François Chartier is a sommelier, a cook, a scientist… A profile that could be aligned to the Renaissance. From Montreal, but in love with Barcelona. He has lived there for 4 years. Work and love encouraged him to settle in a city that has him captivated. Sergio Castro, Chartier’s colleague during his sommelier studies at the Laurentides Catering School in Sainte Adèle, has had a chat with him on a terrace of a centric hotel of Barcelona. This is the conversation between both wine, vineyard and gastronomy lovers.
François, could you introduce yourself for those who don’t know you?
I am François Chartier, harmony creator, sommelier, investigator, cook, scientist in love of vineyards, wine and gastronomy, and author of various books, Papilles et molécules [Taste Buds and Molecules], creator of molecular harmony science and I have lived in Barcelona for 4 years. But I am from Montreal.
What do you do? How have you ended up living here?
Because it’s amazing. I came here 30 years ago, and I fell in love with Spain, with Catalonia, with Barcelona, with gastronomy, and I come back regularly. I have had the great privilege of working with Ferran Adrià, at El Bulli, between 2006 and 2010 as a consultant. And 4 years ago I returned for the third time in order to give a conference at the Wine International Culinary Forum organised by Cellers Torres; I was an adviser who used to give conferences, and I fell in love, but this time not with Barcelona, but with a sommelier, a girl, Isabelle Morin. One month later I moved to Barcelona. It was love that brought me to Barcelona, and work, of course.
What a beautiful introduction to your life: love for wine, love for gastronomy and love with a capital L…
A huge L.
Here I have your first book, Taste Buds and Molecules, published in several languages and holding various awards. But you just launched another one…
Yes, I have published another one… So, I write in French because it is my first language. I released L’Essentiel de Chartier in 2016, my last published book. I have published a total of twenty-six books. L’Essentiel de Chartier, which in Spain has been translated into The Aromatic Cuisine, is really a guide to use when you say: “Right, today we have mushrooms; what ingredients will they go with? With what wines and varieties will they pair? With what liquors?”. They are recipe ideas that are very easy to understand. Taste Buds and Molecules is the user manual of this molecular harmony science, which is a bit complex to understand.
Could you define to us exactly what is molecular sommellerie?
Yes; I created it in 2002 and I named it like this, but with time it has become molecular harmony, simply, because harmony is everything, it is all life, even music.
But what is it?
For example, if we manage to understand which are the molecules behind black olives and behind Shiraz, we will understand a new way of explaining the harmony between food and wine, which is a scientific and an aromatic path. There are no scientific books about the harmony between food and wine, and I needed one, because I am curious, I need to know, I need to understand. And I said: I will create my science and I will use it to understand my work, and I stumbled upon a new science which I named molecular harmony.
But in reality, when you define yourself, you self-define as a creator of harmonies.
Let’s see, creator of harmonies… Because you may talk about science, which you do a lot, but when you define yourself as a creator of harmonies, this is something more artsy, or it sounds more like being an artist than a scientist.
I do science, I cook, I have studied cookery, I am a columnist, I also link music to everything I do, I do a bit of everything because I am curious. I make beer, I make wine, now I make sake in Japan… Some friends told me I was only a sommelier, a creator of harmonies. Initially, this creator thing seemed something a bit too big, but with time I accepted that I look for harmony in everything I do.
It is very interesting, because you take the sommelier tag to another level. And you have made a very interesting comment, just after talking about wine, you always talk about cuisine. I know you are a cuisine lover, and you are always cooking. Are wine and cuisine inseparable?
They are inseparable. Wine is, above all, a food, in inverted commas, that we drink at the table when we eat, with family, with friends, in restaurants, and this is why for me it is inseparable. If you do not understand the ways of cooking, how sauces are made and things like that, you cannot be a good and complete sommelier. This is what I used to think, and I still believe it.
What came first, the egg of the chicken? Was it first the passion for wine or the passion for food? How did everything start?
I am sorry, but first it was beer. In 1986 I opened a brewery north of Montreal, in Saint-Jovite, in Tremblant. I became very curious about beers and customer communication; this is where it all started.
Sometimes there are paths, where they take us, we don’t know.
Exactly, and when I was little, at school I didn’t like chemistry, biology, geography… I wanted to die, I had bad grades, I didn’t like it. But wine gave me this, it made me want to know the geography of the whole world, to understand chemistry and biology. Wine gave sense to my life. Wine and gastronomy, because these are closely linked.
Exactly, let’s talk about cooking. We’ve already talked about this. At one point we realise that François Chartier frequently works, collaborates and visits what was considered to be the best restaurant in the world [El Bulli], and its chef Ferran Adrià. How did you get there?
I landed at El Bulli for the first time in 2006 in order to give a master class in the restaurant. I invited Josep Roca, “Pitu”, who was sat next to me, Ferran, Juli and the whole team, with Oriol, Eduard and Meteo, today chefs at Disfrutar. I introduced myself, explained myself, and after 5 minutes, Ferran says to me: “Okay, stop, it’s good, I’ve understood. You are coming to work with us. I leave you here with the others; I’m leaving, since I have things to do. We’ll see each other soon. Perfect”.
This is the encounter of two professionals that, being outside of the science, turn themselves towards it.
The most important legacy of Ferran Adrià and the team at Bulli is having demonstrated the necessity of being multidisciplinary, the need of thinking outside the box. The need of going and talking to the cooks and the chefs, but also the scientists, the biologists, the physicists, visiting architects, finding inspiration elsewhere. This changed me, it was a huge challenge. My work during that period, before meeting Ferran, revolved around trying to redefine the wine’s place at the table, of the 21st Century cuisine. But it started to change my mind slowly but surely. And when I met Ferran, this went “boom”.
From Ferran’s creations inspired in your quests, is there any you are particularly proud of, that you prefer over the others?
Nori seaweed temaki and raspberry and violet water purée. Why? Because it demonstrates the aromatic power between ingredients that have the same dominant molecule. Because this is what happens. Really 1 + 1 = 3. It’s an aromatic synergy, and it also shows that with this knowledge we can open new ideas. Because nori seaweed and raspberry… No one in the planet did this at that moment.
Where would you say the world of gastronomy and wine needs to head towards from now on?
It is very hard to predict the future at this moment. Now, the future is every day, and it changes every day. Why? Because of Covid, the new way of living, which imposes adaptations and changes, weekly, daily, there is always something going on. Then, what is the most important in this moment? Adaptation, change. And what are the hardest things in life for everyone? Changes.
These months we’ve seen many big chefs, many great sommeliers in the digital world, for example, doing conferences, Instagram Live, Zoom, etc. Do you think this is part of this change, of this revolution?
Absolutely! The digital, the Zoom conferences, Instagram, whatever it is, to me is at least a beneficial effect of the period we are currently living in, because this allows us to communicate with each other and to maintain our communication with the planet. And it isn’t wrong; there have never been so many conferences of big chefs and great sommeliers on the Internet and on social media, and only to talk about cuisine and wine.
Let’s go back to the world of aromas, the world of gastronomy and wine. Would there be an ingredient that could be paired or harmonise with any wine, or would there be a grape variety that could be paired well with any ingredient?
I have put a lot of thought into this. I haven’t found an ingredient that pairs well with all wines. I haven’t found a dish where you’d say: “okay, it’s possible, it goes well with everything”. In conclusion, if you think about it, it’s impossible, because not everything goes with everything.
Currently they are trying to bring back autochthonous grape varieties, forgotten grape varieties and lost grape varieties. Now that you live here in Catalonia, would there be any grape variety that has surprised you aromatically, due to its characteristics? And with which variety would you create a harmony?
The latest one that comes to mind, which I tried back in January, in Madrid, is Forcada. It’s not Riesling, but it has something. It’s not Sauvignon Blanc, but it has a singularity, an aromatic signature in the universe of aromatic herbs, rosemary, thyme; it’s the Mediterranean, the citrus… A magnificent acidity. This grape is grown at high altitude, more or less to the north-west of Catalonia, in Penedès. It requires coolness and clay soil, which we have. So, this variety reminds me a little bit of the profiles of Riesling wines.
Do you think the world of wine, the culture of wine, will arrive to the millennials?
Yes, they are getting it, but not in the same way. The millennials, in general, define themselves as people who don’t want to be linked with brands, with clothes… They are completely different. They consume luxury, real stories, from small producers. They want direct contact; they want the truth.
What would cellars and wine companies have to do in order to get closer to this millennial audience?
I think they need to be more authentic than ever. They have to highlight the premises, talk about the vineyards, talk about the story behind them, because millennials love history. They want to know what lies behind. We have to communicate what is good, the truth, the story of the land and of the ancestral grape varieties; I think we will manage to approach these young people, because they are just as curious as we are, and as curious as the previous generation.
A little taste
The perfect pairing?
The perfect pairing is to drink wine and eat with the people we love. This is very important.
The best moment for a glass of wine.
The best moment for drinking a glass of wine is with friends or family. To me, these are the most important moments for a wine.
A song to taste a wine?
I have a passion for music, I always establish a relationship between music and wine. I really like it. And I really like many different music styles. I don’t know, a German Riesling, which tastes like spring water, with a Marc-André Hamelin piano piece. Then it sounds like spring water, just as clear. It’s amazing. Then, Lauryn Hill, who has a silky voice, with a barrel-aged Chardonnay from Penedès. It’s the harmony. I’m a little bit crazy. This is how it is, but I like it.
A place to get lost.
There are some extraordinary places. I will mention more than one. Jerez. There’s something weird, surprising, magical, in Jerez de la Frontera. The wine, the gastronomy, the people, the music, the flamenco. I am a big fan of flamenco. So, it is incredible. In Douro there are some exceptionally beautiful vineyards. Places like these are unique and can be linked to gastronomy and wine. I, really, have never eaten in Rœllinger’s restaurant.
A place which is not linked to wine or gastronomy?
Barcelona, because even in streets I know, I always discover something new. Art is in the streets in Barcelona. There’s something unique. It has a texture. The little streets, the people…
What does François Chartier do in his free time?
He listens to music. He’s been trying to play the guitar for 40 years, but he plays it very badly.
I ask too many questions.
I ask too many questions. I have always been like this. “Why, why, why?”.
What did you want to be when you were little?
Like many Quebecois, I wanted to be a hockey player.
And when you were older?
A rock star, a “guitar hero”. When I was 18 I wanted to be a musician, to be a “hero with a guitar” and to play like Jimi Hendrix and Joe Satriani, but unfortunately it didn’t go like that.
What does François Chartier want to be now?
A good father for my two children. Honestly.