"We cannot expect them to be a chef, we have to teach them to become a chef." - Bertrand Chemel
I am very excited to introduce Chef Bertrand Chemel to the Reluctant Gourmet Novice2Pro Chef Interviews. For those of you who are restaurant fans, you will remember Chef Chemel at Café Boulud in New York City where he worked with Daniel Boulud for 7 years. He recently left New York and is now the Executive Chef of 2941 Restaurant in Falls Church, VA.
Chef Chemel is a native of the Auvergne region of France where he began his culinary training at a very young age. He has worked in some of the finest kitchens around the globe including France, London, New York and now Virginia.
He worked in New York as a line cook at Daniel Boulud's Daniel and was soon promoted to sous chef. He then became Executive Chef at the legendary Café Boulud.
Chef, When did you realize you wanted to be a professional chef?
I actually realized I wanted to become a chef when I was 16 years old, or actually, when I was 14 years old. I was on a spring break from school, from July to August, and I was living next door to a bakery. During the summer, I used to work for the bakery, just to help out and make a little bit of spending money for my months of vacation.
Later, at 16 years old, I became even more interested in the food industry. I was unsure whether I wanted to become a chef or a baker at the time, but I was very dedicated, and told my parents that I wanted to drop out of school, to which they responded that I needed to learn a good trade if I wanted to do so.
I found at that point that I wanted to work in a restaurant. I started working in my own town, in a country-style restaurant, which I loved, and that’s how it all started.
Where did you learn your craft and what was that experience like?
The person who really helped me refine my craft was Michel Gaudin, a big chef in the seventies and eighties. He owns a restaurant in the mountains between France and Switzerland. I worked with him for four years and he taught me a lot about gastronomie cooking.
We used to work from November through April relentlessly, every day because it was the ski season. Michel used to send me to all his gastronome friends, in Switzerland and France, which really helped to open my mind and develop my talent.
You have worked with many graduates of American culinary schools. I'm wondering if you see any differences in the education you received in France from what these graduates bring to the kitchen?
Well it’s very difficult to compare because I’m pretty sure now the young generation in France, the mentality has changed a lot. Before, when I started working, we used to work 16 to 18 hours a day. Now, it’s not exactly like that anymore. The only difference I would say, in France, they used to have a program where they would have a week of school and three weeks in the restaurant, which I thought was a very good program.
Here in the US, it’s not exactly like that. I think now there is a lot of pressure on young students to aim to become a star, a celebrity chef, before they have really learned how to cook.
As the Chef de Cuisine at Café Boulud, what were you looking for when hiring graduates from culinary school?
I worked a lot with both the French Culinarian Institute and the CIA, whose programs are very interesting and honed the skills of several remarkable students. I used to ask ten students or so to undergo a trial period, where they had to show up at 12pm for two to three days at Café Boulud, and it was like a little competition, where at the end I would choose the best candidate. You could really tell who was eager to learn and who was only interested in a job.
Are there specific traits that are essential?
No not really – this trial period was essentially a way to gauge the attitude, see how they respond to what we ask them to do. We cannot expect them to be a chef, we have to teach them to become a chef. I always care about the right mentality and the cleanliness. Then after, my role is to teach them how to cook.
So based on your years of experience, what would you say to a high- school student thinking of becoming a professional cook? What advice would you give him or her?
Well, the main advice I would give the student is to be dedicated and love what he or she is doing. He or she needs to have a willingness to learn and lots of passion. You can’t be in this business simply because you are looking for a job.
As a chef, you work hard to refine your craft and, while you may not necessarily be in school for as long as a doctor or a lawyer, you definitely need to work as hard in order to become successful. It’s similar to the situation of a painter or an artist; they work very long hours to perfect their talent and their art.
I think this is the problem with the new generation – they are often disillusioned regarding the amount of effort, passion, patience and dedication that are needed to become successful. Cooking, and becoming good at it, takes time. If you are passionate about what you do however, you won’t feel the hours that you put into developing your craft – it’s hard to explain, but you get a great sense of fulfillment and happiness as a result.
Now you are the Executive Chef at 2941 Restaurant in Falls Church, VA. What is the difference between your former role at Café Boulud and your current role at 2941 Restaurant?
Daniel Boulud gave me a lot of freedom – I worked with him for seven years, so after a couple of years I had the liberty to build the menu and do pretty much whatever what I wanted to do. We had a very good relationship, Daniel and I.
Now the excitement comes with the fact that I have to think things through completely on my own. In the past, for a holiday promotion for instance, Daniel would always come and change a couple of things to try to make it better, whereas now I have full responsibility for what we do in the kitchen, I’m the one who has to come up with those changes that will make our promotions better.
I loved working with Daniel, he was a very good teacher and I learned a lot from him. If I become successful with 2941 in the future, it will be thanks to him.
Was it a difficult transition?
Difficult no, interesting, yes – it’s not easy to leave a restaurant where you worked for seven years and go to another restaurant when there is some uncertainty and you have to assume a lot more responsibility. I wanted to make sure that the situation was perfect at 2941 Restaurant and that this was the right move for me.
Similarly to Café Boulud, 2941 has very high expectations of its executive chef. I’m pleased to find however that, after two months, I’m receiving a great response from the staff and the Sous-Chef, and I have a very good feeling my decision. So the transition overall has been good.
Briefly, what is a typical day like for you when you are at the restaurant?
Well, a typical day for me starts with arriving at the restaurant around nine in the morning. I always say hi to all my staff and go to every single station, to ensure that everyone has what they need to prepare lunch. I then speak with my receiver, to make sure that we have the right produce and ingredients, which is something I am very careful about.
After that, we have a meeting with the management and front of house to inform them of the menu and the specials. Then we get ready for lunch. All kitchen staff including myself are in position at that point and do last minute refinements of the dishes before we go through the lunch.
In the afternoon, I spend 10 minutes with the Sous-Chef to discuss what we will do for dinner and determine what the specials will be. If we had a busy lunch, I also find out if we ran out of anything and make sure that we replenish our inventory as necessary in time for dinner.
I give the responsibility to the Sous-Chef to make sure that we are ready for the evening, and following a brief meeting about the menu and specials, at 5pm, we start the service once again. I work through the service with the staff and around 9:30-10pm I finish up the service and begin to prepare menu ideas and specials for the following day.
Let's shift gears and talk about a little about cooking at home. After a week of working long hours around some incredible food, what do you like to prepare at home when cooking is not your job?
For me, when I go home, I like to take a break from cooking elaborate meals. Actually, I like to keep my cooking time brief. I have a daughter, who is very young, and I’ve taken an interest in preparing fresh and healthy meals for her, such as steamed fresh fish and vegetables. I like to eat simply at home. I’m not looking for fancy cooking – quick, easy, and tasty homemade cooking is key.
I also hear from a lot of home cooks that they have a fear of making mistakes in the kitchen. What mistakes do you see home cooks making over and over again and what can they do to stop making them and get over their fears?
Well, to get over these fears and learn how to avoid doing mistakes, the good thing to do is to come to 2941 for some cooking classes, where they can learn how to develop simple, quick and delicious meals.
What cookbooks would you recommend every home cook own?
I find sometimes cookbooks tend to be too complicated and call for high-end ingredients that are not very accessible at local supermarkets. When I suggest a recipe book for a website for instance, I look for it to provide recipes that are easy to prepare and call for ingredients that are readily available.
Café Boulud Cookbook: I recommend this book not simply because I worked for Daniel, but because he suggests very good and simple recipes.
David Thompson’s Thai Food – Arharn Thai: Great for thai cuisine and soups; again provides easy recipes with ingredients that are easy to find in the supermarket.
James Peterson’s Fish and Shellfish Cookbook – great for fish and shellfish; with recipes that range from easy to sophisticated.
Do you have a signature dish or favorite recipe? And if so, can you can share it with us?
I don’t have a signature dish, because I like my recipes to remain fresh for both my clientele and myself. I do happen to favor some ingredients however – for instance, I love to prepare dishes with black truffles, because they have a very intense and interesting flavor. I am happy to share the following recipe for Ricotta Gnocchi, which features black truffles and is simple to make at home.
How did you become involved with the Celebrity Chef Tour dinner at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel on March 1, and what compelled you to participate?
I just came to 2941 Restaurant in January, and I was contacted here by the Celebrity Chef Tour to find out whether I would be interested to participate in it. I think it is very important as a chef to give back to the James Beard Foundation; it does a great job to develop the spirit and quality of good cooking. The dinner was also a great opportunity for me to meet food aficionados in the DC area.
What special treats do you have in store for guests at the Celebrity Chef Tour dinner on March 1 at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel?
We have prepared a very special menu for the dinner this coming Saturday. Following the wine and hors d’oeuvres reception, we will serve Yellow Fin Tuna Fish Tartar, with a black truffle, which will likely be the last of the season.
The second course will be a Butter Poached Lobster in a bouillabaisse emulsion, which will be followed by Hand Made Veal Ravilioni, once again served with delectable black truffles. To finish the main course service, we will present Roasted Duck Breast, with Jerusalem artichoke, swiss chard and orange glaze.
We will conclude the dinner with dessert and, as always, each course will be paired with carefully selected wines.
Thank you again Chef for this interview and most success with 2941 Restaurant. - RG