Chef Christian Garcia of Monaco: ‘I Love My Job and My Life’
In order to experience the cuisine of chef Christian Garcia you have to be royalty, a high profile palace guest, a dignitary, or just plain fortunate to receive an invitation to the imposing Prince's Palace in Monte Carlo, Monaco. The rare exceptions are privileged invitees to the Prince's Palace for private events such as Prince Albert's wedding festivities in 2011, state banquets, fundraisers for Prince Albert’s many charity projects, or even chef Paul Bocuse's 80th birthday celebrations. Chef Garcia has also cooked alongside grand chefs such as Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon, with their many Michelin stars, for the Prince's many sumptuous wedding receptions in the principality.
Garcia holds no Michelin stars and neither is he listed on any “Top Ten” or “Fifty Best” lists, but he holds court in the kitchens of the palace of the principality of Monaco where he is the executive chef to His Serene Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco. Garcia is also the president of the Club des Chefs des Chefs, the exclusive group of about 20 chefs around the world cooking for royals or presidents in palaces. The club — which counts among its members the chef at the French Élysées Palace, the Buckingham Palace, the Kremlin, and the White House— brings together these chefs of heads of state every year at a different venue to discuss their unique sphere of work and further diplomacy through cuisine often referred to as gastro diplomacy.
In 2013, the UN Secretary General invited the club to prepare meals for 300 homeless people in New York City in conjunction with the Zero Hunger Challenge. During that visit, Garcia, along with his club members, visited the White House at the invitation of Cristeta Comerford, chef to the President of the United States, and a fellow member of this club. The briefcase he received with the White House Insignia when he met President Obama is one of his cherished mementos of his visit to Washington, D.C.
Ensconced in the royal kitchens in the heart of the Genoese palace built in 1191, Garcia has the job of devising daily menus and cooking for the food-centric royal couple, and soon for their twin children born last year. The Monégasque chef was born in France but has called Monaco home for most of his life and has been in the royal kitchen for the past 28 years. He lives in Monte Carlo with his Polish wife, who was born in St. Petersburg, and his two nine-year-old twins. A devoted family man, he is utterly charming, hospitable, and evidently still very much in awe of the royals he cooks for. He is a close associate of the family, having gone through many happy and sad times with them. Garcia was in the kitchen in the days when Prince Rainier would stop by every day, just like his son and successor Prince Albert does now. Understandably, with the long history of his association with the family, he still gets emotional recounting the time when Prince Rainier passed away. It is no secret that he enjoys the privilege of cooking for the royal family since he is apt to state "I love my job" during any conversation, and is always at close call for the Prince, who he admires and respects tremendously.
We were lucky enough to sit down with chef Garcia and find out more about his amazing talent and passion:
What is your memory of your first day in this kitchen?
I will never forget the first day I arrived here and met Prince Rainier. Prior to coming, here I worked in the Hotel de Paris and had never met a member of royalty ever before that day. I was in awe and excited to say the least and will never forget it.
Does Prince Albert request any nostalgic dishes from those days?
One of Prince Rainier's favorite dishes was macaroni with lobster, and he also loved eggs cooked in many different ways, and sometimes the Prince does request those. On the occasion of Princess Grace's death anniversary in 2012 I asked if I could prepare a special dessert for the occasion. Princess Grace loved roses and so we created a special dessert with rose flavor and named it the Rose Princess Grace. Sometimes we serve the mille-feuille for Prince Albert that had been prepared for his own baptism.
For the Prince's wedding, did Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon also cater any receptions? There was Pierre Troisgros, Bocuse, Blanc, and other idols and I was spellbound.
For the wedding, there were many different receptions in Monaco. On the day of the wedding, we had a big reception in the palace with all the kings and heads of state. After the wedding ceremony in the palace courtyard, we had a beautiful reception in the gardens of the casino where Alain Ducasse prepared dinner on Saturday evening. On Sunday for lunch we had a huge garden party around the pool in the palace where we had three different buffets, one by Ducasse, one by Joel Robuchon, and one by me. It was very interesting to work with two of the best chefs in the world.
Any anecdotes about working with these chefs?
I arrived in the palace in April of 1987 and Alain Ducasse arrived in Monaco in January of that same year. I was in Hotel de Paris when he took over and on his first day in the hotel I was in the kitchen when he arrived. We didn't know much about him in the kitchen at that time except that he was very talented, and who knew that I would cook with him years later.
What is one of your favorite moments in the palace?
It was another unforgettable day when we hosted chef Paul Bocuse's 80th birthday here in the palace. It was a private lunch with Prince Albert for Paul Bocuse and Alain Ducasse with their wives and at the end of the lunch the Prince asked me to meet Bocuse and I was overjoyed to meet this God of cuisine. After that Bocuse came into the kitchen and spoke with me about my cuisine and my just-born twins. I have met him several times after that but that first time was really special.
I met him again in Monaco at the 30th anniversary of the Club des Chefs des Chefs since it was here that Gilles Bragard started the club. In fact we served the exact same menu from that day. There was Pierre Troisgros, Bocuse, Blanc, and other idols and I was spellbound. Even now if Bocuse or Troisgros ever asked me I would be their commis anytime! At the end of the dinner, chef Pierre Troisgros asked me to sign his menu. Imagine, I grew up learning to cook from his books!
When did you arrive in Monaco?
I was born in Bruges, then moved near Paris, and arrived in Monaco in 1977 when I was 13 years old. Then I started at the hotel school and then worked at Monte Carlo Beach Hotel followed by Hotel de Paris for five years. Then the palace asked me to come work for seven months initially, and at 22 years of age I thought it would be a nice experience.
Did you ever think that you would hold the Executive Chef position here one day?
No, never. I thought I would work here for a while and then somewhere else. I believe that when you get an opportunity you should not hesitate to take advantage of it. Who knew seven months would turn into 28 years? I love Monaco and my job and my life. Every morning when I come to work I know that every day will be a new experience. When you are happy then it's not a job anymore. Sometimes I wish I could share with my friends the stories of the life I live, the opportunity to meet Presidents and kings when after all I am just a cook.
How was your trip with your club to America in 2013?
Our club cooked at the Franciscan Mission for homeless people and usually at charity dinners we cook for people who pay a lot of money to be there, but in this case we cooked for people who are homeless and have nothing. It was a different feeling, and this year in January I cooked at the Principe di Savoia in Milan for a similar charity event. We served 300 homeless people and I prepared a risotto with the vegetables from our gardens. It was a strange experience to see at ten in the morning all these people in lines who were carrying everything they owned with them. We fed them and gave them some care but after that they returned to their life on the street and it was sad. It is very important to give and share.
Your club also visited the Kremlin a few years ago. Did their kitchen work differently from yours?
It was interesting to see how they worked. Normally we all prepare the food in our kitchens for our patrons but at the Kremlin the chef prepared the food for the President in a separate kitchen with officials, minsters, and the President’s doctor observing the entire process.
There’s a film about your travels in Northern Italy sourcing products for an official banquet. Is this fairly routine for special banquets?
Yes, we prepare very carefully for each event and do our best to procure our products from the best sources, and some of them we have long association with. For example, as you saw I might get Balsamic from Modena or pick up culatello from Massimo Spigaroli in Parma.
Do you personally get to meet these dignitaries?
Yes, at the end of the dinner or banquet I feel very proud when the Prince asks me to come to salute the guests. It's the cherry on the cake. When you work very hard to ensure everything is perfect then it's very gratifying to be complimented on your work. My job is to make the Prince proud and to receive the guests well, and when the Prince and Princess are happy then I have done my job well and I am happy. Then there are unforgettable moments like when President Mandela visited and the Prince invited me to meet him and receive a compliment on my work from him.
What is the best compliment that you have received?
I take all the compliments gladly. The best one could come tomorrow if the Prince or Princess says the soup was very good. That is a happier moment more than the big receptions when I prepare a gastronomic dinner. Considering that every day I prepare food for a head of state and, though I do elaborate meals, in the evening I prepare a simple meal and it has to be the best that can be. It has to be perfect in every way for this private dinner as for any official dinner.
Is it hard to measure up to these standards?
It is, but I have to say that I am fortunate to have the best products to work with every day. The vegetables from our own organic farm, from the farmers around us, I get the best fish and meat, so then creating good cuisine becomes very easy. All that is required is appropriate cooking time, seasoning, etc. I believe in simplicity, though as cooks we try most of the time to complicate our jobs.
Do you have to be very creative since you are cooking for the same people every day?
Yes of course, just like in restaurants chefs try to be creative, but like me they don't have the same guests every day. It's like a mother cooking for her family every day and you have to change up things to keep the interest. It is also important to serve different tastes and foods to allow them to appreciate the different cuisines.
Do you plan menus for the day or for the week?
Every evening I prepare the menu for the following day, but if a producer calls and says that he has a beautiful sea bass or dorade, I might change the menu to work with that fish. Sometimes we show the product to the Prince when he comes to the kitchen as he loves to see all the products.
Each evening, when I present the menu, the Prince signs his approval then or the next morning in the kitchen and will sometimes suggest what he would like to taste that day. So I prepare a menu with three first courses, three mains, and desserts options. When we have official receptions we prepare menus a few weeks in advance and discuss them with the Prince and Princess. Every detail of the presentation and service is discussed, the products, etc. There are times when we change things at the last minute or add something. The Prince gives me the freedom to plan and execute and will sometimes say "surprise me". In my job I try to surprise him every day.
Who determines the flatware or wine etc. for these official receptions?
Sometimes the Princess or I do it along with the majordomo. We try to use the most suitable serve ware for the occasion. The majordomo works with the Prince to choose the wines as he is very interested and knowledgeable about it. The Prince is a fine connoisseur of food and wine and is always keen to try out new restaurants.
So are there extensive records of these in case the same dignitary comes for another event after a few years?
We keep the records of course and the majordomo is responsible for that. Sometimes I write all the details on the menus along with photos so we have details of every event. We try to keep the traditions of the palace unlike a Maison Bourgeois. In the earlier days in the palace it was the French style service so the dish was presented on a platter to the guests who served themselves. Now we don't even have restaurants with this kind of service so people are no longer accustomed to this and don't know how to serve themselves. Sometimes they wait till the maitre'd serves them as they are unsure how to comport themselves. In our palace the service is à la française so I present the main course on the big silver salvers and the starter or first courses in individual plates. I try to keep the traditions of the Royal house.
Do you do a tasting prior to the big events for the Prince and Princess?
No, they don't do that, just discuss the menu before the Prince signs the menu. After that they trust my judgment to prepare the food. After all I have been here in this kitchen for 28 years now. When I arrived in this kitchen I was 23 years old, first I worked for Prince Rainier for 17 years until he passed away in 2005 and since then for Prince Albert II.
You are very fond of Indian cuisine!
It is one of my favorite cuisines, though I love all the cuisines of the world since we have guests at the palace from all over the world. I like to interest them with different cuisines of the world.
So you have Indian spices in your kitchens here that you use frequently?
Yes of course, though I do Indian cuisine or try to in my own style and it's the same for American cuisine or any other cuisine. It's different for every cook as they add their own touch. I use tandoori and a lot of other spices as the Princess loves these flavors. In South Africa where she came from it a very popular cuisine and she loves all kinds of curries and cuisine with spices.
What are Prince Albert’s preferences in food?
The Prince likes all kinds of cuisine; in fact the Prince and Princess are very fine gourmets. It's easy for me to cook for them since they love cuisine and love to meet chefs. In fact he comes into the kitchen every day and takes an active interest in what is going on here in the kitchen. Actually it's a privilege of my job to have that kind of contact.
Do you enjoy that part of your job?
Yes of course, and it helps me understand what they want and how they prefer it. The routine varies and so do the menus each day. Some days we prepare only a soup and salad for lunch for the Prince and Princess and that same evening we might have an official reception with a President, King, or another dignitary. This part of my job is unique, for example yesterday we had the Japanese ambassador at the palace to present his credentials in an official ceremony.
Do you have to follow a certain protocol for these events?
Yes of course. We work very closely with the protocol office here at the Palace, especially when we have official dinners and receptions here. We have to get details on any allergies or other preferences of the dignitaries, the religion, etc.
How far in advance of the events do you receive these detailed instructions?
Sometimes months ahead, and sometimes just a few weeks, but it is always a pleasure to create something special for a guest. We don't attempt to cook the cuisine of their own country. For example if the Prince invites the Indian Head of State, we will not prepare Indian food. When we received President Mandela and I thought of South Africa, diamonds came to my mind and I created a special dessert.
What was the dessert?
It was a white chocolate diamond with a mousse of raspberries and ice cream. I thought of the Star of Africa, the biggest diamond found there in 1885, and modeled it on that. It's a way to give respect and touch on the culture of the guest’s country. I did not want to serve the traditional cuisine of his country.
Any incident when miscommunication has resulted in a faux pas at a banquet?
So far never since everything is done under very stringent controls and it's very important to be totally organized so there is no possibility of a mistake.
It’s rumored that you like to go fishing with one of the local fishermen here in Monte Carlo.
Sometimes I do go fishing with a local fisherman, who is actually one of the last fishermen in Monaco. It's the well-known Rinaldi family of Monaco, and the even the Prince has gone fishing with him. Prince Rainier went fishing with the father so it is a long association with them.
Sometimes it is important for me to keep the contact since he calls me every day to let me know what he has caught, and in this way I can procure the best food possible for my kitchen.
Any plans for when you retire?
I am very active in a lot of charities and I will continue in that work. The Prince is involved in a lot of charities and we do a lot of charity dinners. I will be going to Japan for a charity dinner to benefit the orphans of the tsunami. Our club Chefs des Chefs does a lot; for example at a charity dinner for peace in Israel half the brigade was Palestinian and half was Israeli, working together.
In restaurant kitchens they constantly train people. Do you do that in your kitchens?
We don't train but we try to take in students from the culinary school for big events. As you see we are a very small team here so for receptions I might get people from Hotel de Paris as well as students from the local culinary schools. For them it is an exceptional experience and opportunity to see how we cook. The Prince always comes into the kitchen to say hello and they are thrilled. Maybe it will inspire them to continue in this line as there is an attrition rate in this field.
Have you cooked anything yet for twin Royal babies?
Not yet, but we are waiting for that and very excited about it. It is the third generation as I have prepared food for their grandfather and father as well as Princess Stephanie and Princess Caroline and their children. I have shared many happy and sad moments with all of them. I first met Prince Rainier when I was seventeen and he will always be in my heart.
Where is the most exotic place your CCC organization has visited?
Next year we might be going to India but each trip is different. For example when we are in France it's a country all about gastronomy, but when we are in Czech Republic they don't have the wine or food of say France so we get to explore a new cuisine. Though each chef introduces us to different cuisines, we all have similar situations and stories of private lives that only we can understand.
Is it proper to say that members of your club working for royalty have more job stability than those working for Presidents?
Yes they change and so our members may change. At the White House Cristeta Comerford has worked for two different presidents, so some people do retain their jobs, and she also does a lot of work for Michelle Obama's foundation. The chef at the Buckingham Palace has been in the kitchen for thirteen years. It is true when you work for presidents it may be only for a short period of time and so our members change, but we are like a family and keep our contacts. When the Prince invites the French President I call up my colleague at the Élysées Palace and find out his preferences and allergies, and it is easier when you have this direct contact. It is like we have our own red phone.