Meet the Chef Proving Monaco is Way More Than Fast Cars and Casinos
Paolo Sari sources ingredients for his Michelin-starred restaurant from local farms—including his own.
Last year chef Paolo Sari’s Monaco restaurant, Elsa, became the only all-organic restaurant in the world to win a Michelin star. Not only are Sari’s ingredients sustainably grown, they’re also sourced from farms within 60 miles of the petite principality.
Sari doesn’t believe his ingredients need to fly thousands of miles to land on the plates of his Michelin-starred Monaco restaurant, Elsa. Within 60 miles of the petite principality, Sari has sourced the best organic ingredients from 15 farms across the region, earning Elsa the title distinction of being the only all-organic restaurant in the world to win a Michelin star. With this push, Sari is redefining what it means to be a Michelin-starred restaurant, not just in Monaco, but everywhere in the world.
"I'd rather build up the local culture and not fly fruit from across the world when I have great options right next door," he says. "Having farms close by, we can visit each one once a week, especially when it's springtime and most necessary."
You can spot one of these farms from the terrace of Elsa at the Monte-Carlo Beach Hôotel, where Sari took the reigns three years ago. "Just look up," Sari says. The closest organic farm, dubbed Orto at Agerbol, towers 1,600 feet above the Mediterranean and is three miles uphill from the village of Roquebrune, France.
Sari works intimately with small- and medium-sized producers in four regions of the Riviera, from Cavaillon in Provence to Piedmont in Italy, playing with the varying temperatures in each spot to secure fresh produce throughout the season. But Orto at Agerbol is special—Sari started it himself.
The Venice-born Sari has made his way from one haute kitchen to the next, with stints at the Club del Doge in Venice's Gritti Palace and Cipriani. Perhaps his most transformative time came when he spent four years in Asia traveling through Japan, South Korea, China, and Malaysia. He was fascinated by the youth and vibrancy of the Koreans living on Jeju Island, particularly the monks who invited him to experience their way of life at a monastery. After eating with the monks and witnessing how they produced everything they needed themselves, Sari was inspired to adopt their mantra of living simply.
One of his signature dishes at Elsa, the Bio Sama (pictured below)—a colorful cornucopia of carrots, zucchini, green onions, wet garden herbs, and olive oil flavored with Camargue salt—was born out of this experience in Asia and is meant, as he says, "to represent our spirit." Sama is a Japanese word meaning to give importance to what is produced by our land, and Sari is doing just that at Elsa, creating quality cuisine in a way that helps the environment as well as our bodies.
"The vision to have the best ingredients and most healthy ingredients has always been there, especially when you work at the top restaurants," Sari explains. "In Asia, we started a journey that continued here [in Monaco], inspired by the dedication and minimalism of the Japanese, the healthy side of Korean food, and the monks on Jeju."
Around the same time Elsa earned its star last spring, Sari discovered the nearby garden in Roquebrune, owned by a Monégasque family who support Sari's mission to make Monaco more eco-friendly.
"Monaco is not just super cars and luxury; there are people producing amazing stuff, and you have all the conditions thanks to culinary traditions, agriculture, and climate," he says.
The land on which Sari’s farm now sits was home to the Agerbol monastery in the 16th century and once produced all of the corn and wheat for the region. It’s a fitting spot, given the effect the South Korean monastery had on Sari's cooking.
Only a few of the original monastery walls remain, but the 2.5-acre parcel is still prime for planting. When Sari broke ground on the garden, he immediately replaced part of the overgrown bush with 150 fruit trees. And at this time of year the farm is exploding with artichokes, many of which are Elsa's artichoke carpaccio.
While strolling through the garden, Sari shows off each vegetable with the pride of a doting father. He caresses the artichokes and then snags a blue starflower growing in a bush nearby and plops it into his mouth. It’s the same flower that garnishes his Bio Sama, which is filled with ingredients picked from his garden.
The real pièce de résistance in the garden, however, is the cliff-side chef's table overlooking Monaco, at which Sari serves his farm-fresh dishes. This summer, the chef is setting sail once a month to a different spot on the Riviera on a trip he jokingly refers to as a "crusade." He'll head everywhere from San Remo, Italy, to Saint-Tropez, France, to meet with local chefs and uncover the best producers, markets, and small restaurants the destinations have to offer. After each trip, the chefs will take the party back to Monaco and show off their culinary skills cooking for the garden chef's table. Next year, diners will be able to set sail on this journey themselves, hopping aboard one of 10 sailboats, each sporting a different local chef.
"The Riviera for me is not defined; it goes from the beginning of Liguria to the end of Provence," Sari says. "It's the same fish, the same vegetables, the same people, culture, and history. We are in a fantastic region, and we want to show the way forward."