F&W Star Chef
Restaurant: Le Bernardin (NYC)
Background: La Tour d’Argent, Jamin (Paris); Jean-Louis Palladin (Washington, DC); Bouley (NYC)
Education: Le Moulin à-Vent (Perpignan, France)
You’ve worked for some incredible people. Can we go through the list and have you say a bit about what each one taught you?
Sure. So La Tour d’Argent, I went there when I was 17. I graduated from culinary school, and then I applied to all the best places in France. La Tour d’Argent was the only one who answered, so I started there in 1982. That was my first experience in a real upscale restaurant. I learned the basics of classic cuisine, and how to be a team player in a big brigade of cooks. Then when I wanted to go to another restaurant, the chef, Dominique Boucher, sent me to Joël Robuchon so I would have a great education. I was very lucky.
From Joël Robuchon, I learned precision, technique and rigor. I didn’t make [Robuchon’s famous] mashed potatoes, because I was the chef poissonière, so that wasn’t my job. I learned how to make the sauces. Robuchon was a very important part of my training as a chef.
Jean-Louis Palladin freed my mind and helped me to be creative. He said, “you are too stiff. You have to relax.” Before that, I was a good technician, but I was reproducing what other chefs asked me to do. With Palladin, at times it was a collaboration, but I got to weigh in on the menu.
Gilbert Le Coze taught me a lot about seafood, and how delicate it was, how to respect the product. And he taught me how to be a chef, which is very different than being a cook. Being a chef is being in a position of leadership, with the responsibility of the finances of the kitchen and of maintaining a team. In the beginning, I made many mistakes, but he always supported me, so I learned from my mistakes. Thanks to him I became the chef I am today, someone who can keep a team together and motivate them, make them passionate about the craft.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
I was probably very young, maybe like 10 years old. I think it was pastry, like for apple tarts—pâte brisée, not pâte feuilletée. By the time I was 14, I was making puff pastry! But probably my first dishes were not savory, they were sweet. As a young kid I had a sweet tooth, and I was basically cooking for myself.
And what is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
I think soups are a good beginning. They’re pretty forgiving. You don’t have to be so precise, you can learn the craftsmanship, and seasoning, and have good results. Especially in winter, soups are a good training ground.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
I collect them. I have maybe 600, so I cannot say one is more than another. The first one that had a huge impact on me was Paul Bocuse’s La Cuisine du Marché. Paul Bocuse was very visible in France when I was starting, and inspired a lot of young people, and people who love to eat. He was a great ambassador of what a chef should be. I was very inspired by his persona. When his books came out, I read them way too much. I didn’t study in school, which is why I ended up in the kitchen!
What was the name of your culinary school?
Le Moulin à Vent, in Perpignan, in France. I enrolled when I was 15 years old and graduated when I was 17. It was an interesting school—it had a culinary school, nursing school and a hairdressing school. Boys were in the minority. It was hard to study.
Name two or three dishes that define who you are.
Because my life as a professional really started to be visible at Le Bernardin, I’ll choose a couple of dishes from Le Bernardin. The first dish that I really wanted to put on the menu was a seared red snapper with crunchy skin, on a bed of porcini with a sauce, a reduction of sherry vinegar and port wine. I loved that dish, and Gilbert Le Coze liked it a lot. But [Gilbert’s sister and Le Bernardin co-owner] Maguy le Coze didn’t like it. She didn’t want to put it on the menu. But I harassed her for a couple of weeks. At the end, she gave up. And it became a strong signature at Le Bernardin at the time. It went on in 1991. I was very happy to get it on the menu. She was very fair—she said congratulations.
When my grandmother passed away about ten years ago, I wanted to pay homage to her. I remembered when I was a young kid and she would make croques-monsieurs for me; I would eat them by the dozen. So I created a croquet-monsieur, but instead of ham and Swiss cheese, I put smoked salmon and caviar. Again, Maguy le Coze thought it was delicious, but preferred it as a canapé, not an appetizer. I said no, I think it’s strong enough to become an appetizer. Sure enough, it became a huge success.
The last one, about six or seven years ago I went to Scandinavia and had seared venison on top of foie gras. The meat was very rare. I had a flash and thought right away of a carpaccio of tuna on foie gras on top of toasted baguette, for the crunch. That became such a strong signature dish that we never took it off. It’s the only dish that we have never taken off the menu.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
You have to have a good palate and good craftsmanship, discipline and a sense of hospitality. You have to be hard-working, humble, clean and a team player.
One technique everyone should know.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Pastry. I’m a lousy pastry chef. I can eat a lot of them, but I cannot make them, that’s for sure.
What is your current food obsession?
I’m pretty lucky that I can eat basically anything that I want. But every day I eat some dark chocolate.
What are your talents besides cooking?
I like skiing, music, reading, and I meditate every morning.
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
I don’t really have one. If I have salt, pepper and good-quality ingredients, I’m going to do something good.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years? Why?
You know, it’s funny because each time someone predicts something, it never happens. I will say, every year when it’s the fall, we will be talking about white and black truffles. That is guaranteed.
What's the best house cocktail, wine, beer and why?
I don’t drink many cocktails; they’re not really my cup of tea. However, I like negronis—they give you a buzz very quickly. And I guess that’s the idea of a cocktail. For wine, I love to drink red Bordeaux. When they are at their best, nothing competes with them. Obviously it’s technique, but it’s also about the terroir. Some have a lot of Merlot, others have a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, but at the end of the day, those wines are extremely harmonious and powerful, and I like them very much.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
I’d take a box of eggs, and some truffles, and maybe a baguette and a bit of butter. I’d make truffled scrambled eggs, and I think I’d be fine.
What's your favorite food letter of the alphabet (c = carrot, curry, cauliflower, etc.)? What do you love about that food?
Well, I’m going to be repetitive, but I go back to T for truffles. I love that no two truffles taste exactly the same. I also love the mystical aspect: We’ve started to cultivate them somewhat successfully, but they’re still a mystery. And I really enjoy the flavor in food. As a chef, to cook with black truffles, it’s a fantastic experience. As a gourmet, it’s also amazing to have this kind of umami or earthy flavor. They have this refined combination of earth and foliage and mushroom‚ and none taste exactly the same, ever.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Usually it’s late at night, and it’s some spicy aged chorizo.
If you could only take Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, whom would you take and where would you take them?
Anthony is disqualified, because we spend too much time together! I don’t see Thomas much because he’s in California, so maybe I’d take Thomas. With him, I’d want to go eat Japanese: Japanese is refined, and I think Thomas is refined and his food as well. I’d go for Korean if I was with Mario. It’s convivial, family-style, which fits Mario’s personality more. I also think Korean is closer to Italian food than French. And to me, Japanese is more like French than Korean or Italian.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
1. Mugaritz, because I have never been, and they’re getting a lot of accolades.
2. I would like to go back to Masa, because I’m addicted to it.
3. Joël Robuchon at The Mansion in Vegas, because I’ve never been, and he’s my mentor.
Five people to follow on twitter, instagram, pinterest, facebook.
1. I follow Anthony Bourdain (@bourdain);
2. All the employees from Le Bernardin that I know tweet, so I know what they’re saying!
3. And I follow my wife for the same reason. (@Sandraripert)
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip – where would you go and why?
I love Asian street food. Singapore’s is very diverse, and it’s all over the city so it’s easy to go there and find very inexpensive options. Hong Kong as well. I just got back from Korea and had great food there, especially the fish markets. I was in Seoul, and then Busan in the south. Busan had an amazing fish market. They have live fish that you choose. They whack it and cook it in front of you. I went to Korea for fun, but fun is also research and working, because you get inspired.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
Usually I bring back food, and by the time I get out of the plane, it’s gone.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
I would like to open a restaurant that’s a little bit like a traveling circus. We’d do a pop-up one night in one city, go on to another city and do another pop-up, and do a world tour like that. We would cook from local ingredients and what inspired us. I could go West and do an entire U.S. tour, then to Asia, the Middle East, then to Europe, and back home.