Self-taught Beninese Chef Georgiana Viou Awarded Michelin Guide Star

If your secret ambition is to be recognized for your culinary abilities beyond family compliments, Georgiana Viou may be an inspiration.

The Michelin Guide, the bible of gastronomy, gave the self-taught cook from the west African country of Benin, who came to Paris thinking of becoming an interpreter, a star on Monday for her cuisine at “Rouge,” a restaurant in the southwestern French city of Nimes.

She wasn’t by herself. David Degoursy, a literature student, and Jeanne Satori, a pastry chef with a degree in sustainable development, also got a star for their restaurant de:ja in Strasbourg, eastern France, where the annual awards event was held.

The Michelin 2023 awards for French cooks focus on areas of France rather than Paris. Alexandre Couillon was the only chef to receive three stars — the greatest honor reserved for gastronomic geniuses — for his dishes at La Marine, his restaurant on the point of the Atlantic Ocean’s Ile de Noirmoutier.

Viou’s is the only one of the 44 new Michelin stars awarded to a woman working alone. Several additional women, including Satori, the pastry chef at de:ja, were recognized as members of a team.

Viou, 45, describes her cuisine as a blend of French Mediterranean scented with elements of her homeland. She has written several books about the cuisine of Benin.

Viou moved to France in 1999 with the intention of studying languages at the Sorbonne and eventually becoming an interpreter. Working at a communications agency in Marseille’s southern port city, life’s complexities prompted her to shift course, and her second passion, cooking, took over at the age of 33.

In an interview with the online newspaper terrafemina last October, she stated that her maturity helped her manage as a Black African woman who was older than other chefs-in-training in a predominantly macho society.

Nonetheless, she objects to being labeled based on her gender or skin color, claiming that it is “absolutely ludicrous” to be deemed “a la mode” for being a Black female chef. She wants to be judged on what’s on her plate.

Viou learnt to cook from her mother, who managed a small restaurant in Cotonou, Benin, and from her grandmother, who taught her the value of endurance. In Marseille, she worked her way up the chef’s ladder step by step, eventually earning acclaim at restaurants carrying her name. She began working at Rouge in Nimes in June 2021.

Viou was on the jury of the popular TV show MasterChef last year, years after being a candidate.

Viou’s Michelin star was bestowed for her “singular cuisine … celebrating her Mediterranean environment and Benin roots.”

“Today is really top,” she said at the awards ceremony, adding that she had been invited and thought, “This is cool. I’ll find myself among lots of chefs, an occasion for encounters,” not for the bestowal of a star.

She was clearly overwhelmed.

At Rouge (Red), “We’re not a team. We’re a family,” she said, her voice trembling and her eyes welling with happy tears. She then shyly took a few dance steps and raised her arms as if in thanks.

Self-taught cooks with Michelin stars are more common than one may believe.

For example, Eric Girardin, who works at La Maison des Tetes in Colmar, near Strasbourg, began his career as an electrical engineer.

Anne-Sophie Pic is the only woman to have received three Michelin stars. She travelled from her home Drome region to Paris to study commerce before returning to her roots. She is the granddaughter and daughter of cooks. Pic, who already has restaurants in Paris, London, and Lausanne, will build another in Singapore in 2019.

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