Tom Klare

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Happy Birthday, Negresco!

Julie Mautner / November 2012

Nice, France—Amidst all the festivities designed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the five-star Le Negresco hotel, the most joyous gift of all came from the folks at the Michelin Guide, who returned the coveted second star to its restaurant after taking it away eight years ago.

Over the years, the hotel restaurant, Chantecler, has had a slew of highly regarded chefs manning the kitchen, including the wildly talented but notoriously eccentric Jacques Maximin (1978 to 1988). He earned the hotel two stars in 1980, the first time the Negresco’s restaurant appeared in the famous Guide Rouge. (Maximin now has the Bistrot de la Marine in Cros de Cagnes, 10 minutes from the Nice Airport.) Following Maximin was Dominique Le Stanc (1988 to 1996), who maintained the two stars he inherited and then left to open La Merenda, which remains one of Nice’s most popular restaurants. Next came Alain Llorca (1996 to 2004), who maintained the two stars but left to take over the kitchen at Roger Vergé’s legendary Moulin de Mougins. (He now runs Hôtel-Restaurant Alain Lorca in nearby La Colle sur Loup.) Michel Del Burgo stepped in in 2004, but was replaced by Bruno Turbot (2004 to 2007) just six months later. Something was lost in transition, however, and that’s when Michelin bumped the rating down to one star. Turbot passed the torch to current chef Jean-Denis Rieubland in 2007, before he was able to recover the second star.

Now, five years later, Rieubland has done what Turbot could not, and how fitting for it to happen in the hotel’s centennial year.

Born in Agen, France, Rieubland trained at the Lycée Hôtelier in Nice, then went on to work at top hotels and restaurants, such as the Carlton Cannes, La Tour d’Argent (Paris), and the Four Seasons Domaine de Terre Blanche. He earned his Meilleur Ouvrier de France title in 2007.

Among Rieubland’s many contributions to the Negresco kitchen is the farm-to-table system he set up, using his family’s own farm—about 35 minutes from the hotel—as his preferred potager. Rieubland works closely with his father, Jean François, to select the varieties they’ll grow each season on 10 hectares (25 acres) of terraced hilltop beds. Jean François brings the produce down to the Negresco twice a week, and Rieubland says that cooking with just-picked ingredients grown to his exact specs is “one of the greatest luxuries of all.”

Much credit for Chantecler’s renaissance also goes to restaurant manager Olivier Novelli, who was hired to direct it in 2009. Before that, he worked at the Château de la Chèvre d’Or (Eze), Le Mas Candille (Cannes), and with Rieubland at the Miramar Beach Hotel.

With its dazzling white façade and pink dome, this gracious grande dame first opened her doors in January 1913, boasting innovations such as a steam autoclave, electric switches, and an internal tube system for distributing mail to every room. The framework for the beautiful glass dome was created by none other than Gustave Eiffel, while the hotel design itself was entrusted to the celebrated French/Dutch architect Edouard Niermans. The Negresco quickly lured a glittering international clientele and had an enormously successful first season, “earning a profit of 800,000 gold francs.” When World War I broke out, owner Henri Negresco, a Romanian immigrant, converted it into a 100 bed hospital, maintaining all the costs himself. He died penniless in Paris in 1920.

In 1957 the Mesnage family bought the Negresco. Jeanne Mesnage Augier, now 89, still lives on-site and remains involved in every aspect of operations. Passionate about French art and antiques, Madame Augier was already a serious collector by her early 20s. And the Negresco’s walls have always provided the perfect backdrop for her collection. Today, it’s the only hotel in France that employs a full-time curator for its art and antiques, a collection of roughly 5,000 pieces.

Stories of the Negresco’s rich and famous clientele—and their hijinks—could easily fill a book. Prince Turki, brother of the King of Saudi Arabia, arrived with a 50 person entourage, 1,000 pieces of luggage, and his own furniture—all of it packed in a moving van. There were 15 cases for the prince’s shoes alone. The local fire brigade was called to clear the entrance hall so the princely possessions could make it through the lobby.

In honor of the 100th anniversary, the hotel completed a €10 million ($13 million), 18 month renovation in June 2011. Among the f&b upgrades were an entire kitchen redo and a transformation of the restaurant La Rotonde, which now has a lovely terrace facing the sea. The façade was also restored, and 30 guest rooms were redone. Today the hotel has 96 rooms, 21 suites, and two hard-earned Michelin stars. Negresco general manager Pierre Bord was in Miami with Rieubland and two cooks when they got the Michelin news on March 1. “It was 6 a.m., but I called Jean-Denis, and, of course, he flew out of bed,” Bord recalls. “We celebrated over breakfast with Champagne. Here’s to the next century!”