Natural champagne as told by star chef Michael Nizzero

Michael Nizzero

Champagne making and cooking are two separate things, right? Not if you ask Michael Nizzero. The Belgian chef travelled the world and gathered multiple Michelin stars along the way. Yet, nothing moves him like the bottled sparkles from that one region in north-eastern France. He now works in the UK as a chef and consultant (among many other things), but you might say Champagne is his second home. There, he learned that natural champagne producers work their vineyards like chefs work their dishes. Which is in layers, with a focus on terroir, diversity and the occasional drizzle of (metaphorical) lemon juice.

When I call him up, the ever-busy chef is on his way to a food gig in the British countryside. While making his way through traffic, he talks about his career, his mentor Michel Roux and the slow life in Champagne. Which may be the best way to live after all. 

The 100-year old career of Michael Nizzero

When you map out Michael Nizzero’s career, he could’ve easily been a 100 years old. He’s not, though. Somehow, he managed to squeeze a lifetime of experience into only 37 years, while traveling the world and making friends along the way. Born and raised in Belgium, Michael (1982) attended the Hotel and Catering school at the Émile Gryzon institute in Brussels. Later, his career would bring him to France, the UK and Dubai, where he opened his own restaurant with a close friend he met in London. There, he runs into Michel Roux, the French chef known for revolutionising British cooking. Roux takes Michael under his wing and makes him sous-chef of the Waterside Inn. This is the first non-french restaurant to hold on to its three stars for more than 25 years. Clearly, Michael has come to to the right place. 

“While traveling with Michel Roux, I tasted a lot of different champagnes. Like, a lot”

The legacy of Michel Roux

“Michel Roux changed my live,” says Michael. “I became sort of his right hand, assisting him as he made recipes for his cook books and helping him with his food promotions all over the world.” At the time, the Burgundy-born Michel Roux was working hard on lifting the low food standards in the UK. He introduced the Britains to the more refined cooking style of the French, and got them their first three-star restaurant ever by opening restaurant La Gavroche. Roux passed away in March 2020 at the age of 78, but his life’s work will inspire many British star chefs, including Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White.

To Michael, he’s more than a mere source of inspiration. “I felt like I was part of his family,” he says. “When you travel the world together, that’s just what happens.” It’s also Roux that brings Michael into contact with champagne. “We drank a lot of it on our trips,” Michael says, laughing, “and eventually it became a normal thing. As a consequence, I’ve tasted a lot of different kinds. Like, a lot.”

La Briqueterie- the champagne meeting spot

When Michael is 28, he feels it’s time for a new gig. “I told Mr Roux about it, and he had some contacts in the Champagne region,” he says. Soon after, he starts as the executive chef of La Briqueterie, a classical restaurant in Vinay near Épernay. And that’s when things start to move. Within a year, Michael has given the Champagne region an additional Michelin Star. At the time, he’s also the youngest star chef in France. “Me and Champagne turned out a great combination,” Michael says. “I soon found out that La Briqueterie was actually the meeting spot of a lot of champagne producers. They’d bring clients, or they’d drop by to hang out. Later, they started inviting me to their homes and taught me about champagne and their take on it.”


Cooking in layers

Michael realises that he’s actually not that different from champagne producers. “I got very interested in organic and biodynamic champagne making,” he says. “The way small, natural champagne makers work, very much resembles the way I like to cook. When I create a dish, I like to build it up from different layers. When you eat, you smell, you bite and you swallow. This creates different sensations that together make an experience. Everything matters, especially the quality of ingredients. It’s why I like it when they were grown in the most natural way possible. When they’re grown locally, that’s even better.”

Just like star chef Alain Passard, Michael focuses on terroir. “Natural champagne makers take into account weather, soil and biodiversity in the vineyard. For example, when you plant different herbs among the vines, this really influences flavour.” When selecting his ingredients, Michael focuses on the same things. “Wild animals are a great example. A rabbit that lived in the Provence has had a different diet than a rabbit that lived in Champagne. You can taste this difference in terroir on your plate, which is really fascinating.” 

“One day, Hervé Deschamps of Perriet-Jouët walked in, ordered one of his own bottles and asked me to create a multiple course meal around it”

Champagne dining (it’s a thing!)

During his time in La Briqueterie, Michael Nizzero discovers the tight bond between the Champenois and their champagne. “In the Champagne region, working in a Michelin star restaurant is different,” he says. “Obviously, there’s more champagne on the wine menu, but there’s also a closer relationship between champagne and food. For a chef, this is very interesting. I often adjusted my dishes to the champagne that was ordered.” When asked for an example, he explains: “In champagne, you want freshness. It’s why all champagne producers work hard to make their champagnes as uplifting and alive as possible. As a chef, I can anticipate this by making small adjustments to my dishes. Sometimes, an extra drizzle of lemon juice is enough.” What’s more, to les Champenois, champagne is often more important than food. “One day, Hervé Deschamps of Perriet-Jouët walked in, ordered one of his own bottles and asked me to create a multiple course meal around it,” recalls Michael. “I made some changes and it worked out. That was very cool.”

Natural champagne

The Michael Nizzero favourites

When asked about his favourite champagne, I can almost hear Michael’s brain squeak on the other end of the line. Then he starts to talk. And he doesn’t stop. 

“The most surprising champagne I’ve ever had was a 1985 vintage from Colin in Vertus”  

“I also remember a 1964 Collard-Picard that was very interesting”

“Pascal Agrapart is an absolute favourite, definitely”

“Jacques Selosse, of course”

“oh yes and Lecomte as well”


“Hervé Dubois, great value for money”

“Don’t forget Volleraux”

“…and Veuve fourny”

“oh and add Michel Turgy!”

I laugh and ask him if he can pick three. “When it comes to champagne producers, I’d say Pascal Agrapart, Jacques Selosse and Hervé Dubois, but all in a different way,” Michael says. “I really like Agrapart, especially Avizoise. For my everyday champagne, I’d choose Hervé Dubois as you really get your money’s worth.” He adds that he likes to drink Selosse champagne when he visits his close friend Stéphane Rossillon, chef de cuisine of hotel-restaurant Les Avisés, owned by Anselme and Corinne Selosse. “When I’m there, drinking Selosse champagne is the only right thing to do,” he says laughing. “It’s the perfect drink in the perfect place. It reminds me of something we don’t have in the UK: a slow and simple way of living, that’s not about career or money but about quality, friendship, and well, champagne.”

Want to know what Michael is up to these days? Check out his instagram page and the Food Network where he’s often featured.

Leave a Reply