Interview with Chef & Author Alain Braux
I am very excited to share this interview with Chef Alain Braux. Chef Braux grew up in France, where he learned to cook in some of the most famous French establishments next to some of the greatest French chefs of our time. He came to America to work in some great New York restaurants and now lives in Austin, Texas, where he works as Executive Chef and Nutritherapist at Peoples Pharmacy and writes books about French Food and Nutrition.
Since interviewing Chef Braux, I've learned he has recently published a new cookbook, Paleo French Cuisine: A Paleo Practical Guide with Recipes, now available at Amazon. In his new book, Chef applies his knowledge of French cuisine and nutrition to the popular Paleo diet, which is "based upon eating wholesome, contemporary foods from the food groups that our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have thrived on during the Paleolithic era, or Stone Age." I'm looking forward to getting it and doing a follow-up with Alain.
Hi Alain, let me start by thanking you for doing this interview with me. I think my readers are going to enjoy meeting you and learning about your new ebook, Healthy French Cuisine For Less Than $10 A Day, as well as your other books, including How to Lower your Cholesterol with French Gourmet Food and Living Gluten and Dairy-Free with French Gourmet Food. Let's start by learning more about you, how you became involved with cooking, and the healthy side of cuisine.
How far back do you think I should go? I am (almost) an old man by now. Let me check with my few remaining brain cells… I’m back. I started in the food business as a pastry apprentice at Auer in Nice, France, and worked in various kitchen positions over the years all over France and in Belgium for three years.
I was offered a pastry chef position in New York City and accepted it. Every French kid wants to discover America. From then on, I worked my way up the ladder in Houston, TX, Sarasota, FL, and Austin, TX. Then, my wife and I opened our French Bakery and Café in Austin, TX, and had it for about ten years but had to close it in 1997.
Right around that time, I became interested in the effect of food on one’s health and thought it would be neat to combine my experience as a French chef and my newfound passion for nutrition. I studied Macrobiotics, then Holistic Nutrition, and finally found a job as an Executive Chef and Nutrition Therapist (Nutritherapist) at Peoples Pharmacy in Austin, TX. I specialize in allergen-free food and desserts: gluten-free, dairy-free, and sugar-free. I also offer private consultations to people with assorted food allergies.
About four years ago, I wanted to share my experience with high cholesterol with the general public and wrote and self-published my first book, How to Lower Your Cholesterol with French Gourmet Food. It sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s based on the Mediterranean diet.
Since then, I have published Living Gluten and Dairy-Free with French Gourmet Food, Healthy French Cuisine for Less Than $10/Day, and the most recent one mentioned above, Paleo French Cuisine.
I know you were classically trained in French cuisine, but can you tell us more about your training - where were you trained, how many years, how old were you….that sort of information?
Wow! How many pages do I have? I love name-dropping, but I might be challenging to follow unless you know French cuisine and its chefs. Then again, there is always Google and Wikipedia, right? I’ll mention the most famous.
Here it goes:
- Apprenticeship at Auer, in Nice, France;
- Grand Hotel du Cap d’Antibes near Cannes, France. Assistant pastry chef
- Moulin de Mougins, Mougins, France with chef Roger Verger. First assistant pastry chef.
- Wittamer, Bruxelles, Belguim. Assistant pastry chef.
- Lenotre, Paris, France. Assistant pastry chef.
- Hotel Negresco, Nice, France, with chef Jacques Maximin. Pastry chef.
- Dumas Pastry Shop, New York. Pastry chef
- Delices la Cote Basque, New York, NY. Pastry chef
- Lenotre Paris Inc. in Houston. Pastry chef
- Lenotre Culinary Institute.
- Amandine French Bakery in Austin.
- Chef /owner of a restaurant in Austin. Closed.
- Peoples Pharmacy in Austin, TX, Executive Chef and Nutritherapist.
What was it like to work at some of the finest French restaurants like Le Grand Hotel du Cap near Cannes d'Antibes and l'Hotel Negresco in Nice
I learned a lot, but it was intense as it tends to be in high caliber cuisines. Superb quality, long hours, and all the excitement of working with famous chefs. This is where I learned my trade and my skills as a pastry chef. I became interested in food much later.
I noticed in your bio you worked in several pastry shops. Have you spent most of your career as a baker/pastry chef, or did you work in all the areas of the kitchen?
I started as a pastry apprentice, pastry assistant, and pastry chef. Meanwhile, I was offered the opportunity to peek and assist in the kitchen occasionally. When I opened my own business, I became more involved in the cooking side of the business.
What did you find most challenging as a young cook learning your trade?
It was not easy initially as I was more of a cerebral geek than a manual worker. Wanting to understand the why of everything, I questioned everything. That got me into a lot of trouble at times. But that was how I learned. I have always been a perfectionist and loved challenges, so I eventually got down to business and worked very hard to be one of the best in my trade.
Coming to America
When did you come to the United States to start your American culinary career, and what brought you here?
In 1979. I was offered a job as a pastry chef at Dumas Pastry Shop in New York, NY. How exciting for a French kid!
Again, I read in your bio you eventually moved to Austin, Texas, after living and working in New York City. In Austin, you worked with Judy Willcott at Texas French Bread, started your bakery, and taught Pastry and Baking Arts at the Culinary Academy of Austin. Wow, that's a lot of experience!
Yes, I get bored easily and need to constantly learn from different chefs. I settled only when I opened my own business in Austin.
What was it like to go from working in a kitchen to teaching young students the skills they would need to start their careers?
I love teaching to people eager to learn my trade. At the time, I was old enough to want to pass along my knowledge and experience to the younger generation. As a chef-instructor, I was demanding but they all came out much better for the natural and tough world of real kitchen work. Some of my ex-students are executive chefs or owners and some dropped out all together. Too harsh for them.
What advice would you give someone interested in going to culinary school to learn how to cook or become a pastry chef?
Honestly, the first thing I tell prospective culinary students is to try to find an on-the-job apprenticeship with a good chef. That’s the best and only way to learn to work in a real kitchen. The advantage is that you get paid (a little, but who cares? Most likely, they’re living with their parents) and will not have a tremendous student bill to pay off on a meager salary once you get out of school.
Besides, if you do a good job, you could move up and get paid higher and faster in your apprenticeship position. But there is no secret: you will have to start at the bottom and prove your worth to your chef before he can trust you. It’s pretty much how it is when you come out of culinary school, anyway. So why not skip the big loan and get started that way?
After that, with your chef’s blessing, I recommend you work at other restaurants or hotels to learn all sides of the business before you can even call yourself a chef. This is no Food Network. Real life in the kitchen is no picnic, and if you do not have food coursing through your blood, you will not last long… which is OK since you will not have the student loans on your back. You’re free to try something else quickly. Most likely, you will know very early on if you can hack it or not. Your chef will not waste time with you and will let you know. I had to do the same to a couple of wide-eyed folks that believe everything they saw on TV, and they came back to thank me.
Let's talk a bit about your background in nutrition. You were classically trained as a French chef, and yes, there is a correlation between diet and health, but you took that to a whole new level. How did you get involved with nutrition?
As I explained earlier, while I owned my own business, I was asked by two of my assistants to create vegetarian dishes. In France, there is no such thing as vegetarian, vegan, and all this complicated stuff. There’s food, and that’s it. No partitions, no complications. You eat everything on your plate. I did as they asked and eventually started to wonder about the effect of food on one’s health. The good and the bad. That’s how it all started, and I never stopped since. It is my current passion.
It says in your book that you are a nutritherapist . I have heard of nutritionists but what is a nutritherapist ? Can you explain the difference?
Nutritherapist is a European term – used mainly in England, Scotland and Ireland - describing people like me that use food and food only as a healing medium. I do not work with supplements unless they are from a food source. Typically, nutritionists work with supplements and herbs. Some of them work with food, but very few. “Let food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be thy food” is an adage I firmly believe in.
Healthy French Cuisine for Less Than $10 a Day
Let's discuss your book Healthy French Cuisine for Less Than $10 A Day. I'm sure I'm not the only one who is a little surprised to read that you can prepare and serve delicious French food that is not only good for you but for less than $10 a day. How is this possible?
It came out of a self-imposed challenge (I told you, I like challenges). A few of my private clients complained that it was too expensive to eat healthy food. So I set out to prove them it was possible. You will notice that, in the book, all recipes are costed out per serving and I offer seasonal weekly menus that come out to be less than $10/day at the end of the week.
It’s all about how you shop, where you shop, when you shop. I also offer practical tips and tricks and tasty yet reasonably-priced recipes. Don’t expect filet mignon on that budget but you will still be able to eat meat, just not as often. I even give you a few tips on how to grow your own garden. You get a complete shopping guide according to season and guidance on what to buy, quality and quantity.
Can you offer a couple of examples of what we'll find in your book showing us how to do that?
Here is one about portion control:
Portion Control: Size IS Everything
Let me address a pet peeve of mine: food portion size. Sorry everybody. I know you have been indoctrinated to believe that bigger is better, but in this case, bigger is only going to do one thing: make YOU bigger. You need to learn to not pile food high on your plate.
Portion control is very important for the proper functioning of your body. When you eat too much, you tax your digestive system and make it work overtime. That’s probably why you feel sleepy after lunch or dinner. Your body is taking the energy needed to digest that big plate of food away from other bodily functions. Not to mention that you may have to deal with an upset stomach and acid reflux if you keep abusing your digestive system. So please, be kind to yourself and learn to eat less food per meal.
What is most important to understand is that quality always trumps quantity. What I would like to see you do is eat a smaller amount of better quality food, loaded with fresh vitamins, minerals and fiber, so that your body gets the proper fuel to operate at its peak. If you eat a large amount of bad quality food, not only will you strain your digestive system, you will probably feel hungry again in a couple of hours.
Why? Because you fed your body with empty calories, devoid of real nutrition. Naturally your body will ask for more! You filled it, but you did not feed it. It’s like trying to run your car on watered-down gasoline. Eventually your car will start to slow down, have problems and break down. Your body is like your car. If you feed it the right quality of fuel, it will function a lot more smoothly and you will stay healthy.
Isn’t your health worth the extra effort?
In your book you talk about "The Cost of Not Eating in Season". This chapter makes a lot of sense to me. Can you give my readers a few highlights so they understand what you mean by the title.
The Real Cost of Food
Being able to buy any food at any time of the year does not mean it does not cost us. For example, there is the cost of shipping that food to your grocery store. Do you really believe that all that supposedly cheap food is really cheap in the long run? Granted, labor and production costs might be lower in other countries, but what about the shipping cost and the added energy cost and the damage caused to our environment? Wouldn’t you rather eat a fresh apple picked nearby than an apple picked in New Zealand weeks before it reached you?
Eat Local Food
Eating seasonally allows us to eat a wider variety of foods at their peak of freshness, flavor and goodness. Wherever we live, our bodies are adapted to the local living conditions. So is our food. Eating tropical food–created to keep you cool in hot temperatures--is not appropriate if we live in the Antarctic.
On the other hand, the Inuit people, who lived mainly off local fish and seal blubber–foods considered to be fattening to us–used to lead a healthy life, well adapted to their environment, even though they do not eat vegetables or fruits. Wonderfully strange, isn’t it?
When the Western diet of canned and refined foods caught up with them, they started to experience the same illnesses we experience in Western societies. Dr. Weston A. Price proved that traditional local diets were perfectly adapted to their environment no matter what these different tribes or groups ate. It was only when refined food was introduced to their way of life that their overall health started to deteriorate. So, not only should your diet be adapted to the environment you live in, eating the foods that grow in your region, but you should also follow the seasons and be in harmony with your surrounding natural habitat.
A lot of people reading this interview are saying to themselves, "Healthy food that tastes great. How can that be?" What would you say to these people?
It seems to be a standard assumption in America that healthy food should taste dull and boring. Why? Because it used to be the case that doctors (which by the way know nothing about healthy and tasty food) would put you on a diet with no salt, no fat or no carbs. Well, those days are over.
Refined salt can be replaced by sea salt, and herbs, fresh or dried. Bad fat (hydrogenated fat or damaged oils) can be replaced by good fat – yes, good fat and bad quality carbs (refined flours and sugar for example) can be easily replaced by good quality fiber-full carbs.
Given this, I never claim in my book that it is a diet – although if you follow it, you might lose weight – but that is not the intent. The important part for me is to eat good quality and fresh food that tastes great and your body will be so happy, it will shrink by itself. Doesn’t that sound like fun? After all, how worthy would life be if you did not enjoy your food? Isn’t it one of our basic pleasures in life? Youor I should not obsess about food. Love it, embrace it, and enjoy it with pleasure… but always in moderation.
Is there a recipe from the book that I can share with my readers that offers an example of how they can eat incredible French food that's not only healthy but costs less than $10 to make?
Actually, if you remember it’s $10 a day but yes, I’ll give you one that most people will never believe has a reasonable cost. It’s even gluten and dairy-free and no one will know the difference. Add to that steamed haricots verts in vinaigrette and voila, a meal for about a couple of dollars per serving.
How to Lower Your Cholesterol with French Gourmet Food
Can we talk about your previous book, How to Lower your Cholesterol with French Gourmet Food? This book really caught my eye because my cholesterol is a little high and my doctor and I have been treating it with drugs that I would prefer not to be taking. Is it really possible to lower your cholesterol with "French Gourmet Food"?
I guess, if you follow my guidance in the book, it is possible. My challenge was that I wanted to lower my cholesterol without using statin drugs with their deplorable side effects. I knew it could be done but I had to prove it to myself and eventually to the rest of the world. Why not lower your cholesterol while still enjoying your life and food.
Since I come from the South of France, I used the Mediterranean diet as a guide and set out to do it. I dropped my cholesterol by 35 points in one year while eating delectable food. What’s not to like? By the way, I have the lab results to prove it if you need them.
By the way, why is Mediterranean food healthy? Because it uses lots of fish, not so much meat (besides lamb and goat once in a while), olives and olive oil instead of butter, goat milk instead of cow’s milk, lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and nuts with healthy fats: pine nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts and typically low-carbs (some rice but not much potatoes). All of these ingredients have been proven over and over again to be good for one’s health. So enjoy!
Chef, I think many of us have our own idea of what "gourmet" food is, but I would love to know your definition of "gourmet" food.
Unfortunately, a lot of people are still stuck with the antiquated vision of old French cooking loaded with heavy sauce and rich meals overflowing on large portions of overcooked meats. Yuk!
Since the 60s, a “nouvelle vague” (new wave) of young French chefs came out with the concept Nouvelle Cuisine (new cuisine) or Cuisine du Marché (market’s cuisine) as well as Cuisine Minceur (slim cuisine). I am talking about Michel Guerard, Roger Verge, Paul Bocuse and Gaston Lenotre, some of which I worked for in my early years.
The concept is quite simple really. Go to the market daily, buy freshly picked food at the peak of their flavor and cook them lightly, respecting their flavorful qualities without overwhelming them with heavy sauce. Instead they created light sauces, vinaigrettes, and flavorful “au jus” sauces.
The same goes for grass-fed or pasture-raised beef, pigs, lamb and fowl. Nothing that impressive nowedays but at the time, it was a revolution. I remember the old guard screaming murder at the “audace” of these young punks. Unfortunately, it took about 20-30 years for this concept to arrive on these shores.
I am just following in their “avant-garde” footsteps. I just hope I do not disrespect their intent. Actually, I would not dare. They might come at night and pull my toes while I’m sleeping. I just added particular attention to the nutritional aspect of these recipes.
How to Lower Your Cholesterol with French Gourmet Food is way more than cookbook with a bunch of recipes. It does have great recipes but it also offers tons of information about cholesterol including what it is and how to control it. Can you tell us a little about why you wrote this book and what we should expect to get from it?
I see it as my mission to educate American people in the pleasure of food without the guilt. It must be the Puritan in every American that does not allow them to enjoy their food without the automatic guilt that comes with it. In Europe, especially in Latin countries, we LOVE and enjoy food the way it should be. All fun, no guilt. Life is too short to feel bad about the food you eat. “Stop and smell the roast”, that what I say.
Besides someone who is interested in lowering their cholesterol by diet, who else can benefit from reading this book?
It’s also a good general guide on how to eat healthy. There is a lot of information about the benefit of each food known to lower cholesterol with recipes to confirm that. I help you understand the difference between good and bad fats and good and bad sweeteners. I also teach you healthy cooking methods and offer a meal plan for the whole week.
Is there a recipe from the book you can share with readers that is a good example of French food that is not only healthy but can help in lowering my cholesterol?
Filets Mignons d’Agneau aux Épinards et Légumes Frais or Filets Mignon of Lamb with Sautéed Spinach and Spring Vegetables (I'll post this recipe later in the week)
Besides buying Health French Cuisine for Less Than $10 A Day A Day and How to Lower Your Cholesterol with French Gourmet Food, what advice would you give home cooks to help them understand the importance of making good choices when planning your daily meals.
- A lot of it is planning. You cannot shop in a rush and without some kind of pre-planning. If possible, I recommend you sit down at your kitchen table Saturday morning after a good night rest and before going to the farmers’ market or store and pick one good recipe per day.
- Start with simple recipes with a few ingredients only or you will be overwhelmed.
- Keep in mind to shop with the season. It helps if you ask your local farmer what’s in season the week before so you know what recipes to pick and buy at the best price and at the peak of freshness. Prepare your weekly menu based on that and go on your happy shopping.
- Avoid processed and packaged food as much as possible. Those are heath killers and they cost a lot.
- When you get home, spend a little time cleaning and prepping your food and take a nap.
- If your choices are simple, you can cook them in less than an hour when you get home during the week. Or you could prepare a couple of meals in advance and portion them for the week to come.
Thanks so much for this interview and helping me understand the concept behind your new book. I can't wait to put your ideas into practice and make my doctor happy. I look forward to more conversations like this in the future.
You’re very welcome. I’m glad to help. It’s always a pleasure to speak to someone as enthusiastic about food as you are. Remember, it does not have to be complicated. Use the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Silly! And for food’s sake enjoy the process. Bon Appetit y’all!
Chef Alain Braux