July 4th meets Bastille Day when the very French chef Christophe Emé and his American fiancée, actress Jeri Ryan, celebrate at their house in L.A.
Christophe Emé, an F&W best new chef 2005, is one of Los Angeles's most talented and influential young chefs. He's done quite well in his love life, too. He recently became engaged to Jeri Ryan, an actress who has been on Star Trek: Voyager, Boston Public and The O.C., and whose latest project is a pilot for a TV courtroom drama called Shark, with James Woods. Ryan still seems both charmed and astonished as she recalls one night when they met up at the L.A. restaurant L'Orangerie, where he was then working. "Christophe put this pan full of cooked white beans in front of me—a pan full of white beans! And he had me sort them, one by one."
Since that evening in 2003, Ryan and Emé have gone on to open a restaurant together, Ortolan, in 2005. Emé, who grew up in the Loire valley in France and trained with Michelin-starred chefs Marc Veyrat, Michel Rostang, Joël Robuchon and Philippe Legendre, creates lush and beautiful cuisine with a down-to-earth, rustic side. For instance, he sears small Napa Valley escargots with tomatoes, red and green peppers and chorizo to produce an intensely flavorful ratatouille-like dish. On his tasting menu, he serves a spectacularly tasty and simple dish made from a single egg encased in dough and cooked briefly in hot ash, then topped with vanilla-infused whipped cream and caviar.
Ryan, who spent much of her childhood in Paducah, Kentucky, and has lived all over the United States, helped create Ortolan's country-chic look. The floor is made of vintage wood planks that she discovered in a Pennsylvania barn—a striking contrast to the dining room's gorgeous crystal chandeliers and cream-colored leather banquettes. Along one wall is a vertical herb garden that reaches to the ceiling.
The couple recently decided to bring together some of their favorite summer dishes at a party they threw to celebrate their countries' back-to-back Independence Day holidays: the Fourth of July followed, 10 days later, by Bastille Day. Ryan's mother and father came from their house nearby, and Emé's parents flew to L.A. from the Loire valley. The guests gathered around a table on the couple's lawn, which Ryan had set with mismatched china and country linens; in addition to two wooden urns overflowing with flowers, she used as a centerpiece a huge glass jar filled with balls of goat cheese marinating in olive oil with baby artichokes, black olives and cherry tomatoes.
In a tribute to a salad his mother used to prepare in summer, Emé tossed haricots verts and arugula with quail eggs and shrimp in a tart sherry-Dijon vinaigrette. Ryan made a spicy corn salad with tomatoes, chiles, arugula and a shallot-thyme vinaigrette. Even though Ryan loves to cook—she had dreamed of opening a restaurant long before she met Emé, and worked briefly in a professional kitchen—Emé likes to tease her. What's corn doing in the salad? he asked her. In France, he says, "corn is for cows."
While Ryan served the salads, Emé made sandwiches inspired by ingredients from the south of France: He piled baguettes with thick layers of roasted and marinated red peppers, tangy tapenade and anchovies, then wrapped them in parchment paper and tied them with little cotton strings. Ryan then prepared the entrée she had created in honor of one of her favorite American classics: steak. She crusted a whole beef tenderloin in thyme, rosemary, marjoram, garlic and salt then grilled the meat until it was medium-rare.
As the guests ate, Emé reminisced about the food he grew up with in France, and his mother's wonderful cooking. She used to raise vegetables, ducks, chickens and rabbits in their backyard, so the ingredients she brought into the kitchen were always superfresh. "Want a chicken? My mother killed a chicken. Want a rabbit? My mother killed a rabbit," he said. The rabbits would go into a lovely braise, along with summer savory, white wine and mustard.
Ryan talked about the American foods of her childhood: "Very simple things, like corn on the cob, steak, macaroni salad." At the mention of corn, Emé again rolled his eyes, and when Ryan described her love of macaroni salad, the pair came to mock blows. "It's not exactly his favorite," Ryan said, smiling as she grabbed his hands.
Finally, the couple brought out the desserts. Emé had prepared a glorious fraisier, a French classic made with layers of strawberries, cake and vanilla cream, all topped with a thin sheet of almond paste. And Ryan served blueberry-raspberry tarts, the first thing she had learned to bake with her mother.
Later, as fireworks lit up the canyons and freeways of the city and Emé's father slowly pedaled a bicycle around the tree-lined driveway, Ryan and Emé discussed their wedding plans. The ceremony will take place next year in France and include many of the couple's favorite foods. Just maybe not corn.
Amy Scattergood is a poet who frequently writes about food for the Los Angeles Times.
Ortolan, 8338 W. Third St., Los Angeles; 323-653-3300.