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An Enchanted Evening with Hubert De La Motte

The Mystical, Magical Chef of St. Barts

One never knows what to expect on St. Barts.  The straight and narrow road you’re confidently driving along on this little island in the French West Indies suddenly becomes a mad spiral spinning down to an abrupt end at a beach tucked into a sheltered cove.  The guy in the mini supermarket wearing espadrilles and a torn t-shirt who asks you if a melon is ripe turns out to be a famous rock star.  The pink bungalow shut up like an old wooden cupboard opens up into an elegant French boutique. So why be surprised if the author of the horoscope column in the local newspaper is also a renowned chef?

He is Hubert de la Motte, the Brittany-born, long-haired, soft-spoken proprietor of the Hostellerie des Trois Forces, a little inn set on the slope of Morne du Vitet overlooking the sea. It was more than sixteen years ago that the stars brought him to St. Barts and a lovely taxi driver named Ginette drove him to view a hilly property.  Never one to ignore harbingers, he married the taxi driver, bought the site, and built there his hotel of the three forces: the mind, the body, and the spirit carefully paying heed to Feng Shui principles so that the uses of space would harmonize with the spirit. Each of his gingerbread bungalows he named for and decorated after a Zodiac sign – the Libra, for example, is a study in deliberate and steady blues.  And he included in guest services such esoteric offerings as astrological reading, acupuncture treatment, and past-life regression therapy.

Being pragmatic, reality-oriented Americans firmly grounded in the here and now, we were more interested in Hubert’s culinary gifts which we heard much of during our stay in St. Barts.  And so we arrived for dinner one enchanted evening when a full golden moon was rising over the sea, Charles Aznavour music was playing in the background, and starlight was reflecting in the swimming pool below the verandah that emerges from the timbered restaurant and bar which Hubert built himself  -- along with the rest of his magical inn.

The powers of enchantment were strong enough to make us surrender all gastronomic decisions to our Prospero-like host.  “Do you like salad?” Hubert asked. “People think it’s sophisticated but it is very simple.”  There summarily appeared a collection of  fresh greens from Guadeloupe dressed in a delicate vinagerette and a crusty, rustic-style bread.  “We bake bread every day,” Hubert told us. “For me, it’s the first image people will get. If the bread is not good, forget about the place.” 

Then he disappeared inside the kitchen at the restaurant’s rear to work his alchemy.  When he returned, it was with a deep bouillabaisse made with fish caught in local waters, rich and fragrant with herbs, and a grilled dolphin steak.  To accompany our dinner, Hubert selected a 1983 Haute Medoc from Bordeaux. Fruity and not at all harsh, we thought it a great bargain at $20.  “This is a Cru Bourgeois,” Hubert said, “which means the appellation on the other side of the wall from the Grand Cru. Such wines are very well priced, and that is what I typically look for. My preference is for old wines; they are better for the brain and the body.”

Hubert runs the entire restaurant with only Ginette to help. “Five years ago I had two people in the kitchen and two people in the dining room, and I was getting crazy, ” he told us. “The past three years I started to slow down. I prefer to refuse people so I can wait on each table myself and get to know my customers. We do a small seating of 16, 20 at the most. We are not looking for volume; we are looking for the right people and to make the food for them the way it should be made. The trick is to cook with love.  I give away all my recipes.  You can try to duplicate them but you must give enough love to the food in order to achieve the result.”

The roots of Hubert’s culinary gifts, we learn, lie in his Brittany childhood.  His mother cooked for a wealthy family who entertained in elaborate fashion, and Hubert, the oldest of six children, would watch her in the kitchen. “I was always interested in tasting things, seeing how the food was prepared. The mother is always the former, and my mother was an excellent cook,” he says.

“Brittany is devoted to cuisine. The countryside along the coast produces good fish. In the mainland, they make good pate, good charcuterie. Still Brittany is a place where there is not much to do which is why so many Bretons are spread out all over.”

In 1976, as a very young man, Hubert picked grapes in a Beaujolais vineyard and observed the entire wine-making process. “To be in the food business, you have to know how they do the wine,” he says.  Three years later, having trained at Michelin-starred restaurants, he followed the path of many Bretons and came to New York. “As I did not have a green card, I had to get work through an agent. Each day I would wait in a room.  The door would open and the agent would say, ‘I need a waiter, I need a dishwasher, I need a bartender.’ To avoid immigration, I moved from job to job to job. I was afraid to stay in one place. In this way, I found myself in the kitchen of many a New York restaurant.” 

Subsequently, Hubert was steward on a large pleasure cruiser before deciding to settle in St. Barts.  It was a homecoming of sorts as the native population is made up of descendants of Breton fishermen and farmers who emigrated to the island in the seventeenth century. 

In the sixteen years he has been on St. Barts, Hubert de la Motte has earned an international reputation as a master chef and was named Chevalier de la Marmite d’Or, a prestigious gastronomic academy founded in 1557.  Last June he was the recipient of the award of highest grade at the Loire Valley annual convention of culinary arts which designated him Chef of the District of the Caribbean and put him in charge of the cuisine of the entire French West Indies from French Guinea to St. Maarten’s.  “But St. Barts is the capital of French cuisine in the Caribbean,” he maintains. “And the influence from Brittany here is very great. With my hotel, I try to create a small piece of Brittany in St. Barts.”

All this personal history makes for a perfectly plausible and predictable story.  But how to explain the other side of Hubert de la Motte? From whence comes the magic?  Hubert says he was originally a student of landscape design but was disappointed to learn no job awaited him at the end of his schooling. Around the same time, he became interested in astrology. “Whenever I mentioned it,” he told us, “those same people who were pushing me to study landscaping said ‘You’re crazy.’ Their reaction made me feel I should go in the direction of astrology. You know people from Brittany are very stubborn.

“I became a channel and found a spiritual teacher to follow.  I believe it is possible to receive the third eye, become clairvoyant.  When I started to build this place, I decided to combine the food, the accommodations, and the astrology. It’s a way to greet people, to talk with them.”

Hubert describes a typical scene at his hotel: “A group of people arrive around 11 in the morning, the women all in string bikinis. They sit around the bar, have cocktails, champagne. Then they get busy around the pool while we make a big table for them. I display the menu, offer the specials. They are still swimming, taking the sun, drinking champagne. When the food is ready, I ask them to come up. By now they are a little smashed.  They have their lunch, and afterwards go on the lounges and take a nap. Around 3 o’clock, a number of them will come with me to my special room where I do a horoscope reading for them. Then they have their coffee, and they leave. Some of them are very famous people.  They sleep on yachts or in private villas.  When they come here, they are totally private.

“Dining can be a magical experience; it can change people,” he adds. “One day I had a group here who became very frightened because there was a hurricane warning.  I made them a delicious meal with a fine wine.  Suddenly, they were no longer afraid.  People say the mood of this place is New Age, but the food is classical. I’m still crazy enough to think people want classical French food.”

As we finish our coffee, our amiable host tells us, “People are always afraid of magic, but we do magic all the time.” He points to the great stone archway at the entrance to the hotel property that we passed under when we entered his domain some hours before.  “I visualized it, then I created it, stone by stone. The stones told me where they want to go.  That is a kind of magic.”  We’re beginning to believe him.  Maybe we’re should have our palms read, we’re thinking, or try to discover a past life, or at least find out how to re-live this enchanted evening.  But the taxi arrives, the hour is late, and so reluctantly we make our farewells to our gentle host with promises to return again.

Now back home in the clear rational light of a New England afternoon, it all seems a dream: a little inn on the top of a hill, a full moon in a starry sky, a mystical innkeeper/chef. “If you love to do something, it is not work,” he had said.  Also “Food is love.”  Somehow, we understand.

Hostellerie des Trois Forces
Vitet 97133 Saint-Barthelemy
SWI Caraibes Francaises

Phone: (0) 590 27 61 25; Fax: (0) 590 27 81 38

Email: 3froces@wanadoo.fr 

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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