Benoit Sinthon may be Madeira’s only Michelin-starred chef, but he hasn’t let success go to his head.
Far from being an arrogant Gordon Ramsay-esque character with a bulging ego and abrasive manner, Chef Sinthon is modest and mild mannered, the epitome of charm and with a twinkle in his eye that hints at a wicked sense of humour. It is difficult to imagine him losing his temper and I got the sense that there would be more laughter than tongue-lashings in his kitchen. But despite this there is no doubting that he is serious about food, and as he talks about the subject his eyes light up even more and his enthusiasm is almost tangible.
Chef Sinthon’s love affair with food began humble beginnings. It was the markets in Marseille which he used to visit with his Italian grandmother that really ignited his passion. He said: “My grandmother always used to go to market on Saturday morning because she loved cooking. We used to go to the port, and I always remember the fish arriving and my grandmother explaining to us how she chose the best fish.”
His restaurant, Il Gallo d’Oro at the Cliff Bay Hotel on the outskirts of Funchal, may have held a star since 2009, but Chef Sinthon is determined not to take his success for granted because to hold the coveted star is a long term ambition, and he has no intention of letting it go easily. He said: “It was fantastic when we first got the star because it was something I was always striving for. I was so happy. But I said to everyone in the kitchen ‘We have worked very hard for this and now we have been rewarded and we should celebrate, but we must be careful because we have a big challenge ahead, and a responsibility, because of course we want to keep it now.’ We have reinforced the team to make it even stronger. One of my friends who is a fantastic pastry chef was working in Dubai and I persuaded him to join us, and we have a new sommelier. Every year we try to think about what we can do to get even better, we are always trying to improve. But the Michelin star is not the most important thing – the most important things are that the restaurant is full and that we are cooking at a high level and serving wonderful food.”
In order to ensure that the food at Il Gallo d’Oro is the highest possible quality locally sourced food is used whenever possible. Chef Sinthon
said: “We try to use local ingredients. About 90 per cent of the fruit and vegetables are local and around 60 per cent of the fish is from here. We are very lucky because Madeira has a good climate where everything can grow. There are a lot of smaller producers, and we can visit them and talk to them about what we want and this is really important to us as chefs. We even work with one woman who grows our herbs and edible flowers.” And this ethos leads to a regularly changing menu of tastebud tantalising dishes such as lobster and tomato symphony, local scabbard fish stuffed with seaweed with caviar and shellfish sauce and a chocolate cube with caramel and poached pear.
It was during his early training that Chef Sinthon first began to dream of making it on to the Michelin roll of honour. He said: “I was training in a fantastic place when a new chef arrived from a three-starred restaurant in Paris. I looked at him and though ‘He is only eight years older than me’ and in that moment I decided that I needed to try to be like that one day, and have a Michelin star of my own. “ And he never lost sight of his goal, training and working at many of France’s top restaurants in order to gain the valuable experience needed to realise his dream.
But it was love for a woman rather than food which brought the French chef to Madeira. He was working at the restaurant at the luxurious Chateau de Rochegude hotel in Provence in the early 1990s when he met Lara, who was working at the hotel as a receptionist. Their love blossomed but then Lara, who had Madeiran family, announced that she needed to return to the island. Determined not to lose the love of his life he sent his CV to hotels and restaurants in the hope of being able to follow Lara to Madeira. Fate was on his side and he was taken on as a Junior Sous Chef at one of Madeira’s most long-established hotels – Reid’s Palace. He stayed there for two years but then ambition drew him, and Lara, back to France where he began working at the prestigious three-starred La Cote Saint Jacques in Burgundy with renowned chef Jean Michel Lorain. But just a couple of years later, in 1998, the couple returned to Madeira. In 2004 Chef Sinthon was appointed as Executive Chef at the Cliff Bay. He said: “I knew the chef was leaving and I felt I was ready to take the challenge.”
There are three other restaurants at the hotel, in addition to Il Gallo d’Oro, and Chef Sinthon is in charge of them all. He said: “It is a nice hotel and as well as the gourmet restaurant there is a café, barbecue and bistro so it is not just one thing. It is a really interesting job to have.”