The Emperor of Truffles

The Côtes d’Azur hugs the Mediterranean Sea in the south of France. It’s carpeted with beaches, marinas and luxury hotels. Cannes, Nice, Saint-Tropez, swimming pools, movie stars.

But as you head away from the coast the land rises, the vegetation is scrubbier, the road snakes its way up through hills. Then you’re into the highland vineyards of the Côtes de Provence. Truffle country.

Sixty years ago the attractions of Provence weren’t as obvious as they perhaps are now. Its rosé wines pretty much stayed in the region. And the town of Lorgues, ninety minutes from Nice, up in the provençal hills, was on nobody’s route.

Young Clément Bruno cycled those roads home from school everyday. Hungry. Hoping his grandmother would have bread and chocolate waiting for him. But instead, everyday, grand-mere would have a warm bowl of shaved truffles over scrambled eggs cooling on the windowsill.

“Clément,” she explained, “bread and chocolate cost money. But truffles I can find in the hills behind the house and there are always chickens in the yard laying eggs.” Poor Clément felt deprived: dreaming of chocolate, he was condemned to eat truffles.

The boy’s father had abandoned the family when he was just two months old, forcing the mother to take cleaning jobs to make ends meet. They lived a simple life with his grandmother, Mariette, in the remote provençal countryside.

The Making of a Chef

Clément Bruno didn’t train to become a chef. As an adult, Bruno – no one calls him Clément any longer, he’s simply Bruno – drifted away from his childhood home and tried his hand at real estate. But it wasn’t to be and, when things fell apart, he returned as a 30 year old to grand-mere’s house, now with his wife and baby son in tow.

He thought back to the days of his grand-mere serving poor, deprived Bruno truffles, a peasant fare, something to a little flavour to sheep-neck stew. And he started cooking.

With a few francs and lot of hard work he converted grandma’s house into a restaurant and a small inn with six rooms. His beginnings may have been humble, but Chef Bruno would build a magical restaurant in the very same house he ate truffles and eggs as a boy.

Slowly the restaurant began to draw regulars who craved Bruno’s grilled steaks with thick shavings of heady truffles, or his simple baked potatoes with a cream sauce infused with black truffles, finished with truffle oil and fleur du sel.

In those early days Michelin stars were the furthest thing from his mind. He was too busy creating his ever-changing menu.

Bruno, a generous and generously-sized guy, says, “Truffles transform the ground into gold.”

Over time the country house, set amidst oak trees and vineyards, became a mecca for truffle lovers from around the world. In 1999, sixteen years after he opened, Chef Bruno won a Michelin star.

Bruno’s restaurant is not about glitz, it’s about the food. And truffles. Maybe that’s what big name chefs like Alain Ducasse and celebrities like Bill Clinton, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and even Pelé have found so appealing. Restaurant Bruno is the sort of place that exhausted chefs love to come to hang up their toque and apron, revel in the calm, and enjoy the earthy flavours of Provence.

Über-chef Ducasse say, “Bruno is one of the few people to have mastered the truffle, which he cooks with expertise and wizardry.” That’s high praise coming from the man who currently holds 21 Michelin stars. It may have been Ducasse who dubbed Bruno “The Emperor of Truffles”.

Royal Family

Most kings have a prince or two, and Bruno is no exception. His two sons, Benjamin and Samuel (who even resemble princes with their Hollywood good looks – think young Pacino with a dash of Orlando Bloom) have now taken the reigns at Chez Bruno. Benjamin honed his culinary skills at top restaurants from Paris to Monte Carlo and is now in the kitchen as Chef de Cuisine. Son Samuel, trained at hospitality college in Bordeaux, now runs the front of house.

Thirty-one years on, as Bruno’s truffle kingdom is intact with his heirs on the throne, the master steps away from the stove. His retirement party in February 2014 was a full-out affair, with a television crew, helicopters and of course, mountains of truffles.

Like all good fairy tales, the Emperor of Truffles started life as a pauper, but ended as a king.

Restaurant Bruno 2350 Route des Arcs Campagne Mariette 83510 Lorgues France

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