Eating healthfully and pleasurably are not mutually exclusive, insists Chef Jacky Oberti, the smiling face behind the haute spa cuisine at Monte Carlo's L'Hirondelle. It's not only possible, in fact, but should be the way we all eat, he says. And the chef – who, with sparkling eyes and white hair conjures mental images more in line with Santa than with stereotypical French chefs – has a few rules to guide the way.
Fresh off the helicopter to Monaco (because how else does one arrive at this glamorous principality on the French Riviera?), I sat down with the chef, an exuberant fellow who's bursting with vitality. Though my high school French couldn't keep up with his mastery and a kind translator assisted, his enthusiasm needed no interpretation. From our table overlooking the fairytale harbor under azure skies, Monsieur Oberti shared with me his rules for living well and eating even better.
Don't frustrate the body.
Dieting or depriving yourself is a fast track to misery. Feed your body what it needs, and besides being happier, you'll be healthier to boot, says Oberti, who has trained not only in Michelin-starred kitchens but as a nutritionist and herbalist.
Meals must first be about pleasure.
“Eating is about sharing with other people,” Oberti says. “It's the pleasure of being together.” While many of us today will wolf down anything just to fuel our bodies for the rest of the day, this is the opposite of what we should be doing, Oberti believes. “Put everything aside. Watch, look, smell, taste.” Revel in the plate in front of you, in other words.
Know where the food is coming from, and use only the very best ingredients.
Oberti is a lucky man to cook here in this veritable garden of Eden. Let us count the ways: Perched on the Mediterranean coast, Monaco has access to ultra-fresh seafood. Bounded by sun-drenched French and Italian countryside, produce is abundant and gorgeous. Oberti can – and does – pick and choose, sourcing from the very best, most passionate growers (as well as his own vegetable garden), selecting produce at its absolute peak, and presenting it often with little more than pristine olive oil he gets from 10 kilometers away.
Limit animal fat to once a week.
You need fat, for sure. (Remember: don't frustrate your body!) Amazing olive oils or coconut oils are decadent on their own. Limiting butter and dairy to once a week – which may sound like heresy in this part of the world! – and meat, too, is the healthy way to go, Oberti says. “You will rediscover the real pleasure of eating.” And to see him describe the pleasure of eating a beautiful salad accompanied with a select few crumbles of a perfect chevre is to believe.
Focus on the food, and only the food.
“You have to appreciate what you eat,” says Oberti. “Never eat without thinking about what you're eating.” And that means no multi-tasking at mealtime. Put the phone down. Turn the television off. And seriously, back away from the laptop.
Oberti wants you to slow down, too. “Put your fork and knife down between every bite,” he says. “Spend more time at the table.” If I were lucky enough to eat at his table every day, that wouldn't be hard. The hard part, in fact, would be ever leaving.