and Kaya, and even in the mad midsummer season in France, Le Petit Léon is only open from Wednesday to Saturday, giving them more family time. On the night we were dining there, Sina came to say goodbye at about 10 o’clock as she had to take over babysitting duties from the grandparents.

It is the kind of restaurant where the food and hospitality and service are more important than formality and ostentatious décor. It was, after all, started in a simple garden, and the toilets are still outside in the garden, a delightful touch adding to the unpretentious atmosphere.

The menu, though, is world class and can change daily, sometimes twice a day, depending on the availability of locally sourced and seasonal products. We were there in the last week of May, when the short asparagus season is almost over, so two of the courses featured asparagus. First there was a foamy emulsion of white asparagus and paper-thin shavings of raw asparagus with a piece of turbot, followed by a whole green asparagus with slices of juicy pigeon meat.

Turbot with white asparagus, beurre blanc and bubbles made from fermented asparagus and white wine. (Photo: supplied)

My only previous taste of pigeon was in Fez, where I loved the traditional Moroccan pigeon pie called pastilla, but in that dish the pigeon was disguised by almonds and spices and sugar. This time there was nothing to hide the flavour of the meat and I was surprised at how much it reminded me of perfectly cooked duck breast.

Duck breast or magret de canard is one of the specialities of the Périgord region, almost expected in every good restaurant, and Chef Honeyman’s inclusion of pigeon rather than duck in his menu is yet another example of how he twists traditional tastes and plays with the unexpected. Of course these pigeons are not the ordinary “flying rats”, as my partner refers to pigeons in cities, but specially bred for the restaurant by a local farmer.

May is also when elderberry trees bear their beautiful white flowers all over the French countryside, which inspired Nick to use the tiny star-like petals on pieces of trout served with barbecued milk (a nod to his South African roots) and a bright-green tarragon purée. And elderberry flowers featured again in the dessert of île flottante. These little floating islands, another classic French taste, were not served in the traditional way in a pool of yellow crème anglaise or custard, but in a foamy white juice made of wild flowers, with a layer of strawberry crème waiting as another surprise underneath the meringue islands.

There were more dishes created with ingredients only available in spring, like the tiny tartlets with a filling of fresh spring peas mixed with parmesan, served as part of the hors d’oeuvres course. And the second course consisted of warm langoustine soup paired with a frozen granité made of pine spruce tips. The fresh citrusy flavour of these tender sprouts brought Shakespeare’s “darling buds of May” to my mind. It was love at first bite and the taste of spring on my tongue.

Floating Island with sakura (cherry blossom). ‘We change with whatever is in season (at the moment elderflower),’ says Sina Honeyman. ‘We make the meringue with the blossoms, underneath is a strawberry sorbet and a Lagavulin flan nature.’ Lagavulin is Nick Honeyman’s favourite single malt whisky. (Photo: Supplied)

The wine pairing was in the same spirit of delightful multicultural daring, with wines from Sina’s Germany, the couple’s other country of New Zealand, and at least one impressive French wine, bien sûr. But the imagination and attention going into the non-alcohol pairing for two members of our party were equally impressive. The flavours and ingredients of each drink – flowers, spices, herbs – complemented each course to perfection. I couldn’t resist tasting all of them, and I might even consider choosing the non-alcohol pairing next time I go.

But then again, I wouldn’t want to miss all those surprising wines.

All I know is I’m going again before they close at the end of summer, because the group of foodies I accompanied to the restaurant were so thrilled with the experience that they offered me the gift of another meal there. This time it will only be me and my partner, so it will be a more intimate affair than our cheerful dinner for nine, and the summer menu will of course differ from the spring menu. But I’m sure it will be another tasty culture clash and a lekker culinary mélange. DM

You can follow Nick Honeyman (@chefhoneyman) and Le Petit Léon (@restaurantlepetitleon) on Instagram.

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