Chef Arnaud Donckele describes the time he caught the scent trail of a passerby and froze from the intoxicating drunkenness of it all. “Has this ever happened to you?” he asks from the cigar lounge at the back of Plénitude, located inside the five-star Cheval Blanc Paris hotel, opposite the Pont Neuf, which opened last fall as the first establishment belonging to LVMH in the French capital. Without waiting for an answer, the chef recounts the moment when this lingering scent so overwhelmed him with emotion that he was forced to stop and come to his senses.
“It’s like love at first sight, but in secret, in passing,” he says. “You turn around, and it’s just, ‘Wow.’ It’s like a ray of sunshine.”
Donckele, 44, talks about wake, the invisible aromatic trail left by a perfume carrier. At Plénitude, the chef works like a perfumer, seeking to evoke the range of emotions aroused by a single scent, but through his own medium: sauces. Aromatic broths, infusions, creams and veloutés are in the spotlight at Plénitude, each dish having its own pairing: Fish, langoustines and chicken are simply used as “condiments for sauces”, he specifies.
Diners are invited to sample the accompanying sauces first, which are presented in various clever serving dishes, including a miniature copper watering can. “We want them to first understand the depth and richness of a sauce in its natural state,” says Donckele. “Then chewing will enhance the flavor.”
The concept is a major departure from La Vague d’Or at Cheval Blanc St-Tropez, where Donckele earned the restaurant three Michelin stars in 2013 for its Provence-centric menu. But it was also in this restaurant that after creating a vinaigrette made with warm ginger, herb-infused tangerine juice, grapefruit and lemon zest and tangerine olive oil, Donckele began his journey. obsessively concocting sauces. The recipe is now on Paris’ seasonal menu – a six-course Symphony option from around $450 per person – accompanying fish and vegetables.
“Today I feel less chef, more saucier,” says Donckele. Because while there aren’t many ways to cook a fish or roast a piece of meat, concocting new broths and consommés offers the chef a creative outlet in which nothing is duplicated, he says, from the same way that the same perfume subtly conveys distinct scents when worn by different people.
“You can use the same volume of water, the same amount of herbs, but the result will never be the same. The taste will be different if the herbs have been in the fridge for two days or were harvested in the morning or afternoon,” he says. “And I love that.”