Serge and Marie-Aude Vieira’s restaurant is in the tranquil, verdant countryside at the foot of the Auvergne’s volcanoes. The couple has spent a decade forging their life’s work. A soaring adventure.
It all began with moped trips back and forth between his family’s house and La Gravière in the town of Chamalières, where Serge Vieira underwent his apprenticeship. He was just 16, but remained resolute in a trade that “started early and ended late,” he explains, smiling. He quickly learned that he enjoyed that kind of work. At age 19, he won a contest that led him to Canada; that was when he realized that cuisine would reconnect him with another passion – industrial design, dovetailing architecture and creation. It would also, and especially, lead him to travel.
He was barely 20 when he was spotted by Chef Bernard Andrieux, who offered him a position as chef de partie. Then he landed in the Touraine region, where he met Marie-Aude. They fell in love and went to work together at Marc Meneau’s Esperance. “Marie-Aude is brilliant and curious; we talk about nothing but cuisine – I describe dishes to her, she memorizes them, learns them inside-out.”
The experience at Meneau laid the foundation for their future. The chef gave Serge carte blanche in helping create the dishes and it was there that he honed his skills as part of a small, cohesive team. But he still decided to pursue his path with Régis Marcon.
The Marcon experience
It was now 2003. The restaurant was bustling, with 500 covers a week and 45 employees in the kitchen. Régis Marcon was always the first to arrive. “He was everywhere. When I saw that he got there before the rest of us, I knew he was going to keep us on our toes.” Serge was offered the position of sous-chef and met that challenge with dazzling aplomb, Marie-Aude ever by his side. That’s when Marcon told him about the Bocuse d’Or. “I had no idea how major that competition was. I worked like crazy; I was coached by Marcon, who had won the same prize himself, but also by the entire village of Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid. The momentum from all that support was just astounding.” He won the contest with dishes based on the theme of the Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James). Then Marcon told him it was time to spread his wings and fly.
Le Couffour : the chef finds his eldorado
After crisscrossing the Cantal department with Marie-Aude on a motorcycle for hours on end, through fog as thick as pea soup, the two fell in love with a special hill, where they decided to build their spectacular restaurant in partnership with the city hall and the department. Serge Vieira’s establishment opened in 2009, a masterwork of unvarnished materials, metal, and a 360-degree view of the volcanoes. Nothing has changed for a decade. “I don’t leave the kitchen,” he says. “I go to the market at dawn to make sure I’m back on site for my staff when they arrive.” Serge also decided, from the start, to offer two tasting menus, to mix and match as desired. “I don’t understand why so many places don’t encourage choice. I think it’s essential for customers to feel free.” To avoid falling into a rut, the menus change every three weeks. The day of our visit in May, options included green asparagus and turmeric, turbot à la nacre with wild garlic, morels, Salers beef, vegetables aplenty, and fresh herbs picked that very morning. But there are also artistic arrangements of hair’s-breadth precision, meticulously prepared amuse-bouches, and flavors both straightforward and well-worked. The service, too, is of rare munificence and worthy of mention, as are the superb wine list and perfect food-and-wine pairings. The Auvergne cheese platter, handsomely presented on a rolling butcher’s block, sets soul and palate dancing and captures the essence of this terroir – rugged, yet so tender. Serge Vieira embraces his Portuguese origins through the place settings, crafted near the family home: “My parents have never come to eat at my place – they prefer to take their meals in the kitchen,” he says with feeling. A secret, now shared, that speaks volumes about the modest, kindhearted man he is, and has always been.