This is the first part of a three-part chef chat series. Check back with us for Parts 2 and 3 of this chat, which will run in this same space Thursday and Friday.
Since it opened approximately one year ago, Etoile (which means "star" in French) has gained a growing legion of fans for its classic French fare, prepared with expert skill by the chef-owner himself, Philippe Verpiand.
Located in Uptown Park, Etoile is the quintessential neighborhood bistro. Upscale, with comfortable armchairs, well-placed chandeliers, and a long banquette against the back wall, it has the look and feel of a place you might find in France. And when you dine there, the authenticity of the food is undeniable. Verpiand uses real butter, cast iron skillets, and takes no shortcuts when it comes to making his food. The result is beautiful: cassoulet rich in flavor, duck confit with the fat rendered and crispy skin, pan seared foie gras that'll make your toes curl, and pastries reminiscent of what you'd find on the streets of Paris.
We sat down for a great chat with this talented Frenchman to find out what makes his food so good, and what made him decide to open a restaurant in Houston.
EOW: Where are you from?
PV: I'm from France -- Provence. From Cavallon, which is 10 minutes south from Avignon, or 30 minutes south of from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, for the wine lovers, you know?
EOW: So, what's the food there like? What did you grow up eating?
PV: My parents owned a very nice butcher shop, from my grandparents. They used to run the same butcher shop for over 60 years.
EOW: A butcher shop is called a...
PV: Boucherie. And they were also doing catering and they had a little deli stand, so they were cooking quite a bit. They were doing pâté, charcuterie.
EOW: So, you must be good at that!
PV: Yes. When I was 14, I wanted to be a butcher, like my dad. But my dad could already see that that kind of industry was going down -- everything was getting swallowed up by supermarkets. Even though they were doing very fine meat -- they were doing fine, they were making money -- but it was getting tougher and tougher for that kind of industry. So, he wanted me to go to culinary school when I was 16.
EOW: So, it wasn't you, it was your dad.
PV: Yes, but when I was 14, I was doing a lot of pastry. I was already baking, doing a lot of cakes. I was already passionate about baking cakes, cookies...
EOW: Was that for the boucherie?
PV: No, because my mom, she was working at the boucherie too, but she was a really good cook at home. So, you know, I always grew up eating great food.
EOW: I don't remember exactly what the French education system is like. Do you go to high school or do you have choose what you want to do before that?
PV: Let's say you want to be a cook. At 16, you try to find a boss and be an apprentice. So, basically you go one week at the restaurant and work as a cook, and one week at the school for two years. Then you graduate.
EOW: Is that what you did?
PV: No, at 16, I took two years culinary school full time for dining room and cook, so I graduated for both.
EOW: So you are front of the house and back of the house. Why did you do that?
PV: Why? I wanted to do the apprentice myself. But I was good in school, so the culinary school said "Hey, he has good grade, so he should do the full track." So my parents followed their advice. Anyway, it was good for me. I loved the front of the house and I was good at it. I finished first in my class for both.
EOW: First in your class? Nice...
PV: Yes, for both front of the house and back of the house. So it's always good on your resume when you're 18, you know? I could find my first job in a really good restaurant. Being first, I was also qualified to compete for the Best Apprentice of France. So, then I competed. We were 170, then narrow this to 24 semifinal in Paris, and I was able to go to the final where I finished fifth.
EOW: Fifth in all of France? As an apprentice of the year. What's the competition called?
PV: Best Apprentice of France.
EOW: And they still have that?
PV: Yes, every year. And I remember in the semi-final, I was next to a guy like me, 18 years old, who was from a three-Michelin star restaurant in Alsace. Really good training, that guy, you know? And I was able to beat him, actually. But, all the apprentices around, at 18, they were already very skilled people.
EOW: When you compete in something like that, is it making food, is it time pressure? What is the competition like?
PV: It's both. You're kind of young, so you feel the pressure. You have all those chefs who are going to be the jury. They go by you, they look at you. As you are working, they ask you a few questions. So it's intimidating. Some of them are MOF -- they are running some of the best restaurants in France, so it was pretty cool.
EOW: Do you remember what you made?
PV: Oh yes. And I remember why I failed. I finished fifth. The final was a big pike poached with beurre blanc on the side.
EOW: So for the competition, do they tell you what you're going to make, or do you make something on the fly?
PV: In advance, you know what you have to make, and everybody does the same thing. So, they give the information to you in advance so you can prepare. At the restaurant that your'e working at, if your boss is smart enough, he's training you. So, every day I was training on something. I knew what I had to make about a month, month and half ahead of time.
EOW: So, your final was the pike.
PV: It was a big pike, poached, with beurre blanc. So they were noting you on how you cooked the pike. And basically, the pike, instead of laying down, it's supposed to be standing up. So if it breaks, that means your fish is overcooked, so they were looking for that kind of default. I had the best fish, so I passed through that really good. The second dish was super classic: three beef tenderloin, rare, medium, and medium well. Grill cooking, so you have to mark it perfectly on the grill, with pommes soufflé on the side. Pommes souffle is kind of a hard potato side dish to make. It's like chips, but it's soufflé, so it's like a ball. The technique is difficult-- you need to turn it in the oil without burning yourself -- and I missed this actually. They never soufflé'd, so I sent out the chips I had and they probably killed me for that. For the dessert, I got oeuf a la neige, which I garnished with a sugar cage on each egg. So I go the best fish and the best dessert, but probably the worst meat.
EOW: The worst meat because of the pommes soufflé.
PV: My parents -- they'd flown from Paris with my boss. Because it was semifinal one day, and final the next. So semifinal, you could go home, or you could pass and go to the final. So when I finished the semi-final, they said they would be there for the final. But when I walked out, I said I wasn't going to win.
EOW: How many people were in the final?
PV: 10. It was 170 all over France, which was cut to 24 in the semi-final, and then 10 in the final. I finished fifth.
Check back with us tomorrow as we chat some more with Philippe Verpiand, and find out how he came to be in Houston.