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Traveling With Chef Virginie Basselot: A French Culinary Trailblazer

Most passersby don’t even notice the Bentley or Rolls Royce often parked in front of the entrance to the Le Negresco Hotel in Nice. The legendary five-star property on the French Riviera has been entertaining business leaders, royalty, and celebrities since it opened in 1913.

They’re far likelier to turn their heads when they spot the high-performance Triumph motorbike parked in front. Those working at the hotel know the presence of the motorbike signals that Chef Virginie Basselot is in the house.

Part of a new generation of young and talented French chefs, Chef Virginie oversees the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, The Chantecler; its popular contemporary brasserie, La Rotonde; room service, bars, and banquets.

Most notably, perhaps, Chef Virginie holds the distinction of being only one of the two women recognized as a Meilleurs Ouvrier de France (MOF) since the award’s inception in 1923.

This highly coveted, juried award recognizes the Best Craftsman of France in various specialty areas. In the field of gastronomy, she wears the same famous blue-white-red collar that has been worn by French culinary luminaries such as Paul Bocuse, Joel Robuchon, and Michel Roth.

Forbes.com spoke with Chef Virginie Basselot at the hotel’s 17th-century Versailles Bar that overlooks the Promenade des Anglais to discover how she came to helm one of the most esteemed dining rooms in France.

Forbes: When did you first know you wanted to pursue a culinary career?

Virginie Basselot: I originally wanted to be a fighter pilot but was told that it was impossible for a woman at that time so I decided to focus on food and hospitality.

My father was a cook in Pont-l’Eveque, a small town in the Normandy region where I was raised. He wasn’t eager for his only child to follow the same route but recognized my grit and determination. Now he takes great pride in my accomplishments.

Can you briefly describe your career path to Le Negresco?

Basselot: After I began as an apprentice at 15 years old, I was fortunate to land a set of incredible experiences—each one a stepping stone to prepare me for my arrival as the first female head chef at Le Negresco in 2018.

My parents always encouraged me to travel. When I was 19 years old, I headed for Paris. There, I worked at Le Crillon, Le Grand Vefour, Hotel Le Bristol Paris and Relais and Chateaux Saint James Paris.

Chefs Eric Frechon and Franck Leroy were probably the most influential mentors in shaping my career. I worked as a sous-chef alongside them for nine years at Le Bristol.

When I worked at La Reserve Geneve in Switzerland, I was honored to be named Chef of the Year by Gault Millau, the Swiss restaurant guide, in 2018.

How does it feel to steward a culinary program at a property so steeped in history?

Basselot: Of course, I take great pride in helping write the next pages of the history of this iconic property.

A Michelin star always comes with the pressure to perform, especially because I’m a woman. And I continually strive for excellence—one client, one plate, one meal, and one day at a time.

My passion for cycling is one of the antidotes to that stress. Yes, I drive my Triumph to work, and four or five times a year I take to the Circuit Paul Ricard located near Marseille—which welcomes female drivers.

Racing at high speeds is also highly competitive, but a total distraction and stress reliever from my work in the kitchen.

How would you describe your cooking style?

Basselot: I’m classically trained, so I like to think that my dishes are characterized by simplicity of ingredients, precision in preparation, and elegance of presentation.

My passion is using food to achieve for every guest a true moment of happiness.

Cycling the backroads of the French Riviera allows me to discover small producers who can supply our kitchen with fresh, seasonal ingredients of excellent quality.

They really guide the design of my menus which change with the seasons and availability of fresh products.

You seem so modest and humble. How did you overcome the historical bias against women in your field?

Basselot: I guess it’s the fire inside me, my determination to be the best I can be whether it’s in the kitchen or on the circuit.

Admittedly, this freedom comes more naturally to women of my generation. But I feel a responsibility as a “godmother” to help aspiring young female chefs achieve their culinary goals.

I’m proud to support the women on my team and to work with La Cuillere d’Or (The Golden Spoon). The goal of this female-only culinary awards competition is to raise the profile of women chefs and patissiers (pastry-makers).

What is your favorite dessert, perhaps a guilty pleasure?

Basselot: I’m really not a dessert person and prefer salty to sweet.

My go-to indulgence is a beef stew or a meatless pot-au-feu with vegetables. It’s a comfort food meant for sharing.

How do you decide where to dine when you are traveling?

Basselot: Mainly, I trust my intuition and feelings. Also, I look at the menus and see if the restaurant is busy.

But often, my choices are determined by whether or not an eatery is on the cycling circuit.

Where do you enjoy traveling most?

Basselot: I’m an adventurous person who travels with a backpack. I love meeting local people and discovering other cultures. One of my favorite recent trips was to Cuba.

In terms of my professional travels, I always enjoy visiting Beaune, the winemaking center in Burgundy and learned a lot during a gastronomic week in New York City working with Chef Daniel Boulud.

What do you always carry with you when traveling?

Basselot: I may forget my cell phone, but I always bring a bathing suit.

Where was the most memorable meal of your life?

Basselot: When I was 25 years old, I had the pleasure of dining at Restaurant Paul Bocuse, outside Lyon.

I will never forget the memory of the mouthwatering Valery Giscard D’Estaing (VGE) soup with truffles and foie gras covered with puff pastry.

Everything was so perfect—the food, service, and setting—that it felt like a theater of gastronomy, something to which I aspire.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.