It’s early morning near the Champs-Élysées in Paris, and world-renowned French chef Yannick Alleno eagerly awaits a man known throughout Paris’ finest dining rooms. The door to the exquisite 19th-century restaurant creaks open, and a twinkle lights up the famous chef’s eyes. In walks a man dressed in simple attire and sandals, with hair down to his shoulders and a long gray beard framing his serene face. He carries a wide wicker basket full of rare wild plants. Dispatching unneeded pleasantries, Yannick eagerly paws through the herbal gems, hungry to see the gifts of Mother Nature.
The wild-plant gatherer is Stéphane Meyer. His knowledge and practice are used in the most delectable restaurants in France for the pleasure of European nobility, such as Prince Albert of Monaco.
Like the druids of ancient Gaul (an area of Western Europe during the Roman Empire that encompassed France), Stéphane has a special quasi-mystical relationship with the plants he picks and the land on which they grow. Like the other handful of wild plant gatherers in France, his knowledge is not institutional but was passed down from master to disciple.
Stéphane studied oenology for seven years as he grew up in a family of winemakers from the small village of Voiteur, the French region of Jura famous for its distinctive wines. “I didn’t receive official training to become a gatherer,” he explains. “In my family, we gathered wild plants for our own use. My parents are very connected to nature, so I always had an interest in it.”
In 1995, Stéphane met Gérard Ducerf, a distinguished botanist in Europe whom students revered and desperately wanted to study under. But Gérard saw a unique character in Stéphane, deciding he wanted to mentor him as student. “At that time, I didn’t know much. He took me under his wing and showed me the trade,” explains Stéphane who can now recognize between 3,000 to 4,000 species of plants. “We had a very strong bond.”
Stéphane’s acumen and pace of learning were so quick, Gérard entrusted him to take over his practice of finding rare wild plants for medicinal purposes. Soon enough, Stéphane’s own reputation began to grow. Journalists and chefs, enamored by his ability to find rare plants and herbs that would alchemise fine cuisine, titled him ‘Druid of Paris.’
Nature, a comprehensive system
“Plants touch me as much as people do. I consider them as alive as animals. They’re intelligent forms of life. Wild plants carry a message and an energy that is stronger than farm-grown plants,” says Stéphane, a founding member of the AFC (French Association of Professional Wild Plant Gatherers). “They don’t grow just by chance. They grow according to the needs of the land. In nature, there is a very precise reason for the survival or disappearance of different types of plants in a specific area.”
His mentor Gérard’s approach emphasizes the symbiosis between the plant and the land where it grows, analogous to a druid’s holistic approach to life and dissimilar to the segmented modern perspective. Stéphane explains that plants grow and die to help the land in its different life cycles. In some cases, the plants can cure the land the same way they cure people.
“For instance, the dandelion grows on a field when too many animals leave their feces or when a farmer uses too much animal feces as fertilizer. The land is then contaminated, and the flower detoxifies the land.” Stéphane explains there is a direct correlation with its medicinal properties for humans. “The dandelion is used as a detoxifier when people eat and drink too much.”
Another example is Stéphane’s favourite plant, Achillea millefolium, named after the mythical warrior Achilles. As the legend goes, “Achilles used it to cure his soldiers since it prevents hemorrhaging.”
Just like a human being, every time the soil turns over, the skin of the land is open. “The plant grows when the soil is turned over. It prevents erosion, making the soil stable so the water flow or wind won’t transport it away. When the soil stabilizes, the plant disappears.”
Stéphane’s family is now part of some of his expeditions.
“When gathering plants was the main part of my job, I could go picking for 6 to 8 months. Since I have kids now, I only go for a month, and I try to arrange for my kids to come with me. They pick plants too, and they take it very seriously.” A smile cracks over his lips as he thinks of his 6-year-old daughter, Appolline, and four-year-old son, Augustin, exploring the hillsides with him.
His wife, Isabelle, is also part of their adventures. The two met over ten years ago, both practicing an ancient Buddhist meditation from China called Falun Dafa (or Falun Gong). Stéphane was touched by the authenticity of Falun Dafa, and its teachings resonated strongly with him, as spirituality had been an integrated part of his life since a very young age. Following the course of nature, cultivating compassion and thinking of others first were similar to philosophies he was raised on. Like plants that nurture the land where they grow, he found cultivating honesty and compassion positively impacted his environment, as his clients are inspired by his work.
When gathering plants, “Falun Dafa creates a mental state of emptiness that helps me be absorbed into my job. I put myself in my clients’ shoes to find something they’ll deeply appreciate.”
Chefs and the druid
Giving advice to chefs of three star Michelin restaurants didn’t come right away. “At first, I was presenting chefs with seasonal plants. Later on, they started to ask what I would put in a meal. Since I know the aroma of plants, if they want to create a contrast of flavors or create a more harmonious taste, I would suggest something. And I don’t make too many mistakes,” he smiles humbly.
While he is known as the ‘Druid of Paris’ by prestigious chefs and restaurateurs of three-star Michelin establishments like Pascal Barbot of L’Astrance and Alain Passard of L’Arpège, he carries another nickname. The famous chef Yannick Alleno calls him Santa Claus.
“My long beard might play a role, but it’s mainly because of the gifts. I come with a basket full of surprises. The chefs are very busy people, and they don’t have many opportunities to step out of the city. I bring them some fresh air. You should see them when I bring wild plants they’ve never seen before. Their eyes sparkle!”
Stéphane doesn’t stop at delivering wild plants. He now creates different lines of products, from natural skin care to fine liquor that are popular among the European and Mediterranean elite.
“I got a phone call from the ambassador of Morocco, because one Moroccan princess drank one of the herb teas I created. She wanted more.”
It seems princes and princesses alike crave Stéphane’s royal touch. “Prince Albert of Monaco, for his birthday in 2015, received a bottle of fine liquor that I produce and sell. He really enjoyed it. I know he savored it on different occasions.”
For a man whose refined craft is supported by a practice of personal refinement, it’s clear that the Druid’s magic will continue on for many years to come.
For more information, visit the Facebook page of Druid of Paris.