ONA Becomes First Vegan Restaurant in France To Earn a Michelin Star

It's a huge step forward for plant-based cuisine.

French vegetable market
Vegetables at a French market stand.

Getty Images / Serge Vuillermoz / EyeEm

A vegan restaurant in France has earned a Michelin star for the first time. Located in the southwestern city of Arès, near Bordeaux, the restaurant ONA – whose name stands for "origine non-animale" – represents a radical departure from the usually meat-centric diet of the region. Against all odds (and the opinions of traditional banks that refused to back the venture), ONA has proven to be a cutting-edge gastronomic leader since its doors opened in October 2016, thanks to crowdfunding and dozens of volunteers.

The coveted star was awarded earlier this week, along with one of Michelin's new green stars, which were introduced last year as a way of recognizing restaurants' commitment to ethical and environmentally-friendly ingredient sourcing. Indeed, a look at ONA's list of suppliers reveals intimate connections with local organic produce and spice merchants, a baker, tofu maker, wine expert, and even a potter who makes the restaurant's tableware.

Restaurant owner Claire Vallée said, "It felt like I got hit by a train," when she got the call from Michelin. Vallée is an archeologist whose time spent working in restaurants and traveling for several years after school led her to explore new ways of eating. Time spent in Thailand, in particular, taught her the potential of plant-based eating:

"I decided to go and live in Thailand, in Hua Hin, for a year in order to perfect my Asian cooking skills. I learned a lot there and with this encounter in the Land of the Rising Sun, I began to change my diet. The cuisine there is very plant-based and infinitely tasty, thanks to many herbs, spices and vegetables. A passionate and addictive mix."

Vallée didn't become vegan for another two years, until after she returned to France, but she described the switch as a "brutal awakening," the discovery of "a whole new cuisine I wasn’t aware of offered itself to me. An ethical cuisine, respectful of life and of the planet. What a discovery! What an obvious choice!" (via ONA)

ONA transmits that philosophy to the world, and now with the help of a Michelin star, can do so to an even broader audience. The Michelin Guide describes standout specialties that include yellow zucchini ravioli, black truffle gnocchi, peas and beans in barberry brine, and vegetable ricotta meatballs with candied lemon condiment and turmeric lace tuile. The Autumn 2020 menu features dishes with unusual combinations such as dulse, lemongrass, or another with galangal, and celery, tonka beans, and amber beer.

Gwendal Poullennec, international head of the Michelin Guide, said that the move away from meat is not unprecedented, but that giving a star to a restaurant that's strictly vegan "has the potential to shake things up even further." From the New York Times:

"'The general public might not associate pure veganism with a gastronomical experience,' [Poullenec] said. A Michelin star might 'liberate' chefs who are still reluctant to explore plant-based cooking, he said."

For those who are eager to try ONA's food, they will, unfortunately, have to wait. The restaurant is closed right now, as all restaurants across France are, due to lockdown. There was a brief period in the summer when they could reopen, but another shutdown was enforced in November, making it a tough year for many. Earning a Michelin star will help, though, putting ONA on diners' radar once life regains a semblance of normalcy.

It's wonderful to see vegan cuisine getting the kind of official recognition it deserves, particularly as it becomes more important than ever to cut back on the quantity of meat we consume for environmental reasons and to elevate vegetables in our diets.