Every July 14, the French mark the storming of the Bastille in 1789 with La Fête Nationale or Bastille Day. It's similar to our own Fourth of July in that it commemorates the beginning of the French Revolution, which led to the abolition of feudalism in the country and the proclamation of the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen." In France, it's a major holiday, filled with fêtes and fireworks.
This year, Houstonians can join in on the fun with Philippe Verpiand and Philippe Schmit at Étoile, where the two Frenchmen will be preparing a special Bastille Day meal for guests.
It turns out the chefs have more connections than simply being born in the same country. Jean-Michel Diot, a French chef and restaurateur, opened Park Bistro in New York City, where Schmit served as chef de cuisine before he relocated to Houston. In 1998, Diot opened Tapenade Restaurant in La Jolla, and Verpiand was hired as the chef de cuisine at that restaurant. The two Philippes met for the first time in 2001, when Schmit joined Verpiand at Tapenade to cook a Bastille Day meal. Now, Verpiand is hoping to continue that tradition in Houston with his buddy, the French Cowboy.
"I obviously knew of his reputation because we worked for the same owner in different cities," Schmit says. "I was in New York, and he was in San Diego, but we'd exchanged a couple of phone calls. When he was thinking that he needed to move from San Diego, I tried to give him some advice. I tried to motivate him to move here, because I thought he would be a great addition."
This will be their first time cooking together since the Bastille Day meal in 2001, but the planning process for the meal was fairly simple, as the chefs have a lot in common, both culturally and culinarily.
"We see each other all the time, so we talk about food and everything else," Schmit says. "We're flexible with each other. Sometimes we have to smack ourselves in the face to get each other to leave when we're together. We knew each other before, but now we're friends."
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Verpiand explains that the menu was easy to devise, as there aren't really any traditional Bastille Day dishes.
"It's pretty much what's good in the summer," Verpiand says of "Bastille Day cuisine." "It's more like an occasion for partying than for specific food. It's a good occasion to be united with your friends and family for fireworks."
Though there won't be any fireworks in the city for Bastille Day, the meal promises to be just as enthralling. The dinner will consist of four courses, served any time from 5 p.m. to close on July 14, rather than all at once. Guests can make a reservation for any time during the evening.
The chefs split the four-course menu so they're each preparing two dishes. Schmit will make a tarte de chèvre frais or fresh goat cheese tart, filled with ratatouille and a tapenade coulis. Verpiand will then serve Alaskan halibut with artichokes in white wine sauce, basil and asparagus, followed by Schmit's roasted duck with cherries. Dessert will be prepared by Verpiand and his occasional pastry chef Jose Hernandez, who's fixing to open Radio Milano in City Centre soon. Interestingly, Hernandez worked with Schmit previously at Orsay in New York City before moving to Houston where they were once again a team at Bistro Moderne.
The dinner is $78 per person, and wine pairings can be added for an additional $32 or $48. If you can't make it this year, though, Verpiand promises the Bastille Day dinner will be a tradition.
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"I will try to have a guest chef every year," he says, "Probably people I know or some of my former co-workers. Probably all French people. That sounds horrible, I'm sure, but, it's fun for the customer to discover someone they don't know from France or San Diego, so when they travel they already know a chef."
Schmit might not be the featured chef next year, but he'll still be celebrating Bastille Day in his own way. As a child in France, he remembers fireworks in his small hometown or watching the military parade on the Champs d'Elysees on TV. Recently, he's been returning to New York every year for the celebration, but this year, of course, will be a bit different.
"France might be playing in the World Cup the day before Bastille Day," Schmit says. "So [Philippe and I] may be hungover. We're big soccer fans. But we can assure the people coming in to eat that we'll be ready to cook. We're doing a lot of prep work Friday and Saturday...just in case."
For reservations for the Bastille Day dinner, call Étoile Cuisine et Bar. And look for Philippe Schmit continuing his guest dinner series at Kris Bistro on July 24 with a five-course summer truffle menu.