Riviera Dreaming

Anina Belle of Le Chef’s Wife makes French cuisine accessible for home cooks.

McLean, VA

(Photography by Scott Suchman)

Sometimes, fairytales do come true. When she left her home in British Columbia for a semester in the South of France, Anina Belle couldn’t foresee the life-changing impact that decision would have on her life. “Like many teenagers who grow up in a small town, I could not wait to leave it,” Belle says. “When the opportunity to study in the South of France came up, I jumped on it.”

Not long after arriving, a group project with her business school led her to a meeting with the chef of a luxury hotel, L’Auberge de la Vignette Haute. That chef, le chef, is now her husband. “We met a month-and-a-half into my stay, he asked me out within three sentences of meeting me, and we were engaged six weeks later.” The rest is history. “At 23, I found myself head over heels in love with this French chef and enchanted with the South of France.” She was captivated by the turquoise blue of the Mediterranean and the passionate fusion of culture and cuisines that only the French Riviera can offer.

Sharing le chef’s Secrets

McLean, VA

(Photography by Scott Suchman)

For eight years, Belle and le chef, Sébastien Giannini, stayed together in the South of France as she won increasingly senior roles with luxury hotels while Giannini cooked in Michelin-starred restaurants and earned honors in international cooking competitions like the Grand Prix Culinaire Escoffier and the Bocuse D’Or. As Belle cooked at home with her husband, she learned the tips and tricks from his lifetime in the kitchen. “I grew up in a foodie environment—on a fruit orchard where we had fresh organic peaches and plums and apricots and tomatoes.”  

By 2013, a job opportunity for Belle sent the couple to Montreal and, by 2016, they’d landed in McLean. Not long before their move, Belle started her Instagram account; she had loved storytelling since childhood and wanted to document her story of living with le chef—the places they visited, the restaurants where they dined, and their life together. With the birth of her daughter in 2017, she started documenting the recipes they cooked at home. Slowly and organically, she was growing a cadre of Instagram followers. 

“For my husband, cooking is based on muscle memory, but I wanted to document it for myself and my daughter,” Belle recalls. “After a while I realized that I was striking a chord, helping people face their fear of French cooking and introducing them to the Provençal cuisine of the French Riviera.”

Simply Prepared, Beautifully Presented

She follows an ethos of simplicity. “Less is always more. French Riviera cuisine is all about making the main ingredient shine. We don’t use a lot of spices in our home. A little fleur de sel, a pinch of herbes de Provence, and a drizzle of olive oil. C’est tout!” This classic combination of dried tarragon, savory, sage, thyme, and marjoram leaves with dried lavender buds can often be found in gourmet shops or online. 

“A good mise en place (everything in its place) is essential for stress-free cooking at home. Read the recipe all the way through,” Belle advises. “Set out all the kitchen utensils you will need and chop all of your ingredients in advance. Then, and only then, do you turn on the heat. There is nothing worse than burning your onions as you are rummaging through your fridge for the next ingredient.”

Belle also focuses on the whole dining experience. “Presentation is just as important as the taste. We eat with our eyes first. Spending a few moments on presentation before you serve your dish, even if it is just for a Tuesday night dinner at home, makes a big difference in the enjoyment of a meal. I also like to match the music to the meal. Play a little Brigitte Bardot and immediately you are in the South of France.”

McLean, VA

(Photography by Scott Suchman)

Building Confident Cooks

Soon after the birth of her son in 2020, she started her blog and website, LeChefsWife.com, and has cataloged dozens and dozens of iconic recipes as well as cooking tips. As her tagline says, it’s “French cooking, made simple.” From a traditional French baguette to a decadent Moelleux au chocolat or a molten lava cake, there’s something for everybody. 

Belle takes great joy in spreading her knowledge of French cooking. She says she is growing her community of followers through her Sunday Soup Challenge, which includes a digital recipe book and weekly live cooking demonstrations on Instagram (@lechefswife). She also has been working with the Alliance Française on a series of cooking classes with her husband where they take turns as head chef. “It’s almost a chemical rush for me when I hear people adding my recipes to their weekly meal rotation.” LeChefsWife.com, @lechefswife 

Authentic French recipes courtesy of Le Chef’s Wife

By Anina Belle

Anina Belle shares her simplified versions of French classics. All recipes serve two. Bon appetit! 

McLean, VA

(Photography by Scott Suchman)

Easy Branzino with Vierge Sauce

For the branzino:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 whole branzino filets
  • Pinch of coarse salt
  • 1 orange for zesting

For the vierge sauce:

  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 2 green onions, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup chives, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • 1/3 cup pitted Niçoise or Kalamata
  • black olives, halved
  • 2 tablespoons capers 
  • 1/2 cup basil, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons roasted pine nuts
  • 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 lemon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 

Drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil onto a foil-lined cookie sheet. Gently place the branzino filets next to each other on the sheet, skin side down.

Drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil over the top of the filets and sprinkle with a pinch of sea salt.

Set the cookie sheet on the top rack of the preheated oven and set a timer for 10 minutes.

While the fish is cooking, make the vierge sauce: In a mixing bowl, combine the shallot, green onions, chives, cherry tomatoes, olives, capers, basil, and pine nuts with the 3/4 cup of olive oil. Add the zest of one lemon. Mix and set aside. 

Once the 10 minutes are up, check on the branzino. The fish should have an opaque white color. Cooking time varies depending on filet size. If the fish still looks a little rosy in color, set it back in the oven for another 2 minutes, keeping a close eye.

Once the branzino is cooked, remove it from the cooking tray with a long, thin spatula.

Place 2 filets in the center of each plate.

Top each whole branzino filet with a fine dusting of orange zest (it adds a beautiful citrus note to the fish), about 1/4 of the orange per filet.

Spoon 1/4 cup of vierge sauce over the filets on each plate.

McLean, VA

(Photography by Scott Suchman)

Salade Niçoise

  • 1 head butter lettuce
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 bunch green beans
  • 1 can of tuna 
  • 10 Niçoise olives (or Kalamata)
  • 1 shallot finely chopped
  • 1 green onion finely chopped
  • 8 radishes, sliced thinly
  • 2 roma tomatoes, quartered
  • 1/2 cucumber, sliced
  • 1 bunch fresh chopped basil
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • Sardines or capers to garnish (optional)

Put 3 pots of water on the stove to boil: 1 big one for the potatoes, 2 medium pots for the green beans and the eggs.

Eggs: Add the eggs to boiling water and let boil for 8.5 minutes. For medium boiled eggs, I leave them for 6-7 minutes. I personally prefer my yolks a little runny. Drain out the hot water, and cover the eggs with ice cubes so that they stop cooking.

Potatoes: Put potatoes (skin on) in cold, salted water, and bring to a boil. Let simmer for 15-20 minutes depending on the size. You should be able to stick a fork in them easily without them falling apart. Drain and chill.

Green beans: Bring water to a full boil. Add a pinch of salt. Add trimmed green beans and let boil for 5 minutes, until still slightly crunchy. Drain and cover with ice cubes to chill them and preserve their bright green color. 

The Vinaigrette:

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 clove garlic finely chopped
  • pinch of coarse salt
  • 2 tablespoons fresh chopped basil
  • or 1 tablespoon of pesto

Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Prepare plates with a bed of lettuce. Toss the green beans in a little vinaigrette, then divide them among plates on top of the lettuce. Add tuna along with finely chopped shallots to the bowl to soak up remaining vinaigrette. Assemble your ingredients: I like to lay salad on the bottom, then pile the green beans in the center with the tuna on top. Around the sides, display quartered tomatoes, eggs, potatoes, radish, and cucumber slices. Spread olives around the center and add a sprinkle of green onions, capers, and more basil on top. Drizzle the remaining vinaigrette over the top. For the perfect French Riviera lunch, serve with a freshly baked baguette and a glass of rosé.

Homemade Baguettes for Beginners

  • 2 teaspoons traditional yeast 
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 1/4 cups warm water
  • 1 tablespoon fleur de sel
  • (if using table salt: 1 teaspoon)
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Proof the yeast with the honey and warm water. For breadmaking novices, this means putting the warm water in your big mixing bowl and adding the yeast and honey. Give it a stir and let it sit on the counter for 10 minutes. You will see the grains of yeast wake up and rise to the surface and expand. 

Once proofed, add salt and slowly add the flour and olive oil until a shaggy dough is formed. Form a round ball in the bowl but be careful not to work the dough too much. 

Dust the top of your dough ball with a little bit of flour, then cover with a damp tea towel. Let the dough rise in a warm place until it doubles in size (about an hour), then split it in two and roll out your baguettes. To score the baguettes, use a knife or kitchen shears (or carefully with a razor blade as shown) to snip the top surface. 

Place baguettes on a cookie sheet sprinkled with flour and then sprinkle a little more flour and fleur de sel on top. Let baguettes rise for another 30 minutes (uncovered) while the oven preheats to 460 degrees. 

Once the oven is hot, fill a 9-inch pan halfway with water and place on the bottom rack of the oven. The steam creates the crackly crust we love.

Bake for 25 minutes. Remove the pan of water (careful, hot!) and bake another five minutes or so. The baguettes should be beautifully golden brown and sound hollow when tapped.

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue.

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