STRASBOURG, France | If your secret wish is to get a reward, not just family compliments, for your talents in the kitchen, then Georgiana Viou might serve as inspiration.
The self-taught chef from the west African country of Benin, who came to Paris dreaming of becoming an interpreter, was awarded a star on Monday by the Michelin Guide, the bible of gastronomy, for her cuisine at “Rouge,” a restaurant in the southwestern French city of Nimes.
She wasn’t alone. A chef who studied literature, David Degoursy, and pastry chef Jeanne Satori, with a degree in sustainable development, also won a star for their restaurant de:ja in Strasbourg, eastern France, where the annual awards ceremony was held.
Michelin’s 2023 awards for French chefs put the accent on the regions of France, not Paris. The only chef to walk away with three stars — the highest award, reserved for gastronomic luminaries — was Alexandre Couillon for his creations at La Marine, his restaurant on the tip of the Ile de Noirmoutier on the Atlantic Ocean.
Of the 44 new Michelin stars handed out, Viou’s is the only one won by a woman working single-handed. Several other women were honored as part of a team, like Satori, the pastry chef at de:ja.
Viou, 45, has described her cuisine as a mix of French Mediterranean perfumed with notes recalling her home country. She has written several books about Benin’s cooking.
Becoming a chef was a fall-back plan for Viou, who came to France in 1999 to study languages at the Sorbonne, hoping to become an interpreter. Working at a communications agency in the southern port city of Marseille, life’s complications forced her to change directions and, at 33, her second passion, cooking, took over.
In an interview last fall with online publication terrafemina, she said that as a Black African woman who was older than most chefs-in-training in a mostly masculine universe her maturity helped her cope.
But she dislikes being categorized because of her sex or skin color, saying that “it’s completely ridiculous” to be considered “a la mode” for being a Black female chef. She wants to be judged for what’s on the plate she serves.
Viou learned to cook from her mother who had a simple little restaurant in Cotonou, Benin and got a lesson in perseverance from her grandmother. She worked her way up the chef’s ladder step by step in Marseille, eventually getting recognition at restaurants bearing her name. She joined Rouge, in Nimes, at its inception in June 2021.
Last year, Viou was on the jury of the popular TV show MasterChef, 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 chefs with Michelin stars are less rare than one might think.
There is Eric Girardin, for instance, at La Maison des Tetes in Colmar, near Strasbourg, who began his working life as an electrical engineer.
The only woman to have won three Michelin stars is Anne-Sophie Pic. The grand-daughter and daughter of chefs, she moved from her native Drome region to Paris to study commerce before returning to her roots. With restaurants in Paris, London and Lausanne, Pic opened another in Singapore in 2019.
Ganley reported from Paris.