In March 2023, Monaco restaurants saw all their Michelin stars confirmed. But better still, there was something new to celebrate at the famous Le Louis XV – Alain Ducasse, the temple of fine dining at L’Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo, whose restaurant manager, Claire Sonnet, was awarded the prestigious Michelin Service Award. Tremendous recognition for this young woman, for whom sincerity is the essential ingredient for an exceptional meal. And an award that reflects the tradition of excellence that is so dear to Monte-Carlo Société des Bains de Mer.
The Michelin Service Award... How important is this distinction to you?
Claire Sonnet: It was a big surprise, a wonderful surprise, of course. To be recognised by the Michelin Guide and by the world of hospitality and gastronomy in this way obviously makes me immensely proud. It’s something truly special.
Who else is this prize for?
C.S.: The list is so long! It’s for everyone I’ve met during my career who has worked to help get me where I am today. I am thinking, of course, of Chef Alain Ducasse, of Denis Courtiade (restaurant manager at the Plaza Athénée in Paris), of Joseph Desserprix (restaurant manager at Restaurant La Scène-Stéphanie Le Quellec)... I can’t possibly mention everybody, but all those who have inspired in me a taste for service, who have taught me the associated values and know-how. Everybody I work with today, as well. And all those who dine at our tables. And from a personal point of view, I would also like to thank my loved ones, who support me each and every day, encourage me and push me to go further.
Given your background in economic and social sciences and psychology, a career in food and fine dining was not always on the cards. Where did this passion come from?
C.S.: In fact, it’s very simple, very obvious to me... The thing that inspired me to set off on this adventure was people. While working in a restaurant, during my studies, I met my first maître d’, I got to speak to my first customers. This experience proved decisive and is what eventually led me to change career path. I then had to learn everything there was to know about this vast world that I previously hadn’t known at all. The taste of products, which flavours go together, fine dining, table service... So yes, initially I was planning to work in the social sector, in order to serve and help others, but in the end I have done that in hospitality. And although it is a somewhat atypical career path, there is nonetheless a common thread: people.
Having worked with Alain Ducasse in Paris at the Plaza Athénée, you then worked with him again in Monaco, in 2018, when you became restaurant manager at Le Louis XV – Alain Ducasse à l’Hôtel de Paris. What can you tell us about what appears to be a real relationship of trust between you and the chef with the most Michelin stars in the world?
C.S.: Each morning I say to myself that the gods are looking down on me! [laughs] It’s obviously a great honour and something I am very proud of. I am well aware of all he has given me. I have so much admiration for Alain Ducasse and am very grateful to him. His aura and unbounded energy are always pushing me to excel myself. He is both inspired and inspiring, I have a lot of respect for him. It was with Denis Courtiade at the Plaza Athénée in Paris that I first discovered his world, and I am honoured to now be in a position to share his vision and values each and every day, to make his presence felt even when he is not there, with my colleagues and our customers.
What does it mean to you to be working in this field in Monaco?
C.S.: To me, Monaco is a haven of peace. A place like no other, where there is always so much going on. By providing hospitality in Monaco, I am also serving the Principality, and that, of course, is more than an honour. During my years at the Plaza Athénée, I obviously heard a lot about Le Louis XV. It’s a place the Chef loves, where his story began. And I had always heard about his affection for Monaco. So when he asked if I would come and join his team at Le Louis XV in Monaco, I was initially speechless, aware of the challenge before me. But then quickly, without a second thought, I replied, “Yes, Chef”. What else could I say?
What is your philosophy in relation to work?
C.S.: To move forward by doing my best each day, wholeheartedly and with sincerity!
How is that reflected in the restaurant, in your relationships with customers and your teams?
C.S.: Colleagues and customers are people, and need to be given the very best conditions. In terms of colleagues, this mainly requires preparing each of our reservations and drawing on the strengths of each person. At Le Louis XV there are 52 people who must work at the same time, at the same pace, every day. Every day, the planets must be aligned. And it’s my job to keep everyone synchronised. To be this “conductor” we so often talk about. There is the briefing before service begins, to share information, then when the doors open everyone has to be ready. Ready for the customers. In the restaurant, no one has a watch: time stands still. We are at the exclusive disposal of the customer. We have to adapt to each of them. To understand what they want from us. Is it a romantic dinner, a family dinner, a business lunch? Are we new to them on a first trip to Monaco? Or are they regulars? We have to adapt how we approach them, showing empathy and listening to them so that everyone can enter the world of Chef Alain Ducasse. We are the messengers. The Chef and his team, concealed in the kitchen, create works of art, and it is up to us to present them at their best, in the light of the restaurant, and to give our customers exceptional experiences.
In your view, what quality is indispensable in order to succeed in your profession?
C.S.: Very simply, sincerity. Of course, a whole range of skills are required – determination and desire among others – but I am convinced that sincerity is at the heart of the role.
Valuing and promoting women’s place in the profession is something that is important to you. What changes have you seen in this respect since you started out?
C.S.: I don’t think this concerns only our sector. Admittedly, this is a sector that continues to be very male, but I honestly don’t think it is any harder for a woman than a man to make their place in this profession. Over the generations, attitudes have definitely become more open, which has made it possible for women to fill more roles. But it’s a problem that extends far beyond our profession. Don’t ask me if it has been more difficult or if it has required more effort. I think it is actually a question for society, a question for all of us. Men and women, who are, more and more, advancing in the same direction.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
C.S.: People, the same answer again! [laughs] It’s this opportunity to share, to meet extraordinary people. It’s helping to develop staff, helping them “grow” in their work by giving them the means to be themselves. It’s also meeting suppliers, with whom we discover products, flavours, textures... In this job there are so many different and interesting things, and that’s what makes it so wonderful! What is more, each service is different. We prepare to make sure we welcome each person in the very best conditions. That is 80% of the job. But the remaining 20% we cannot plan, it’s the personal touch, it’s the initial contact with the customer... There is real energy in these interactions. Different energy from one day to the next. It’s exciting. Then, when everyone has left, we meet to catch up on what went well that evening, what will happen the day after. It’s the calm after the storm. It’s a nice moment that I particularly enjoy.
How do you know when you have done your job well?
C.S.: I am never entirely happy, so it’s difficult to say! You question yourself every day in this line of work. But seeing my colleagues finish their service with a smile and with the desire to do even better the day after, that, of course, is very satisfying for me. Or hearing someone say that “there is a great spirit” or a “a great energy” at Le Louis XV, or that the service was like a “well-choreographed ballet”, that is wonderful recognition. This recognition of the team is essential for me, as if we didn’t work together, the magic just wouldn’t be there. I’ve seen customers with tears in their eyes when they taste a dish or as they leave. Or who are overwhelmed with emotion when we take them into the kitchen to meet Chef Emmanuel Pilon. These are unique moments that show we have succeeded in what we wanted to do.
And finally, if Monaco were a dish, how would you present it to a customer who had travelled from far away to taste it?
C.S.: Perhaps I would begin with the words of the song Monaco by Bon Entendeur. “Monaco … 28 degrees in the shade…” and then I would continue: “Beneath its bright colours lies a haven of peace… Here you will find unequalled peace and serenity thanks to the Mediterranean, a dynamic energy throughout the year, punctuated by a wide range of events… Monaco is always reinventing itself to offer you, each day, an exceptional experience...”