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Surf Meets Turf

Text by Goulven Le Pollès

The village

Surf Meets Turf

The village

Surf Meets Turf

From Finistère to Médoc, the art of the table by Jean-Denis Le Bras.

Surf Meets Turf

Despite standing at 6’8” (without his chef’s hat), this nimble-handed colossus has never been afraid of heights. From London to Hong Kong, he has earned Michelin stars just about everywhere he has set foot, and has always kept his eye on the holy grail (he was tipped to win three stars while working at La Grande Maison in Bordeaux, before the restaurant closed in summer 2020).

As an eternal adventurer with his finger on the pulse of palace hotel gastronomy, Jean-Denis Le Bras has put on his apron all over the world: Paris, Hong Kong, Mayfair, St. Bart’s or Carantec, in the Bay of Morlaix, Brittany. Needless to say, this Nord-Finistère native is a man in a hurry, equal parts impatient and lively. He talks fast, thinks fast, walks fast, jiggles, jabs, fidgets, and shortens sentences to get to the next one quicker. However, at Château Palmer, he has decided to take his time. To put down roots, immerse himself in a long-term project, and resonate in harmony with the ecosystem surrounding him.

“A good chef always questions himself”
Jean-Denis Le Bras — Executive Chef, Château Palmer

From his 18 years working alongside Pierre Gagnaire, who sent him chasing stars across four continents, he retains a strong sense of loyalty, rigor, and the certainty that nothing can be taken for granted. “A good chef is one who deconstructs and constantly questions each dish, challenging them right up to the moment they’re sent out. Even today, whether I’m cooking for friends, family, or for Château Palmer customers, I still get a bit nervous…”

So he tries, he sniffs, he digs, he experiments with flavor, and all without ever denaturing his products. Like the scallops which he shells alive before wrapping in a delicate veil of grapefruit stuffed with chervil – four ingredients, nothing more, but which promise exquisite thrills to come. Or a freshly-picked garden salad – mizuna, mustard shoots, and beet leaves – transformed into an impressive structure before being discreetly framed with a dash of aged balsamic from the estate. And who could forget the dish layering confit chicken eggs, sliced mortadella, and grilled, flash-seared calamari on a bed of crunchy garden vegetables – a memorable surf & turf halfway between Guilvinec and Bologna. “With products like these, there’s no need to cook too much or even add salt,” he says, trying to hide his excitement with a casual air.

“The people here take the time to give things meaning.”
Jean-Denis Le Bras — Executive Chef, Château Palmer

Jean-Denis has been committed to the Palmer project since his very first visit for a primeur tasting in 2021. “Everything makes sense, and the people here take the time to give things meaning. There’s a beauty and sincerity. The cows feed the vegetable garden, which in turn feeds the village and the person who looks after the cows… It’s a sort of circular farm.” This virtuous ecosystem has been a playground to be explored by his second-in-command, the talented Coriolan Pons, since he took over the beating heart of this nourishing oasis in the summer of 2022. The duo forming Château Palmer’s Finistère-born kitchen brigade is now working on new recipes, new flavor combinations, new cooking methods, and new presentations – all driven by an obsession for ultra-local ingredients as a guiding principle.

Having grown weary of palace hotels, Jean-Denis has gone back to basics. From his immaculate new kitchen, in which only a few essential pieces take pride of place – including his Binchotan-fired grill on which choice ingredients take on a burnished brown – he uses the estate’s gardens as his larder for a medley of home-grown herbs, a selection of lettuces delicately moistened by the morning dew, and an ensemble of root vegetables that have braved the winter. Viviane, the head vegetable gardener, tends these plants with the generosity of a nursemaid. Meanwhile, Jean-Denis brings out their best at mealtimes, using them to garnish the noble creatures sourced from his close suppliers or from Château Palmer’s own herd, including calves, cows, lambs, and Gascon pigs… The final, mouthwatering result is gently placed, with a sure hand, into the hollows of pictorial, precise plates, like a shrine to indulgence.

“These creative works are my compass; they follow me everywhere.”
Jean-Denis Le Bras — Executive Chef, Château Palmer

Painting a portrait of Jean-Denis implies an immersion in his relationship with the noblest of subjects, from music and contemporary art to photography, wine, and literature. Passions that he initially refers to somewhat shyly, with the modesty of a valedictorian still seeking credibility, before slowly continuing in a more confident tone: “When I was working at Sketch in London, I used to walk past this store in Shoreditch every day and stare longingly at a Martin Parr photographic triptych. I couldn’t afford it at the time. The day I was awarded my second star, I walked into the shop and bought it.”

“While I’m fascinated by Francis Alÿs, Ricardo Cavallo, Gerhard Richter, Andy Goldsworthy, and Dolorès Marat, today I only buy works by artists I’ve met – some of whom have become friends,” he says, referring to Julien Mignot and Charles Fréger. “Just like cooking, art is about people, sharing, and passion. I need to know the person to understand the cuisine, and by extension, the art!” He has always taken these men, women, and works of art with him on his adventures, like his Beastie Boys, Dominique A, Rebeka Warrior, and Fontaines D.C. records, sometimes even for just a few months, like when Pierre Gagnaire challenged him to take over a restaurant 1,000 miles away. “These creative works are my compass; they follow me everywhere.”

“Whenever Monsieur Gagnaire presented me with a project, whatever it was, I accepted without even discussing money. He had my total trust.” Now, after almost two decades of travelling the world’s kitchens, Jean-Denis, who describes himself as “a cook who cooks, not an office cook,” is starting over.

Gone are the days of highly staffed brigades and the finest raw materials from around the world. From stovetop to pantry, there’s just one short step. To serve the Table de Palmer, the chef draws on the vegetable garden, the adjoining greenhouse, and the ripening rooms for fish and meat, generally forsaking far-flung fish in favor of locally sourced delicacies, always with the same focus on thorough cooking and prestigious chef’s sauces. The result is instinct-driven, local, seasonal, and eminently modern cuisine, served in the hushed Napoleonic salons of the Pereire brothers’ Château.

“To produce wines of excellence, you have to be well fed.”
Jean-Denis Le Bras — Executive Chef, Château Palmer

However, in the future, Jean-Denis Le Bras also intends to feed the locals, starting with the Palmer ecosystem, developing a more accessible winegrower’s canteen which will also be open to the public. “Châteaux can often look impressive and intimidating behind their big gates. I want locals to feel comfortable pushing open that gate and taking a seat at the winegrower’s canteen. The cuisine will be simple, delicious, local, balanced, and unprocessed. Rustic terrine and pickled vegetables from the garden, grated carrots with herbs from the greenhouse, well-seasoned celery remoulade, pear poached in red wine, hearty casseroles to share with people from the offices, the vineyard, and the winery. I want to make this place lively; somewhere for bonding and sharing.”

The moment he took up his post at the château, in the heat of the 2023 harvest, Jean-Denis was cooking up generous servings of grilled chicken for the troops, because “to produce wines of excellence, you have to be well fed.” Kind to the core, uncompromisingly sensitive, the great chef seems more at home than ever. The man who once moved his mentor, Pierre Gagnaire, by preparing a simple picnic for him during a sailing trip, has now set himself a new mission: to embody the Palmer Village through his soulful cuisine.

Text by Goulven Le Pollès. Photographs by Olivier Metzger & Anne-Claire Héraud

Born in Landivisiau in Finistère, Jean-Denis Le Bras, the son of two long-haul truckers, discovered good food and local produce at an early age with his grandfather, a former cook. From 2007 to 2022, he reaches for the Michelin stars alongside an internationally renowned titan of haute cuisine, Monsieur Pierre Gagnaire, from St. Bart’s to London and from Hong Kong to Bordeaux, where he runs La Grande Maison de Bernard Magrez for four years. Jean-Denis Le Bras joined Château Palmer in 2023 as the estate’s executive chef.