In 1873, Joel Thiébault great-grandparents were among the first to set up shop as maraichers, or market gardeners, along the newly created farmer’s market now situated on the chic Avenue President Wilson in Paris’s 16th arrondissement.
Joel Thiebault - Vegetable KingThe boyishly handsome Thiebault, a young-looking 51 years old, remembers riding to Paris from their farm on the outskirts of the city in a horse and buggy. Little would he have know then that he would one day create a veritable vegetable empire, with everyone from Michelin three-star chef Pierre Gagnaire to aspiring bistrotiers clamoring for the more than 1,700 different varieties of vegetables grown on his fertile 22 hectares of land in Carrières sur Seine, only 7 kilometers as the crow flies from the Eiffel Tower.
Passion, hard work, an instinctively outgoing manner, and a near fanatic drive to constantly search for new and more flavorful varieties of vegetables has put Thiebault at the top of his game. What’s best, is that any Parisian homemaker can vie for those same colorful treasures, since Thiebault and his staff can still be found at the same President Wilson market on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, and the Rue Gros market in the 16th on Tuesday and Friday mornings.
And what’s more, since June, those housewives don’t even have to leave the comfort of their cuisine, since two Thiebault pals have set up a thriving home delivery system, known as Le Haut du Panier.
The birth of the business goes like this: Longtime friends Antoine Meyssonnier, a professional photographer, and Raimundo Briones, an architect, were going on a ski vacation together, families in toe. They were renting a chalet and wanted to be sure to have the best possible ingredients throughout the week. They asked their friend Thiebault to create a survival box that would get them through the week. It worked so well, they figured Parisians might be delighted to be offered the same service.
So, since last June, Meyssonnier and Briones have become high class delivery men, anointing apartments in every arrondissement of Paris with delectable paniers, actually sturdy cardboard boxes that arrive at the appointed hour each Friday, filled with pristine and brightly colored vegetables arranged like precious jewels.
I confess that when the doorbell rang at precisely 7 am on the day of my first delivery, I was as excited as a little kid on Christmas morning. When I opened the box, I gasped. I could almost smell the earth. T glistening spinach, multiple varieties of tender variably-colored lettuce, tender lamb’s lettuce, carrots, parsnips, turnips and Jerusalem artichokes, potatoes, leeks and parsley had all been picked just the night before, and everything screamed fresh with a capital F.
Meyssonnier and Briones – each 34 years of age -- are brilliant entrepreneurs, since they knew the first thing many cooks might ask is “What on earth do I do with all this?” A simple, uncomplicated and delicious recipe created by one of the duo arrives with each delivery, and supplementary recipes for the seasonal produce can be found on their web site www.lehautdupanier. Clients are offered a choice of several different weekly baskets, from the starter version I mentioned for 38 euros, on to a familial delivery for 58 euros. In the summer time, the large basket can weigh up to 18 kilos, and is meant to feed the family in vegetables for a week.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Thiébault and his vegetables are quietly transforming the scope and the focus of modern French cuisine, particularly in the nation’s capital. For some time chefs such as Pierre Gagnaire and Pascal Barbot of the new Michelin two star L’Astrance have been Thiébault addicts, urging him to grow certain new and different varieties of vegetables, showering their menus with all manner of rare and unusual vegetables. However, more recently, all over Paris, one seems menus where vegetables are king, not just something to shore up the protein portion of the meal or act as a pretty green bangle on the plate. No longer just a bridesmaid, vegetable are now the bride.
Today, chefs and restaurateurs such as Antony Clémot of Mon Vieil Ami, William Ledeuil of Ze Kitchen Galerie, Michel Troisgros of La Table du Lancaster, William Bernet of Le Severo, Benoit Guichard of Jamin, and Louis-Jacques Vannucci of Le Soleil are armed with a new creative spirit towards vegetables, creating winter roasted root vegetable daubes; combining lily white cauliflower with sweet langoustines; caramelizing Belgian endive and pairing them with glistening fat scallops; marinating paper-thin slices of raw Jerusalem artichokes in orange flower water and fresh mint; or pairing penne pasta with fresh basil pistou, slices of chorizo sausage, aged Mimolette cheese and tender, baby garlic shoots. A far cry from the standard boeuf carottes, navarin d’agneau, leeks in béchamel sauce or a standard potato purée.
Thiébault, who works with a staff of 15 and clearly sleeps only two or three hours a night, took over from his mother a few years ago, and in recent years as he has grown in demand and respect, he sees that chefs are becoming more and more flexible, eager to adapt to the vegetable of the moment as it is plucked from the earth, rather than relying on a menu that will get them through an entire season.
“It’s strange to say, but the entire mad cow scare of a few years back truly gave a boost to our business,” explained Thiébault over lunch at one his client’s restaurants, the tiny wine bar Bistral, in the city’s 17th arrondissment. “People were scared to death. And they realized they really didn’t know a lot of about vegetables. And they had to learn, fast.”
For more information, check Thiébault’s web site, www.joel-thiebault.fr.st