They are passionate about their art, and work hard and with determination to consolidate the Maison Jeunet’s reputation, drawing their own creative signature and identity to this two-star restaurant-hotel, in the heart of the beautiful village of Arbois. The Chef is Steven Naessens, trained by the greatest. Intuitive, striving for excellence, he is guided by his feelings and puts his heart into his work to create an inventive cuisine that stimulates our senses, and challenges our perceptions. His wife, Marjorie, is a trained confectioner and hotelier, and takes care of the smallest details to showcase this simple and refined cuisine, creating a unique experience that celebrates the joy of good eating.
Later, I’ll be a cook
Steven Naessens is the youngest son of a family of three boys. He was born in Belgium and grew up in Assebroek, not far from the city of Bruges. In the family typical Flemish country house, they were chickens, rabbits and turkeys. He keeps from his childhood the warm memory of big family gatherings around a good meal. “I learned very little to eat well even with small means. On Sunday afternoon, at table, we had four kinds of vegetables at least, homemade croquettes and rabbit that was simmering all morning.” Very early, he proved to be very determined and motivated to become a cook. “My elementary school teacher recalls that I said at the age of 6, I wanted to do this job later, unlike the classic professions that small children of my age dreamt of.” His parents will enroll him at 14 years’ old in the prestigious Ter Duinen Culinary School in Koksijde where he will remain a resident for 4 years. “A key training to work with the greatest cook later!” Steven loved gourmet cuisine, and had the opportunity to enjoy it, thanks to his godmother. “They had prospered in their business and loved to share their money with the whole family, eating all together in starred restaurants. I particularly remember my birthday present, which was a stay in the Black Forest.” In the fish restaurant “The Savoy” in Knokke, he is amazed by the places and, for the first time, he will put the cook’s hat and apron. The time will come to wear it permanently when he will finish his school, and he will start his career in several starred restaurants: in Germany, then in Belgium, with the two-star Chef Peter Goossens (now three-star), at Hof Van Cleve in Kruisthoum, before leaving for France.
His meeting with Marjorie
Marjorie is also the youngest of three siblings. She was born in Cantal and grew up near Toulouse. Coming from a modest family, her father was a plasterer and worked hard to take care of his family. With her sisters, she started cooking very early, and especially pastries. “We stayed home and baked some nice cakes that we could enjoy together at their day off“. Which is why she got so much of it, wanting to learn pastry. But her parents absolutely wanted her to pursue her studies at the highest level. She will then be trained at Toulouse Hotel School, while she wanted to go directly into apprenticeship. There, her last year of education, she will be strongly influenced by the very rigorous professor, Jean-Luc Daniou, who was also honored “Meilleur Ouvrier de France”. “However, the skills I use today in management are those I have acquired during these studies.” Marjorie was a reserved woman and slightly timid but a first internship will confirm her decision to work in this area. “It was 20 km from Cahors in the Lot, at Castel Rouge Gindreau with Alexis Pelissou, a Macaron Michelin restaurant.” He will take her under his wing and help her to develop all her creative potential and her taste for excellence. Then she will have another decisive experience with the Pastry Chef Michel Sarran. She finally realized her dream ! And she will then apply at Château de Codignat, in Clermont Ferrand.
Steven had been there for a year and had risen very quickly to become Chef de partie. “It was essential for me to stop off in France, if I wanted to work in haute cuisine.” That’s why, in 2002, he will leave Belgium with his small Clio car, loaded with food and luggage, to launch his career in France. With Marjorie, they quickly become friends, going together into starred restaurants during their days off. “That’s how we felt in love!” Their cooking journey will now continue hands together.
The Jeunet house
They will first work at Jean-Paul Jeunet’s two starred Michelin restaurant-hotel in the Jura, in 2005. “By chance, because he was looking for staff.” The “Maison Jeunet” had a culinary tradition of several decades, and the Naessens will settle there definitively after a new one-year experiment in Marseille at the “Petit Nice” with Chef Gérald Passédat. There, it was a time of competition and the restaurant will get one more star Michelin during this year. “This experience gave us completely new insights in our art and we learned so much, considering the love and respect of the product. The Chef used to go fishing himself exactly the fish he needed, as if the sea was his private garden!” Today, Steven Naessens recognizes in him a leader, who transmitted the secrets of an authentic, uncomplicated and refined cuisine, and also the art of cooking fish dishes.
In February 2009, the couple returned to Arbois. Fiery, Steven will become Jean-Paul Jeunet’s right-hand man, bringing all his creativity and talent to the Jura authentic products and learning how to season his dishes with wild herbs, mushrooms and berries, or prepare the flagship dishes, such as chicken with yellow wine and morels, or potato ratte with truffles. Marjorie will become the Pastry Chef. “What impressed me about Jean-Paul Jeunet is his ability to see and reveal the potential of his team.” Very demanding, he will also teach them the constancy to stay at such a high level of excellence; and how to become business leaders and manage human relations. In 2016, the Arboisien Chef retired and sold his business to the couple Naessens. “We have always had enormous respect for Jean-Paul and Nadine and their cuisine. This place was his home because he was born here, and he himself learned from his father. So it was natural to us and, afterwards, we knew it was a huge challenge! ”
Reaching for the stars
Since then, they have undertaken a renovation of the old monastery, including the reception, to introduce light and illuminate the ancestral stones. Marjorie takes also care of all the management of the hotel. “We have expanded the hospitality products and added services, while waiting to renovate the 12 rooms.” They also appealed to the ceramic artist Pierre Casenove, to create all their dishes in a single format, and the decoration according to the spirit of the place and the identity of the Chef. The Naessens finally dare to offer their own cuisine, while keeping the name of the House; a cuisine where the vegetable is valued at the highest level, with simplicity as a motto. “I only work with one or two products, with a spice or an aromatic scent, to create different tastes and textures that will surprise the taste buds.” Chef Steven Naessens also likes to disturb by taking unloved or little-known vegetables and get unexpected combinations for a memorable sensory experience. “Fennel for example. Cooked under a vacuum, we cut it in half, then sear and re-confit in a little butter. With the falls, we will make a purée to create a new variant, or juice and sauce around the fennel. We will also offer slices of raw fennel because this vegetable is coming from our market gardener and has really an exceptional taste quality.” Endives, also peas, and each time, recipes that have the greatest impact. Recently, he launched a saffron mousse with gaudy flour, so an unsweetened dessert, “a pure inspiration because I was moved by the story of a couple who cultivated this spice“. For Easter, it is the lamb of the Pyrenees. While looking for the accompanying vegetable, the Chef suddenly had the vision of a pointed head cabbage, and he already knew how to compose his plate using this shape. “It’s the cabbage that decided! Inspiration is something that is beyond and above us.”
Excellence goes hand in hand with this quality and creativity, and their two Michelin stars were maintained during these two years, for their exceptional cuisine. “But it’s twice a day that I put these stars back into play, with each of my clients.” It is now a sense of accomplishment for these passionate people, who like to constantly perform on the fields of gastronomy and good taste.
One feels at home when coming to the Naessens to live a privileged moment. This is due to welcoming each customer from the heart and as they are, and sharing with them an experience of generosity and simplicity. The central thread is their desire to fill everyone and to surprise, always trying to do better than one’s best. And what if a typical Brasserie one day in the heart of Arbois would open up their culinary art even wider to this warm conviviality and sharing of a good meal together.
Interview held by Carine Mouradian on March 27, 2018, in Paris
Link to the website of Maison Jeunet