On a sunny weekday not long ago, Valentin Raffali drops into the kitchen of his restaurant, Livingston, to collect provisions for an afternoon of fishing and cooking along the coast: a portable barbecue, charcoal, mint leaves, limes, a sharp knife and two marinades he had prepared earlier, one of them a spicy Sichuan-inspired sauce.
Valentin, who is in his late 20s, has a big smile and big earrings, all of which he pours into the restaurant, which is located on one of the many narrow and graffitied streets in the Cours Julien neighborhood of Marseille. Inside, an orange flag hangs by the kitchen displaying a seagull in a Marseille football shirt with Livingston written above it – a nod to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a book given to Valentin by his father, about a bird seeking freedom and creativity even when his flock finds his ambition threatening.
‘The flag’s a reminder of what I’m all about,’ says Valentin in a thick French accent.
If Marseille is the most exciting food city in France right now, then Valentin is among the country’s most exciting chefs. He creates dishes spontaneously and prefers intense, spicy flavors. One of his set menus might have aged delicate raw fish followed by smoky pizzettas cooked on an open fire. Popular dishes include schnitzel with habanero glaze, teriyaki fish, nduja with purple basil. He has a signature ‘dildonut’ dessert – you can imagine what it looks like yourself – although his menus frequently change.
‘I get bored quite fast,’ he says. ‘Also, the energy of a new plate is beautiful.’
He moves around his kitchen as if at home – top off, revealing a large tattoo with the name of the restaurant across his midriff, and loud music playing. ‘I wanted a space that gave me freedom to create without having to constantly ask for permission,’ he says. ‘I knew I would spend all my time here so I wanted it to feel like home. I think that’s partly why people enjoy coming. Livingston has a special energy. It’s a reflection of who I am.’
Prep complete, it’s time to hit the coast. Around 5pm, he pulls up on a moped. But the idea of Valentin as a budding fisherman was always a long shot. The initial idea was to go sailing together, but the water's too rough. Even though Valentin's never properly been fishing before, he's keen to give it a try. But after three attempts, the fish still aren’t biting.
Growing up, Valentin liked skateboarding. ‘But I wasn’t very good and it’s expensive,’ he says. ‘Every two months: new shoes, new deck, new trucks. The wheels didn’t last much longer. To continue skating, I needed to find a sponsor.’
When that didn’t happen, he got a job in a kitchen. He was just 14. ‘I’ve never been able to answer the question: what do you want to do? Even today, I never introduce myself as a chef,’ he explains. ‘Instead, I say I work in food.
One thing he is sure about: he never started out in food looking to make big money. ‘So long as I have enough to pay my team and my bills, I’m good,’ he says. ‘My clients are always much richer than me. But I feel loaded in other ways. I love what I do so much. Plus, I get to share it with my friends.’
Another cast, another fail. ‘Fishing isn’t for me,’ he laughs.
Putting the rod down and returning to the topic of creativity, he adds: ‘Whenever an idea comes into my head, I have to do it. My brain can’t think about anything else. It’s like I suddenly become addicted. So working in food was never about fame or money. Even now, I could cut my costs if I wanted to. For example, all my produce comes from nearby and is very expensive. But if I changed my suppliers, who are all friends and people I really believe in, then Livingston wouldn’t have the same quality and feel.’
He’s done with fishing and dives into the water for a swim. When he comes out, he puts the barbecue together and lights a fire. ‘You’re not allowed to cook along the coastline, but it’s quieter and more protected here, so we should be okay. I thought we might not catch anything so I’m glad we also brought these,’ he says, unpacking two fish picked up at a local seafood market earlier in the day.
As his reputation grows, Valentin finds himself in increasingly high demand. ‘Everything’s becoming bigger than I ever expected,’ he says. ‘My success is partly down to having such a great team. To attract the right kind of people, you have to manage your time well, be patient and work fucking hard. And right now, I’m working really fucking hard. So much so, I only get to see my family once or twice a year.’
Still, they remain close. His father died when he was nine, but his mum, sister and brother still live in and around Avignon, an hour away from Marseille by car. ‘I grew up in a very open house. We could talk about anything. It was amazing,’ he says. ‘And we’re all the same. I love people so much but deep down I’m an introvert. All my family are.’
He guts the two fish and washes them in the sea. Then he butterflies them, slipping his knife blade underneath the ribs and slicing upwards, away from the backbone, before covering each of them in a different marinade. Unlike his attempts at catching fish, he makes cooking them look effortless. After letting them rest, they carry the perfect blend of heat and more subtle flavors, the building blocks of his cooking.
Valentin starts packing up. The sun is beginning to set and he has an early start. ‘I should get home,’ he says, smiling while picking up the rod. ‘And I should try and get better at using this. But if things continue as they are, I won’t have time.’