This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Chefs have to have a good sense of humour. It is an invaluable ingredient in a day that may include suppliers not delivering all the necessary ingredients for the menu on time; members of their brigade not turning up at all; and, perhaps most challengingly, even when everything is in place too many of their customers arriving all at once rather than at conveniently spaced intervals.
But those chefs who work with their spouses or partners must need other distinctive qualities as well. It is difficult to think of anything more engaging, satisfying or comforting for a customer than to walk into a restaurant to be greeted by the wife, or partner, of the man dressed in white standing over the stoves in the kitchen on the other side of the swing door.
For the couples themselves, however, this life must be tough. It is one that involves the same financial pressures, the same antisocial hours and the same professional highs and lows. There may obviously be some comfort to be found in the sharing of this way of life but the fact that most restaurants are not managed by couples and that, of those that are, many of these partnerships end unhappily proves that the few which remain are today the exception to the rule.
So at the end of two different trips around France, which involved meals at Goûts et Couleurs in Rodez towards the centre of the country, then at Octopus in Béziers and finally at Le Parc in Carcassonne in the south, it is reassuring to report back that all three are in the hands of seemingly happy and extremely capable couples and that a lively sense of humour obviously flourishes in all three kitchens.
Of the three couples involved there is no doubt that Jean-Luc and Emmanuelle Fau in Rodez must have all of these vital characteristics in abundance because their restaurant is in the narrow streets of the old town distinctly oppressed by the overbearing presence of the nearby 13th century cathedral.
By contrast, the restaurant itself is bright and cheerful, if slightly down at heel, in yellow and light brown with a small garden at the rear. And everything the Faus do seems aimed at lifting the spirits of their customers from the thin, spiced breadsticks on the table to the offer of a 'wine of the week' by the glass (an unusual offer in even more cosmopolitan restaurants) to an extremely good value, four course 34 euro menu. This included tuna or foie gras as a first course, duck breast with baby turnips and a particular version of a blanc-mange enlivened with coconut and a lime sorbet.
The advice to stop off at Goûts et Couleurs came via French food writer Jean-Pierre Gene, whose opinion I had sought for local knowledge. Our ultimate destination was the magnificent bridge designed by Foster + Partners on the A75 outside Millau 90 kilometres to the south east.
By contrast, it was the name as much as anything else which initially appealed about Octopus, a restaurant situated in a quiet side street off Béziers' tree-lined Allées Paul Riquet. It's a name that seems simultaneously immediately connected to food, easy to remember - a hugely important but often overlooked factor - and yet rather incongruous for a city not situated on the sea.
This ingredient does, however, feature in one of the most original and fun dishes I have had the pleasure of eating - particularly as we were able to enjoy it in the courtyard at the back of the restaurant, albeit under a cloud-filled sky. Described as a 'picnic with aubergine, octopus and crab' this dish involves two rather elaborate stages. Initially, those of us who had ordered had our cutlery moved to one side as an oblong, red and white tablecloth was laid in front of us. Then out came equally colourful plastic trays, three high, and clipped together rather like Chinese dim sum dishes, which the waitress unclipped and placed in an arc in front of us. Each contained one of the three different ingredients which had been as skilfully cooked as it was cleverly presented.
Octopus is run by chef Fabien Lefebvre and his wife Rachel, who is responsible for the wine list, and whom he met initially when they were both working at the Hôtel Bristol in Paris. Their inherent and complementary talents became increasingly obvious as the meal progressed. Amongst the small number of wines from outside the region was an intensely rich, fruity red Santenay Vieilles Vignes 2003 from Marechal of Bligny that had just the right balance of weight and acidity for three fillets of John Dory served with several, brightly coloured heirloom tomatoes sautéed in olive oil. This proved to be a terrific combination.
Just outside the Cité of Carcassonne, Céline and Franck Putelat have put down considerable financial roots in a former orchard situated between vineyards and the heavily restored ramparts and now preside over the sparkling restaurant Le Parc that is barely 18 months old.
Its modern interior is certainly impressive. En route to the dining room there are long, thin windows that allow views into the kitchen; an elegant chandelier casts a warm light across the room; and everything from the Mikasa glassware to the cutlery at a rakish angle to egg-shaped stainless steel decanters seems clearly thought out and very different from anything close-by.
So too is Putelat's 55 euro 'Classique….Fiction' menu in which he reinterprets five different, traditional dishes: floating islands; bouillabaisse; vegetables à la grecque; paella and peach Melba. Of these the dessert floating islands is served as a first course with a deep green leek purée taking the place of the custard on top of which the square of egg white was now topped with shavings of summer truffle. The artichokes and celery served à la grecque with a small fillet of cod and the paella were equally successful - his bouillabaisse less so.
What makes these three restaurants particularly attractive is the presence of a couple and a sense of humour in the kitchen. However, like an increasing number of restaurants today, they share a common fault, that of the waiting staff taking too long, and even interrupting the conversation round the table, to describe in far too much detail every last nut, smear and leaf that constitutes each dish. This is becoming increasingly widespread and intrusive and is, by contrast, no laughing matter.
Goûts et Couleurs, 38 rue de Bonald, Rodez, 05.65.42.75.10, www.goutsetcouleurs.com
Octopus, 12 rue Boïeldieu, Beziers, 04.67.49.90.00,
Le Parc, 80 Chemin des Anglais, Carcassonne, 04.68.71.80.80, www.restaurantleparcfranckputelat.com