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Chef Jean Imbert Reinvents Cannes’ La Palme d’Or Restaurant

When chef Jean Imbert took over the Hôtel Martinez beach club last year, it was part of a grander plan to overhaul the legendary hotel’s eating establishments.

Imbert inched his way in from the beach, to the interior restaurant Le Sud, which opened in January, and on to the crown jewel of Cannes: La Palme d’Or restaurant, where the anointed nine of the festival’s jury sit down for their first official dinner together.

The restaurant is famously named after the top prize itself.

“Because we have this amazing name that is known all over the world, we have to have a link with the Cannes Film Festival in a way that no other restaurant can have,” said Imbert of the famous moniker. “It’s the most iconic restaurant in Cannes.”

The nods to its place in film festival lore are all around: vintage film posters featuring Palme d’Or prize winners, as well as a showstopper of a chandelier designed by Mathieu Lustrerie that recalls the Chopard-designed crystal and gold trophy handed out for best film every year.

La Palme d'Or restaurant Martinez hotel Cannes Jean Imbert

A rendering of the communal table where the jury will have their first dinner together.

Courtesy Jean Imbert

The restaurant sits at the front of the historical Martinez building and with its high-set, expansively horizontal windows the view is nothing but blue sea. Stepping from the hotel’s bright, white Art Deco lobby, Imbert and architect Remi Tessier transformed the interior into a woody, warm, 1960s-style sailing salon inspired by Aristotle Onassis’ boat, the Christina O, named after his daughter.

“For me, this is a statement of style,” said Tessier of the legendary yacht.

They even redesigned the curved staircase that leads to the restaurant to remind guests of a boat’s passerelle. It’s meant to be a clear indication you are entering another world.

The room is filled with movie memorabilia, such as original film posters from past Palme d’Or winners including “Apocalypse Now,” “The Mission,” “Taxi Driver,” and “Pulp Fiction.” Many came from Imbert’s personal collection and he spent nearly a year sourcing others online and at auctions.

Props from famous films also feature, including Leonardo DiCaprio’s sunglasses from “The Wolf of Wall Street,” set pieces from “Jurassic Park,” and a copy of the screenplay from “Titanic.” But Imbert and Tessier were careful to keep it this side of Planet Hollywood. The collection is tightly curated and elegantly displayed so as not to overwhelm.

“I love storytelling and in this restaurant you can tell a story you can’t tell anywhere else. The name is ‘La Palme d’Or.’ So I want to push as far as we can to immerse the people in this world,” said Imbert. “I don’t want to be another fancy fish restaurant.”

La Palme d'Or restaurant Martinez hotel Cannes Jean Imbert

A rendering of the entryway to La Palme d’Or restaurant.

Courtesy Jean Imbert

He imbued the establishment with touches of cinema. Menus are designed in the style of a screenplay and a storyboard, the cocktail choices are rendered as movie tickets and the dessert list laid out like a “call sheet” shooting schedule.

Imbert also stepped into the director’s chair for the project, taking the helm on shaping the overall scenario on tableware, staff uniforms and music.

For the uniforms, he worked with New York-based designer Teddy Santis of Aimé Leon Dore. Imbert wanted to bring some of that Queens cool to the Riviera, and it’s the first time the brand has collaborated on restaurant uniforms.

They’ll be atypical, Imbert divulged, with bar staff dressed in a head-to-toe blue ensemble with a shorts option. “I love what they do, and I wanted [the uniforms] to be different than other restaurants. They’re more fun for a fancy restaurant,” he said. Music will be a mixture of classic film songs and South of France sounds.

“In this hospitality world, a chef is of course someone who decides the food, but we also design. It’s not only doing the best fish, the best cooking, the best seasoning — it’s like a chef is putting the story together to arrive somewhere.”

The restaurant sits apart from the main building and was part of a later addition to the original 1929 structure. Up those spiral stairs, guests enter into a long hallway where the kitchen can be observed through portholes, before taking a turn into the main room with its expansive sea view.

The design took nearly a year and the construction six months. The annex was rumored to be a garage at one point and the existing low ceilings were a particular challenge. “I wanted to bring the noblesse back,” Tessier said of reimagining the space. “I wanted to make it shine.”

The architect reworked the structure and raised the ceilings by six inches to 7.2 feet, the Corbusier-designated perfect height for a room, he noted. However, the low ceilings lent themselves to the nautical view.

“In boats you have always low ceilings but big windows and a sea view, so this added to the idea of the classic yacht,” said Tessier. The ceilings are now lacquered in a high-gloss shade of coral that recalls Yves Saint Laurent’s original Opium color, while a higher dome is constructed of bleached teak.

Walls of satin-finished mahogany give off a warm gold tone and leather-soft touch, while the tables and shutters are in high-gloss teak. No detail has been left unturned, added Tessier. Even the bathrooms fit the theme and have a “wow factor,” he promised.

“Jean and myself, we want to make it classic and timeless and feel as if it has been there forever,” said Tessier. “We want to make this place a legend and bring it to the level it should be.”

La Palme d'Or restaurant Martinez hotel Cannes Jean Imbert

La Palme d’Or restaurant.

Courtesy Jean Imbert

La Palme d’Or is legendary as the location the jury will meet for the first time the evening before the official opening ceremony.

The menu is practically a state secret before each festival. Traditionally the chef prepares a meal with nods to the jury and their work. Imbert would only reveal that this year’s menu is “specially dedicated” to president Greta Gerwig. If that means the cuisine will be “Barbie”-themed, his lips are sealed.

“Because I have been working at the festival since I was young, I know exactly the importance of this dinner,” said Imbert.

“I remember when I was young standing in front of the Martinez and watching the jury go into the hotel and waving hello. And now to be the one who is going to choose the menu, to make it and to be inside — it’s not revenge exactly, but the fact that I was downstairs dreaming and now I’m part of it, I am enjoying the moment.”

Chef Jean Imbert Cannes Film Festival Hotel Martinez

Chef Jean Imbert is the top chef at the Hotel Martinez.

BOBY / Courtesy Jean Imbert

Outside of the festival fortnight, La Palme d’Or’s menu will be seafood, and the kitchen will source directly from fishermen as they bring in their hauls each morning. Imbert promises that the plates will be a direct connection to the sea.

“What we can do there is impossible to do in Paris,” he said. “That’s why I wanted to do this food. It’s totally different from Plaza Athénée or Monsieur Dior. It’s going to be totally opposite of what I do in Paris. It’s very fun to work with this kind of Mediterranean atmosphere, because it’s really special to this place.”

In those early days at the film festival he was peeling vegetables by day and hoping to get a glimpse of actors at the hotel bar by night, not palling around with Robert de Niro, as he did last year.

“We went to take a tisane — and, OK, maybe some gin and tonic,” joked Imbert of hanging out with De Niro at the Hôtel Du Cap following the “Killers of the Flower Moon” premiere well after midnight. “But living in the moment like this is special to the Cannes Film Festival.”

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