Before joining Château de Saulon, Mohamed Henni had the opportunity to work with renowned chefs and learn from the best, respecting nature, traditions, and authenticity. At Deux Rivières restaurant, he implemented the concept of “Carte Blanche,” a seasonal tasting menu that is dictated by what is fresh in the garden and changes frequently. He shares his values and philosophy with us.
How did you come to be Executive Chef at the Château de Saulon?
I studied at the Alexandre Dumas Hospitality College in Illkirch, near Strasbourg, France. I worked for a couple of years in Alsace at different Michelin starred restaurants before going on a discovery trip of France. From Grignan to Massignac, I had the opportunity to work with renowned chefs and learned from the best about respecting nature, traditions, and authenticity. Thierry Goux, director of Château de Saulon, approached me and wanted to know more about my cooking. He ate at the restaurant where I was working at the time, following the recommendation of a chef I used to work with. Thierry offered me the job of Executive Chef for Château de Saulon straight after.
What did you put into place when you arrived?
The hotel already had a restaurant in place, but I created the concept of “Farm to the Table.” Maxime Boront was hired as gardener three weeks before me. From day one, I knew we would be able to make miracles working together. We had a lot of common interests and values. We were both driven by the respect of the environment and our care for the product itself. Thanks to our hard work, we were able to get the organic certification for our vegetable garden. At the beginning of the “garden season,” before winter, we get together to decide what we will plant and make a selection of vegetables, fruits, and herbs that will inspire my cooking. Being able to work in harmony with nature has always been a dream that I was able to make a reality here at Château de Saulon.
How do you create the restaurant’s menu?
My menu, of course, is based on the availability of produce from the garden, but also from local producers. I implemented the concept of “carte blanche,” a seasonal tasting menu that changes frequently and is determined by what is fresh in the garden. Each day we adapt to our provider and reinvent our menu daily. I prefer to adapt to the seasons and their irregularities to make sure to deliver an exquisite experience with quality ingredients at their peak of freshness.
What are the values of Château de Saulon?
The most important value shared by the entire team is to respect the products. It matters to me and I would like to pass this on to the next generation. We attach importance to quality ingredients, and we wait impatiently for the vegetable’s maturity. I emphasize this concept in the kitchen as well by minimizing waste and using raw material in its wholeness. For example, I had incredible scallops that I decided to pair with artichoke from the garden. I used the peel to give the dish consistency and a crispy texture. Being a chef is similar to being a storyteller; by giving it the heart and passion it deserves, you can create unforgettable moments for your guests.
Do you have a signature in your cooking?
I like to add a green touch to my plates by using aromatic herbs, it’s appealing to the eye and brings life to the dish. I only use plants that will concretely add something to the flavor of the original recipe, though, not just aesthetics. For example, I added lemon balm to the langoustine to create a citrus and aniseed flavor.
Has cooking always been important to you?
My grandfather was the director of the Hospitality School of Oran. He had and still has one of the only traditional French restaurants in Algeria. Along with my grandmother, they gave me a taste for fine dining and traditions. I had the immense opportunity to grow up in a culturally mixed family: the French authenticity from my grandmother's side and the Algerian culture on my grandfather's side.
Where did you develop your appreciation of wine?
During hospitality school, I started to taste wine. Some of my friends are sommeliers, and we implemented a tradition of gathering every year for a special dinner. We create food and wine pairings, and I have had the opportunity to taste highly sought-after wines at these dinners.
Your favorite food & wine pairing?
I have a great memory of a meal with my best friend, a sommelier. I had picked “wood ears,” an unknown variety of mushrooms, and I prepared a snail fricassée that we paired with an Arbois Pupillin from La Maison Overnoy. It was a flavor explosion, the kind that you remember for life.
What are the upcoming specialty dishes on your menu?
For the upcoming season, we will have two options as starters. The first one is a pan-seared foie gras with a pistachio cream and sour cherries, served with aged balsamic vinegar. This starter would pair perfectly with Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru 2018. The other option is a typical traditional Algerian beetroots/cumin match: beets “from the earth” (a powder made with rye flour and cumin), served with lemon confit. This would pair nicely with a Saint-Aubin Premier Cru “En Remilly” 2018. As for the main course, I would suggest one of our specialties: lamb cooked two ways. First, we cook the breast slowly overnight to make the meat very tender and then prepare the filet mignon quickly seared in a pan. We make a pan sauce with the drippings and serve with spring vegetables from our garden (carrots, turnips, zucchini…). This dish could only pair perfectly with a Chambolle-Musigny 2018.
Does your Algerian culture influence your cuisine?
Of course, I love to work with spices and herbs, mainly the ones used in North Africa. I often do the typical traditional Algerian beetroots and cumin combination, for example. It’s part of my identity, and I like to highlight this aspect in my cooking. Cilantro also brings a lot of taste and freshness to a dish, as well as various chili peppers. These must be used sparingly, as it does not please everyone, but can add an entirely new dimension to a simple meal.