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Chef Claire Vallée—France’s Vegan Food Force

Culinary Pioneer Pays Tribute to Nature

Chef Claire Vallée
Chef Claire Vallée. ©Anne-Emmanuelle Thion

“In nature I find a friend, a companion, and a mother. My job is to pay tribute to her, to preserve her, and present her to the world.”—Claire Vallée

It can be hard to stand out in the culinary world when one hails from a nation synonymous with fine cuisine. But French chef Claire Vallée is a true gastronomic pioneer. 

Entirely self-taught, her restaurant, ONA, was the first vegan restaurant in France to earn a coveted Michelin star award, and she has become one of the world’s leading advocates for both vegan and sustainable cooking.

But her passion for vegan food transcends simple taste and ingredients. It is rooted in spiritualism, philosophy, and a wider fascination with nature itself.

A former archaeologist, it is perhaps no surprise that her love of the treasures buried in the Earth helped inspire her culinary creations. But it was a journey to the East that lit the fire of inner discovery that set her on the path to success.

Inspired by Temple Cuisine

After working as a chef on a catamaran, Vallée journeyed to Thailand in 2012—and things would never be the same again.

“It was a revelation,” she told The Earth & I.

“I discovered vegetarian cooking through the Buddhist culture. Herbs, roots, spices— nothing escaped my library of tastes, textures, and smells.”

“I discovered vegetarian cooking through the Buddhist culture. Herbs, roots, spices—nothing escaped my library of tastes, textures, and smells. I familiarized myself with umami, the famous fifth taste. And I realized that temple cuisine was just as tasty as that on offer in France.”

Port d’Ares, Gironde, France.
Port d’Ares, Gironde, France. ©Olivier Bouillaud/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.5)

When she returned to France, she settled down in Arès, in Gironde, on the Arcachon Basin, and was hired as a chef in a traditional restaurant. But she quickly realized that that kind of cooking was no longer for her.

“I took a deeper interest in animal distress in farms, slaughterhouses, and during transport. I became aware that, in addition to the cruelty inflicted on these sentient beings, there is also the pollution of soil, rivers, and oceans caused by animal dejecta; the deforestation linked to the cultivation of soya to feed these animals; the methane released into the air which contributes to global warming; and the antibiotics and growth hormones injected and which we humans reciprocally ingest by consuming meat and dairy products,” she said.

‘Animal-Free Origin’

Fueled by a desire to do things differently, coupled with the skills she had picked up in the East, Vallée decided to open ONA— which stands for Origine non animale (animal-free origin)—in Arès near Bordeaux. But that would be easier said than done. Mainstream banks thought her dream was a “crazy idea,” so she went about funding things differently.

She started a crowdfunding campaign. Some 126 people helped raise €10,000 (about $10,753). That money was pooled with a loan from La Nef, a bank that specializes in lending for ethical projects.

She then mobilized a volunteer workforce of painters, masons, electricians, plumbers, gardeners, friends, future customers, strangers, helpers, and local businesses. In less than two months, ONA opened its doors to the public in 2016.

Not only did the restaurant serve vegan food from the onset, it used no animal products in its decorations or furnishings and won praise for its commitment to renewable practices.

Success soon followed. ONA was named in the Michelin Guide for 2021 and received a Michelin star—a first for a vegan restaurant in France. It was also one of 33 restaurants in France to receive a Green Star, a new Michelin Guide category awarded for sustainable practices.

Vegetable butte
“Vegetable butter” (birch, tonka, fir bud). ©Anne-Emmanuelle Thion

Nature as Friend, Companion, Mother

When it comes to her culinary ideas, it is in the natural world that Vallée said she finds true inspiration.

“In nature I find a friend, a companion, and a mother. My job is to pay tribute to her, to preserve her, and present her to the world. I find her as fragile as she is strong, as moving as she is cruel, as beautiful as she is sometimes sad.”

She believes that plant-based cooking allows people to break free from traditional cooking constraints, get out of their comfort zones, and think more deeply about the living world and the plate.

“It offers an unrivaled playground for renewed creativity, thanks to the complexity and the thousands of plant varieties that exist,” she said.

Chef Vallée likes harmony on the plate.
Chef Vallée likes harmony on the plate. ©Anne-Emmanuelle Thion

People Eat with Their Eyes

People eat with their eyes, or so the saying goes, and as a former art historian, Vallée likes things to look good on the plate. But she doesn’t advocate any hard and fast rules for budding chefs when it comes to presentation.

“I don't really have any advice on culinary aesthetics. Personally, I'm a keen observer of nature and its changing colors over time. I also like to bring harmony to proposals and the positioning of food on and around the plate,” she said.  

“Mycellium” ©Anne-Emmanuelle Thion

The 'Stars' of Her Kitchen

In addition to her creativity and achievements with food, she is also known for her passion for using renewable materials. This is perhaps best illustrated by the relatively small and trusted team of suppliers she keeps around her.

“They are the stars of my kitchen,” she enthused.

“Carole my greengrocer; Claire my ceramist; Pierre my baker; Philippe my wine merchant; Benoît my grocer, and Cyril my horticulturist. Their work is sourced from organic, ecological, or sustainable agriculture. They all live within a 20 km (12 mile) radius of the restaurant.”

“Carole my greengrocer; Claire my ceramist; Pierre my baker; Philippe my wine merchant; Benoît my grocer, and Cyril my horticulturist. All six are passionate about their respective fields. Their work is sourced from organic, ecological, or sustainable agriculture. They all live within a 20 km (12 miles) radius of the restaurant and add value to the region through their know-how and techniques.”

“Animals” (cauliflower, honeysuckle, pollen). ©Anne-Emmanuelle Thion

Changing Seasons and Stories

Despite her reputation in the kitchen, chef Vallée is never one to rest on her laurels and likes to change things up when it comes to putting new creations on the menu.

“My cooking is rather unusual in that I regularly change the dishes according to the seasons and my inspirations,” she said. “What's more, my culinary approach focuses on the message and the story. All dishes are important in this sense and contribute to the narrative.”

Keep It Sustainable at Home

"I wrote my book, Origine Non Animale, Pour Une Gastronomie Végétale, published in 2023. So, my customers can easily draw inspiration from some of my recipes to cook at home.”

 When it comes to creating delicious vegan dishes and helping support sustainability at home, Vallée said it is the “small, simple gestures” that make a difference every day.


“Be careful not to let the water run for hours on end. With basins, you can reduce this impact by washing your vegetables, and then rinsing them in another, and the same goes for washing up. Even in an apartment, uneaten peelings can be fed into worm composters. Prefer bulk packaging to reduce packaging consumption. And, of course, give preference to local and seasonal produce—organic is even better,” she told The Earth & I.

Cooking as a Virtue

She added: “Cooking for yourself is also a virtuous act for yourself, others, and the planet. We spend less and pay more attention to what we eat when we cook. Making your own household products doesn't actually take much time, and it's frankly 1,000 times more environmentally friendly.

Also, people can stop wasting food “by drying your food, preserving it by fermenting it, salting it ... just like our grandparents did!” she advised.

From her self-taught beginnings and art history and archaeology background to her success in bringing people together to help realize a dream, it is clear Vallée is no ordinary chef. She has blazed a trail that is kinder to nature, inspiring many others along the way, and will hopefully continue to do so long into the future.


*Mark Smith is a journalist and author from the UK. He has written on subjects ranging from business and technology to world affairs, history, and popular culture for the Guardian, BBC, Telegraph, and magazines in the United States, Europe, and Southeast Asia.


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