Spice of Life

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Jerome Chatin / EXPANSION-REA / REDUX

Chef Olivier Roellinger at the Paris branch of Epices Roellinger, his chain of spice boutiques

Chef Olivier Roellinger shocked the French culinary establishment in 2008 when, citing a weakening constitution, he handed back his three Michelin stars and shut down his celebrated restaurant at Les Maisons de Bricourt, on Brittany's northern coast. Now, though, the 55-year-old (pictured) is returning to the fray with a project that doesn't have the stresses of running a fine-dining establishment, but has the potential to reach a far greater number of people.

As a child, Roellinger used to play along the historic ramparts of St.-Malo, his imagination teeming with the Breton privateers and spice hunters who set sail for "this magnet that is the horizon, to visit other shores, other suns." Years later, he found in cuisine the means to express those childhood fancies: his most celebrated dish was "John Dory Retour des Indes," flavored with a mix of 14 spices — including turmeric, star anise and Sichuan peppercorns — that were known to the chefs of St.-Malo by the late 17th century.

The chef still marvels that "the globalization of flavors had already begun" all those years ago. Today, he is hoping to further it even more through a chain of spice boutiques. Epices Roellinger currently has three branches, in St.-Malo, the Breton town of Cancale (the location of his former restaurant) and at 51 bis, rue Ste.-Anne in Paris. "My wife and I wanted to give new direction and new meaning to our lives since we closed the restaurant," Roellinger says, standing in his Paris premises beside a chest full of fragrant powders, surrounded by colorful bottles of spices and oils, and walls covered with maritime maps. "Our idea was to give back, in a very modest way, to the men and women who allowed us to create such a singular cuisine."

By traveling the globe and widening the network of producers he developed in his restaurant days, Roellinger has been able to seek out still rarer spices — the finest saffron from Morocco; forgotten peppercorn varieties from India; intoxicatingly aromatic Talauma seeds from Vietnam; the original, wild vanilla orchid of the Mayans. His goal is to increase his annual spice imports from 15 tons to 20 tons, while paying the farmers, many of whom are currently struggling, at fair-trade levels (currently about four times the market price).

If the project is a success, it will probably be due to Roellinger's talent for showing the humanity in an act of gourmandise. For him, every time we enliven our cottage cheese with a fruity Karimunda pepper, our chocolate ganache with a woody Sichuan peppercorn, or our custard with a grand cru Madagascan vanilla clove, we get glimpses into the varieties of human experience, and increase our capacity to embrace what's different, until one day it becomes part of us. Ultimately, Roellinger says, it's precisely that intermixing of aromas, flavors and cultures, that "is what's beautiful about the story of humanity."