Q: What chefs inspire you?
A: My favorite chef would be my mother because she taught me how to cook. I would say the people who have trained me inspire me because they got me where I am now, such as Chef Aaron Lemieux who is now running our newer locations — Michael’s on the Alley, the Victor Social Club and Vincent Chicco’s. He actually gave me life in cooking. He inspired me to be more mindful of the essence of cooking.
Q: What is the essence of cooking?
A: The essence of cooking is taking something that is traditional and adding in your spin. I do a lot of that with my family-oriented dishes. So we take a lot of French cuisine and mix with the flair of Southern cooking.
Q: What would your dream meal be?
A: Hopefully, I wouldn’t have to do it myself; I would have the perfect chef cooking it for me. I’m very simple when it comes to eating. I love beef — all types, every cut of the cow. My wife has recently made me eat pork more. I guess it would have to be something coming off the grill, cooked very rare, maybe some seafood mixed in there as well, then a starchy vegetable.
Q: What was your first job in the restaurant industry?
A: A busboy. I was in Philadelphia, working for a small restaurant, the Little Inn. They did more banquets than restaurant food. I got my start there, watching those guys pump out American-themed dishes. I just bussed the tables and ran the food back and forth, but that’s where I did start to get my inspiration.
I was interviewing for Johnson & Wales and we had to construct a dish that we would want to send for the application. The guys at the Little Inn gave me a few pointers on the basics, like the mother sauce. They groomed me. I was in the last class to graduate from the Johnson & Wales in Charleston.
Q: What really drives your cooking?
A: It’s kind of freestylish. I see product in the cooler and I’m saying, “Where can I take this? What have I done recently that I can put another spin on?” It’s reduce, reuse and recycle, making sure that there is something new on the menu, but something traditional as well.
As a French restaurant, you will always see the duck fat, the foie gras and French herbs and Provencal-style cooking. The main ingredient that you will find in most of our foods is bacon fat. It’s just so accessible because we render so much of it. We make our own bacon, make our own pork belly.
Q: What’s the difference between pork belly and bacon?
A: Pork belly is the original piece. Once you get the slab, it’s 6 inches by 4 inches before you begin to slice it. What we do here is a three-day process: the first day being a cure of salt and sugar; second day being a cure of brown sugar and salt; third day being a cure of smoked paprika, brown sugar and salt. Then we smoke it and slice it.
Q: What are five ingredients that are always in your refrigerator?
A: Beer, red and white wine, butter, some kind of beef, eggs.
Q: What’s your best tip for the home gourmet?
A: Patience is the key. Traditionally, a lot of sauces were created overnight because they didn’t have the proper cooking capability. A sauce changes every 15 minutes — the color, the temperature, the flavor, the viscosity — all those things change throughout the cooking time. For that flavor to be concentrated very well, you need patience to let it slowly cook down to get the effect that you want from the sauce. Whether it be a tang, a spice, a sweetness, you always want to reduce down to get to the point. Demi glace is the perfect explanation of that. Time, time, time.
Q: What is the biggest mistake or the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done in a kitchen?
A: This is probably a lame answer, but cutting myself. I mean, I actually cut myself last week and it had been four years, and I am looking around to make sure no one saw it and I’m like, “Did I really just cut myself?” It’s just not paying attention. That is one of my pet peeves. I’m constantly asking people, “What are you doing? Pay attention.” And it was me that did it. That’s embarrassing for me. But it happens.
Q: What can people who come to 39 Rue de Jean expect new on the menu in the next year?
A: We just wrote out a new menu. We will change things quarterly. We pride ourselves on the things that we have done from day one, the mussels and frites, and our six preparations of mussels. The frites are a 45-minute process just to get right. We create a special type of salt and sugar that we mix on the fries. Braised items. Those are a two-day, sometimes three-day, process. Expect that you’ll come into this place and it will be consistently good, consistently flavorful, consistently bring you back. We pride ourselves on consistency.
Q: What is the most interesting combination you’ve come up with?
A: Making a roux. Roux are traditionally butter and flour, but there is bacon fat in my kitchen, so substituting bacon fat for the butter, so it gives it a smoky flavor from our bacon as well. And you’re actually still getting your thickening agent.
Q: What would your restaurant be like if you owned one?
A: Family-oriented, recipes that my family has perfected over time. That’s what I want to open up my place with. Obviously, we would have staples of things that people enjoy. Charleston has shrimp and grits; we would have shrimp and grits. You’ve got to do that, but do it with your own variation, whether it be the gravy, the type of shrimp or the grits that you get. It would be a lot of French influence, Southern-French and eclectic American as well. We will sell the burgers, fish & chips, but also candied sweet potatoes, a lot of things like that. Maybe call it TASTE.