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Olivier's Twist | Olivier Baussan

Olivier Baussan, founder of Oliviers & Co. and L'Occitane, made his fortune selling artisanal olive oils and herb-scented soaps. Now he has a fresh ambition: to open a new kind of Mediterranean restaurant in America.

There's an old saying that you make your own luck. It's also been said that succeeding is a habit. Olivier Baussan, the founder of L'Occitane and Oliviers & Co., embodies both principles. Baussan began his career selling flacons of lavender and rosemary essences in Provençal markets; today his worldwide empire includes 470 L'Occitane boutiques, which sell artisanal beauty products, and 58 Oliviers & Co. stores, stocked with handcrafted olive oils. Baussan is also a restaurateur with his eye on America: He owns La Table O&CO, a store and restaurant with outposts in France, Belgium, Brazil and—as of last fall—San Francisco. He's just launched another market and restaurant in Manhattan uniting L'Occitane, Oliviers & Co. and La Table O&CO under a single roof. (The place was not yet named at press time.)

On a recent trip to meet Baussan in northern Provence, where he is based, the first thing I learn is how central a figure he is in his corner of France. Everyone knows him; everyone has an anecdote. "His first workshop [for distilling lavender and rosemary essences] was in my father-in-law's shed," says the taxi driver who takes me to Baussan's office in the tiny village of Mane. Later, as Baussan and I walk through the market in Manosque, the largest town in the area, there are hellos and handshakes every few feet.

When I arrive at Baussan's office, he wastes little time on preliminaries. A boyish 51, dressed in jeans and a gray pullover, Baussan quickly takes me on a tour of his operations in the nearby villages—stopping at a mill here, a factory there—while he tells me the story of how he came to build his business.

Baussan, who is the son of a journalist and an artist, was born in the village of Ganagobie, a few miles from Mane. He spent his teenage summers in Corsica working with a fisherman; the two became so close that when the fisherman retired, he gave his boat to Baussan. But Baussan's parents had a different idea for his future. They convinced him to sell the boat and attend university in Aix-en-Provence, where he studied poetry and American literature.

Then, as he puts it, "I stumbled upon an alembic." The handsome copper still, used for distilling plant essences like lavender oil, was sitting in a shed on the side of a road. When he drove past it one day during college, Baussan literally did a double take, made a U-turn, found the machine's owner and asked to buy it. "I told my friends I met an alembic," he says in the same way he might have said that he'd met a wonderful woman. And L'Occitane was born.

This was the '70s, when selling flacons of essential oils of lavender and rosemary fit into the peace-and-love ethos of the times. Then, in 1981, Baussan passed an old soap factory. "It was shut up tight," he recalls. "I found the owner and asked for a tour. I told him I wanted to learn the ancestral ways of making soap. I arrived at 3 in the afternoon. By 8, the old man had offered me the entire contents of his factory. He said he was retiring. It was crazy. It was as if I had been given my boat in Corsica again." Soon handcrafted soaps made from essential oils joined the L'Occitane line. Within a year, the company's sales tripled.

After Baussan and I drive past one of his first factories, a small stone building he wants to turn into a museum where he can teach blind children about careers working with aromas, we arrive at the headquarters of L'Occitane. It's a seven-acre factory in which huge, airy spaces give way to small, sunny offices. Baussan stops in one to check out an idea for new packaging. He studies it—a naive sketch of the sun—shakes his head and says, "Have a child draw it."

Our next destination, Oliviers & Co.'s headquarters, is unmistakable because of its wood facade. Exteriors like this are unusual in France, but Baussan, who has an eye for design, wanted his factory to blend into the countryside. Here, he explains to me how L'Occitane led, indirectly, to the creation of Oliviers & Co.

On a trip to the West African nation Burkina Faso 21 years ago, Baussan visited a village cooperative for women who harvest the nut of the karite (shea) tree, the oils of which are used in beauty products. "The karite tree seemed to have the same importance for this part of Africa as the olive tree has for the Mediterranean," he says. "It feeds you. The butter you make from its nuts gives beauty." When Baussan returned to France, he asked a local photographer to document the life of an old man from Lurs, a village near Mane, who pressed olive oil. Six years later, after the man died, Baussan decided to continue the project. He asked 20 photographers each to spend a year shooting olive trees and their fruit, and he published the results in a book.

In 1993, Baussan opened a poetry bookstore with a friend, an American poet, on the Île St-Louis in Paris. (Selling part of L'Occitane to investors eight years earlier helped give Baussan the time and the means to, as he puts it, "reunite all his favorite poets on one shelf.") The bookshop was a cozy place where people were encouraged to sit and read. That was the problem, Baussan recalls. Lots of people came and read, but nobody bought anything. So Baussan, who had begun collecting artisanal olive oil, started putting bottles of oil on the shelves to sell with the books. Gradually, the bottles edged out the books. In 1996, he started Oliviers & Co.

The company now bottles and sells 22 different extra-virgin olive oils. Most come from France, Italy and Spain, but there are also oils from Greece, Uruguay and Lebanon. All are made by families or small cooperatives. All the suppliers must follow Baussan's exacting methods of cultivation and production, from the pruning of the trees (thinned so that "a bird could fly freely inside them," Baussan says) to the olive harvesting and pressing (within 24 hours of picking). "The oil," he says, "should be as pure as freshly squeezed orange juice. The minute it's exposed to air, it begins to deteriorate."

And each of these oils has a story. The Uruguayan oil, Los Ranchos, comes from a property that French immigrants planted with olive trees in the 1950s. A woman from Aix-en-Provence who knew nothing about olives inherited the estate and came to Baussan for advice. He and his team restructured the estate "from A to Z," Baussan says, and within two years they were bottling and selling olive oil from the estate. In Lebanon, Nayla Moawad, the widow of the assassinated president René Moawad, asked Baussan for help in modernizing the country's olive oil production as a way of honoring her husband's memory. A year and a half ago, Oliviers & Co. began selling high-quality extra-virgin olive oil under René Moawad's name, with the profits going to charity.

Baussan has also been collaborating with highly respected chefs. Jean-Marie Meulien, the former owner of the two-Michelin-starred L'Oasis in La Napoule, France, helps develop condiments and sauces for Oliviers & Co. Recently, spices such as Moroccan saffron and spreads like an artichoke-and-olive dip have been added to the line. With Pascal Rigo, of San Francisco's Chez Nous and Le Petit Robert, Baussan is working to bring his global vision of Mediterranean food to San Francisco and New York. Rigo oversees the menus at La Table O&CO in San Francisco and the new restaurant in New York City; dishes include a Provençal saffron-flavored fish soup with fennel and a North African—inspired dessert in which dates and figs are wrapped in flaky phyllo. Rigo devised recipes to complement the distinctive flavors of Oliviers & Co. oils: He tosses fingerling potatoes with rosemary and thyme, then roasts them in a mild olive oil like Oliviers & Co.'s Clemente. He also adds olive oil to a lemony cheesecake for a bit of fruitiness.

As night falls, Baussan and I head to Forcalquier, a town where he once sold flower essences at the market, to have dinner at a branch of La Table O&CO. The space, decorated with wood and iron, includes Baussan's own designs—an entire wall, for example, is given over to old granary-style drawers built to his specifications. The stainless steel sink Baussan created for the bathroom is so eye-catching that the British design guru Terence Conran asked for permission to copy it. (He didn't get it.)

I ask Baussan what his next project is. "My dream is to spend a year fishing in Corsica," he says, and to send his catch to Michelin-starred restaurants throughout France. Baussan recently bought a house in Corsica and a restored vintage fishing boat to replace the one he had to sell as a teen. Given his ability to make his own luck and his habit of succeeding, I won't be surprised if that dream turns into yet another profitable venture.

Jacqueline Friedrich, the author of A Wine and Food Guide to the Loire, splits her time between Paris and the Loire Valley.

Published April 2004
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