Riviera Chef Jean-Luc Roncalli caters to the whims of Cannes' rich Have Yachts

Roncalli is one of a small group of private chefs who act as a 'knife for hire'

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Indy Lifestyle Online

In Cannes in summer, the rich don't so much arrive as waft in; gliding across borders with sleek impunity, they arrive in their jets and on their yachts. They come for the rose gold light, for the sea, to be seen – and to eat.

Eating well, and chicly, is a mark of refinement as pronounced as the Fendi bag on the Croisette bar table. And what "eating well" means for the Have Yachts is not a trip to the marché but a call to a man named Jean-Luc.

A slight man, with steel-grey eyes and a soft voice, Jean-Luc Roncalli is an unlikely conduit for the dreams of the fabulously rich – he seems too nice. And yet, for 20 years he has been a knife for hire. Working as the "Riviera Chef", he is one of a small group of private chefs who quite literally cater to the whims of the super-wealthy. "Anything up to 15 I can do myself, alone – any more and I call some help. It is no problem, though, I can do whatever people want," he says.

He started this part of his career 20 years ago, as a private chef to a Lebanese billionaire, having found the three-Michelin-star restaurant in which he was trained a strain. Not because of the working hours or stress, but because of one thing in particular: "I never saw the results, never saw people when they were eating my food, if they were enjoying it or not," he says.

 

Although he escaped the confines of a restaurant, his current job is not without its challenges. Often, he explains, he will meet a client and suggest a menu based on what is in season and what is local – at the moment that means peach desserts served with almond cream, racks of lamb, fresh tomato salads, white asparagus and clam risottos. All solid southern French dishes.

The richest clients, though, often have different plans. One unnamed plutocrat didn't want Roncalli's goat's cheese salad. He wanted a kilo of white caviar and quick. It cost €10,000. Such demands can be easily met, however, because this part of France is where all the yacht victuallers are based. "You can get anything you can imagine," he says. From Kobe beef to Rothschild wines, it is all available at the drop of an AmEx card.

Although the demands can sometimes verge on the egregious, Roncalli says it is the best job he has ever had. "I have worked in all sorts of kitchens, with Raymond Blanc, with lots of amazing people, but this is better – no day is the same," he says. That, he continues, is what drives him (along with, of course, the fact that he gets paid twice as much as he would working in a restaurant). And it is easy to understand why.

The lot of the chef, unless you are Gordon Ramsay or Angela Hartnett, is to slave away in an airless, pressure-cooker of a kitchen, often cooking the same dishes again and again for weeks on end, and often without ever being known by the person who eats your food. It is hard work and it can often border on the thankless.

Roncalli travels from villa to villa armed only with his briefcase of utensils and the produce of that day's market, mostly creating the food he wants to cook. "Seeing people eat my food, seeing their reactions – that is why I love it," he says.

If I had the choice between the heat of a Mayfair kitchen or the warm sun of a Riviera summer, I know which I'd choose.

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