A local Provençal chef tells us about his passion for food and how it has pervaded other areas of his life. Each year he opens his home to us on our 8-day Bicycling through the Best of Provence and 11-day Plus! the Luberon & Aix en Provence tours for a special home cooked meal, an exceptional way to celebrate our final dinner together. Chef Erick Vedel was born and raised in Arles, Provence, a charming town located on the southern Rhone River famous for its numerous Roman vestiges and art culture. It was in Arles in fact that Van Gogh spent one of the most prolific moments of his life painting furiously in an attempt to capture the unique light and colors of Provence. Erick has been directly influenced by the rich artistic presence in Arles as well as its impressive ancient history. As opposed to other chefs who might aspire to high profile restaurant jobs, chef Vedel’s inspiration is born from a deep desire to preserve the Provençal cuisine and culture. His ultimate goal is to keep these traditional recipes alive by passing on his savoir-faire to anyone who is willing and eager to learn. Read on as Jonathan delves deeper into Erick’s life and passions….
Was there a specific moment or turning point in your life when you realized you wanted to be a chef? Actually I wanted to make movies ever since I was a kid. I bought my first video camera when I was 14 years old and started filming everything that interested me. In the mid 90’s I started making documentaries on food and the local Provençal cuisine for TV and educational projects. At the time there was almost nothing out there promoting the Provencal cuisine. Network companies were not interested and I realized that if we relied just on the older generations to pass on the savoir-faire to their kids eventually the tradition would be lost. So I started giving cooking classes to keep it alive. The most important thing for me is that when my students leave they are able to cook these recipes themselves.
How does the fact that you are from Provence, born in Arles, affect your cooking? It doesn’t affect it, it defines it. My fascination with the history of Provence and its unique story drew me to its food. In addition, I’ve lived in many regions of France but very few have the variety of fresh ingredients that Provence does. My recipes use only seasonally fresh, organic foods which are fortunately in abundance in Provence.
You seem particularly interested in Roman recipes. How is it possible to make a recipe that is 2000 years old? Well, as you might know the Romans colonized Provence and lived here for over 400 years. They left us many beautiful monuments and thanks to a few people a large collection of recipes. You might have heard of a man named Marcus Gavius Apicius, a food lover who left us hundreds of Roman recipes. These are not recipes in the modern sense but are as the French call them “dish invitations” with a list of ingredients. As I delved deeper in the Provenςal cuisine I noticed an undeniable connection with these Roman recipes over and over again. It’s quite incredible that these cooking traditions have been passed down through centuries of invasions, war, and famine to end up on our plates 2000 years later.
Your home town Arles has the biggest open air market in France. What does it represent for you? For me the market here is where it all starts. I get 90% of all my fruits, vegetables and fish at the market. We’re lucky enough to have the market twice a week in Arles which allows for a steady supply of fresh, organic ingredients. Of course I have my favorite farmers and fish mongrel who I trust and who always supply me with the best products. They are just as important a part of the process as the food itself. And as I said before I only buy seasonally to guarantee the freshest and most natural ingredients.
So during these winter months when those great summer vegetables aren’t available that have made Provence famous with dishes like “ratatouille” what do you cook? There are plenty of delicious winter vegetables available here: leeks, potatoes, several kinds of cabbage, broccoli, spinach, Swiss chard, carrots, radish…I tend to make a lot of soups which keep us warm when that Mistral blows down the Rhone river in the winter.
Do you have a favorite recipe you’d like to share? I often recommend recipes that are simple and easy to make because those are the ones that people are likely to enjoy regularly. Here are two of them that come to mind:
–Spinach with orange or mandarin essential oil: Wash and cut your fresh spinach in to large chunks. Sauté the spinach a handful at a time in a pan with a little olive oil. When they soften add a pinch of salt and a few drops of essential oil (orange or mandarin). Mix well and serve.
– Mandarin shrimp: Sauté your raw shrimp in a pan with some olive oil. When they are almost cooked add a peeled mandarin or two and let cook a few minutes more. Salt to taste and serve with rice or another easy accompaniment.
Do you have a favorite cooking utensil? Yes, it’s the fork. I use it to create emulsions, to mash, to make mayonnaise, and to mince garlic (those who have done one of my cooking classes know this secret).
In addition to being a chef you are also a photographer and aroma therapist. Why did you decide to divide your energy into other activities? I’ve been taking pictures since I was 8 years old. It was the precursor to my passion for making films. Just like cooking it comes from my appreciation for beauty and a need to express myself creatively. My interest in aroma therapy goes back to my grandmother who used to heal people using natural remedies. As I cooked with ingredients like lemon and mint the aromatic power of certain ingredients fascinated me. Good food is good therapy. So combining the therapeutic power of aromas in my cuisine was a natural step for me. After studying to be an aroma therapist I started experimenting with my own creations. Now I draw inspiration from about 110 different aromas.
How can someone sign up for one of your classes? I have a new website in the making that you can visit here. Feel free to contact me directly via email. If you are also looking for lodging in Arles, I have some beautiful Bed and Breakfast rooms that we have integrated into some 10th century walls that surround my home. You can view them here.