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Why Bordeaux Is France’s Capital Of Laid-Back Cool

Five creatives on how the sleepy wine city woke up

Think Bordeaux, think wine. Since the first century, this settlement in the southwest of France has been pumping out the world’s very best booze, as well as many of its most expensive cases. Your Lafite Rothschilds, your Mouton Rothschilds and your Margaux all come from the châteaux surrounding France’s sixth-largest city. It is not simply effluvient vineyards that have attracted attention down the centuries. Bordeaux is also a gem of classical architecture, its broad boulevards having inspired Mr Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s renovation of Paris. “Take Versailles, add Antwerp, and you have Bordeaux,” wrote Mr Victor Hugo.

Tradition is important, then, in Bordeaux. Some might say for a time too important. It seemed to throttle innovation, stiffle change. The “old ways” became the only way, and it became something of a backwater, its riverfront warehouses having been shuttered, its Grand Théatre became unkempt. It acquired the name La Belle Endormie – the sleeping beauty. But in recent years, that’s all changed. An energy of ground-up innovation has taken hold.

A crop of modern, adventurous buildings – including the Cité du Vin wine museum and the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux – have sprouted up amid the neoclassical facades. An influx of talent has arrived from across the country and Europe, making it once more a centre of innovation in design, gastronomy and the arts. In this spirit, we caught up with five locals who prove that sud ouest is best, whether you have a glass in your hand or not.

Mr Simon Chollet is one quarter of Symbiose, an ambitious cocktail bar and restaurant which has upturned Bordeaux’s usually classic approach to food and drink. He and his friends Messrs Lucas Maraton, Félix Clerc and Thomas Nero first met in Paris, where they were working in the ever-thriving bar scene – Mr Chollet, like Mr Maraton, cut his teeth in the capital’s Sherrybutt. Mr Chollet himself grew up mostly in Bordeaux’s southwestern rival, Toulouse, then went to Paris. “I’ve got two cities on my CV, which the Bordelais normally hate,” he laughs. After three-and-a-half years, the 28-year-old feels a happy néo-Bordelais.

Why did you choose to move to Bordeaux?

Yes. We were lucky to get into a relatively new market in France – the cocktail market – and to get into it young. It helped us take on responsibilities quickly, and in big places. So when we were all around 25, we said: we need to go to the next level. We wanted to open up something of our own, and we wanted to find a calmer life. Lucas is from Bordeaux, and he persuaded us to come down here, because the market seemed rich for development. We don’t regret it at all.

What’s the concept behind Symbiose?

To mix up the world of cuisine and bars – to really unify it in terms of preparation and presentation. I mean, they’re very congruent worlds – the bar is essentially liquid cuisine, really. The goal was to maximise the creativity and to minimise the waste.

What’s a good example?

A classic for us is the Jerusalem artichoke. We’ll take the peelings from the kitchen, we’ll burn them, and then infuse them with Porto: that goes into making a twist on a classic cocktail called the Sangaree. That was one of the first products we made that way. Another example is the beetroot. We’ll cook it in a salt crust, so it becomes a kind of caramelised confit – and that will go towards making a beetroot syrup, with a nut vinegar.

And you change the menu every week?

Every day! For food, that is. For cocktails, it’s three times a year, changing more or less with the seasons. The bar and the cuisine inspire each other.

The emphasis on not wasting anything is very zeitgeisty. Has it always been a concern for you?

Towards the end of our first year, we bought a garden nearby, in the Landes [south of Bordeaux], where we grow our own special herbs and vegetables, in order to have a total control of the product.

What is the main discovery that you made in Bordeaux?

In this region, you can go from ocean to mountain very quickly. And considering the intensity of the work, it’s much easier here to free your mind, to relax pretty quickly. Even if you just have one or two days off, you can get away and recharge very quickly. It’s important to keep your spirit free.

Mr Tanguy Laviale’s Michelin-starred Garopapilles is one of Bordeaux’s most in-demand restaurants, blending innovative cuisine with judiciously-selected wines. This is pretty much always what the 38-year-old meant to do – just not in Bordeaux. But, one day, the lifelong Parisian was taken down south for a weekend in the city by his wife, and he loved it. “I remember saying out loud, ‘It’s a city I could live in’,” he says. Two weeks later, his wife told him she’d been offered a job there. A whole decade later, they’re here to stay.

How did Garopapilles come about?

When I moved here, I tried to work for other restaurants. But there were very few high-end establishments, and that’s really my thing. I went around all of the ones here and they all said, “Listen, we’d like to, but there’s no space”. So, I decided to stop cheffing and studied to become a winemaker. I then ended up working in a chateau that was producing a grand cru, and they asked me to open a kind of private restaurant, for visiting collectors and importers. Then, I’d started a wine-selling company with my friends. All of this led to creating Garopapilles. We opened in 2014.

How would you describe your cuisine?

I like to call it “la cuisine amoureuse”. We try to do things that are really modern, but still keep a bit of tradition. We do things with jus, with sauces, we pay strict attention to the preparation – but it’s not convoluted. We take no shortcuts, and I think that’s what grabs people’s attention.

Has the food culture changed much in the decade you’ve been here?

In the past few years, the city has become more and more attractive – it’s been completely redone, there’s a new transport system and so on. A lot of new people have come to Bordeaux to try it out. And I think it’s good, because they’ve come with new habits and cultures.

When did you decide to become a chef?

I didn’t want to be a chef at all, I wanted to manage a hotel. But after school, in order to do that, I was told I had to train in all the different areas of the hotel industry, and I chose the toughest one first – cooking. And then I stayed with it.

It’s a bit of a masochistic choice, being a chef, isn’t it?

Oh yes, completely. There’s a mysterious side to it, too. Each year I say, ‘OK, this is the last year’, and then every year I say: OK, one more.

Surely something attracts you to haute cuisine, though?

It’s the challenge and the innovation, the research and the renewal. Strangely, I like working in these kinds of places, but I don’t always want to eat in one. I like the more relaxed and convivial side of a bistro, for example.

You prefer a nice entrecôte and chips?

Alors, non! But I will say there are some very good chefs in some bistros. To be honest, I mostly just need a great wine list.

Two years ago, Mr Axel Collart Dutilleul’s parents bought a chateau near Bordeaux, and they asked their son, who had recently retrained as a winemaker, to take over its vineyards, which were, as he puts it, “a forest”. Thus 30-year-old Mr Collart Dutilleul is helping restore Château Mazeris Bellevue to its former splendour. They grow three grapes on the 170-year-old estate: merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. Mr Collart Dutilleul’s favourite is the latter: “It has the most elegance”. But then, as he points out, you really need the whole range, for balance.

How did you end up working in wine?

I grew up in Paris with my parents, but we do have a connection to the area – my mother is from Libourne, 30km from Bordeaux, and my grandparents now only live 20 minutes from the chateau. I used to come down here every Christmas, summer and Easter. Anyway, I first did a masters in business, and then I worked a bit for a big company. But I felt like my work had no meaning. So I thought it over for a few months; I knew I wanted a job that required skills and craft, but which involved being outside, too. Which is how I ended up in viticulture.

Did you have much knowledge of wine beforehand?

No, basically nothing! I had never stepped into a vineyard in my life. I drank wine, but it was just at parties.

Had you guessed your parents might buy the chateau?

I did my studies a good two or three years before they even bought it. I studied winemaking, and agriculture, and I learned how to drive a tractor. I worked in various other chateaux, too. I hadn’t necessarily wanted to work with them, but it felt like such a good opportunity to apply all my learning. So, I said I’d work with them for three years, and train them up in the process.

Was it scary entering such a huge and competitive industry?

It’s hard, because it depends on the weather, and it’s so physical. I spend four months outside, in winter, cutting back the vines. I cut about 35,000sq ft, which is normal. If you can imagine it, it’s like working along about 40km of vines. It’s like a marathon!

And you do it alone?

Yes, mostly.

What’s that like?

It’s very introspective. There are different phases in the day. There’s a physical phase – you have to warm up and stretch, focus on posture. Then it alternates between just thinking, and listening to the radio when I’ve had enough of that. That’s basically December to March.

What’s your favourite part of the year?

It’s that, actually. Because it’s when everything’s calm, and it’s also the first phase – the most important one for winemakers like me. But then there’s also the grape harvest, which we do manually. We employ about 15 people. That’s the sum of a year’s work, and it’s kind of a party. So you start out all on your own, with the vines, and then you finish the process with other people, and it’s a celebration.

Mr Mickael Pelissier is quite dry about how he ended up at Bordeaux’s prestigious acting school. “No other school wanted me,” he laughs. To be fair, it is very hard to get into one of France’s few national acting schools, which will put you through gruelling training: at the moment, Mr Pelissier, who’s in his third and final year, works from 9.00am until 11.00pm, Monday through to Saturday, studying not only texts and acting, but also martial arts, contemporary dance, singing… Once the 26-year-old has graduated, he’d like to make another film, like the one he made in 2017, the well-received indie Ma vie avec James Dean (My Life With James Dean). It was his first ever. It’s “strange” to see yourself onscreen, says the 6ft 5in-tall Mr Pelissier, who grew up in Picardie in the very north of France. “Terrifying,” even.

When did you want to become an actor?

It was 13 years ago. At the beginning, it was for very intimate, private reasons. And then I said, ‘OK, I love doing this, it’s cool, it makes me happy’. I actually had no idea I could train, and my teachers didn’t seem to know either. I thought becoming an actor was all about talent and luck. But actually, no, it’s a lot of work. Some will think that talent is important, but I think hard work is the most important. And willpower, too. Motivation. It took me five years to get into one of these schools.

What do you like about living in Bordeaux?

It’s cosmopolitan. You can meet people from anywhere, from France and beyond. It really is a city that welcomes everybody. There’s a lot going on, especially with music – it’s one of the heartlands of French rock.

What places do you like to go to?

I love Darwin, which is a type of cultural complex [it’s in a former military barracks, on the banks of the Garonne]. It used to be illegal; now it offers loads of stuff. Shops, bars, exhibitions, a skate park. It’s almost a city within a city. I think it’s great. I also like the exhibitions at the CAPC [modern art museum], which is in a magnificent old warehouse that the ports used to use. And then I just like just walking around the streets. It sounds silly, maybe, but just the streets.

Mr Damien Castera

Born in Bayonne, Mr Damien Castera started surfing professionally aged 15, but prefers the “free surfing” category – that is to say, doing it for the thrill of the surf only, not for competition. He travels the world, making films and books about his experiences. His latest book, Du flocon à la vague (From Snowflake To Wave), is out now. His aim: “I’d love it if surfing could reconnect with its sense of adventure,” he says. He is pictured here with his friend Mr Mathieu Crepel, a surfer, skater and snowboarder whose life was subject of the 2018 documentary Shaka.

Can you describe your work?

Before, I used to travel for surf competitions, and now I travel for adventures. I’ve been to Alaska, Patagonia, Papua New Guinea, Namibia, Liberia… areas that few people go to to surf in. I try to stay close to nature. Right now, I’m working on a film we made in Liberia about ex-child soldiers. It’s called Child Surfers, Not Child Soldiers. They’ve become the first generation of surfers there. It’s showing how surfing can work as a kind of therapy, and help you forget the horrors of war.

You must have never imagined you’d do that when you started surfing…

No, not at the very beginning. But I very quickly got interested in literature about travel and exploration, so I’ve always known that beyond the stereotyped image of the surfer, there are loads of different things you can be. I felt like I wanted to do this kind of stuff pretty early on, to be honest. With competitive surfing, you journey around countries without having the time to get to know them. I’d much rather get to know a country properly with a long visit, spend two months there for instance. It feels much deeper.

You work with brands that have a strong ecological message, such as Picture Organic Clothing and EQ Love?

I used to work with a big brand for ages, and I wasn’t happy with what they were doing. They hadn’t developed much in terms of durable, eco-friendly stuff. Picture Organic is totally different. It’s the same with EQ Love – it’s very engaged with the products, it cares about chemical composition of creams and so on. I don’t give my image to labels that aren’t working to do the right thing any more.

What do you love about surfing?

Being in the sea, you feel like you’re washing out your head, and washing out your heart. And it’s never the same thing twice. All the waves are unique. You have to read the waves, the elements, and you make do with them.