Chef Chat, Part 2: Philippe Verpiand on Working Michelin-Starred Restaurants, Moving to Houston, and His Favorite Dishes

This is the second part of a three-part Chef Chat series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 in this same space Friday.

Yesterday, we chatted with chef and owner Philippe Verpiand of Etoile about growing up in Provence in a family of butchers, going to culinary school as a teenager, and competing in a national French cooking competition after graduating first in his class. Today, we continue this chat, finding out about how he came to the states, and learning more about the food he's doing at Etoile.

EOW: How did you come to be in the U.S.? How long have you been here?

PV: Since 1998. I arrived in San Diego. I was hired by a French guy who opened a French restaurant in La Jolla called Tapenade. And it's still open, it's a well known French restaurant in La Jolla, and I was executive chef there for seven and a half years.

EOW: How did he hire you?

PV: It was a friend of mine who used to work with him in New York. And when the guy went to California, my friend told me that his boss was moving to California and was going to need a chef.

EOW: And where were you at the time in France?

PV: I was in Normandy. I graduated in 1988, and then I began to work a year, year and a half, working at different jobs in different regions.

EOW: How many regions have you worked in (since there are 22 regions)?

PV: Not all of them. I worked in my own region. So my first job was next to where I live. For the first job, it was a perfect scenario. One Michelin star, really good restaurant, but not a lot of cooks, so they were giving you a lot to do -- which is good for your skills, your learning experience -- so that was great. Then after that, I was working in the French Riveria at a two-Michelin star restaurant called Hotel Juana in Juan-les-Pins, a small sea resort between Cannes and Antibes. At the time, it was a five star hotel with a two Michelin star restaurant. That's where Alain Ducasse was recognized before he went to Monaco.

EOW: Having worked in a Michelin star restaurant, what makes a restaurant a Michelin star restaurant? What's the difference between a one star, two star, or three star restaurant, for you? Having worked in the back of the house?

PV: One Michelin star, pretty much really good food, really good menu, consistency, price affordable -- too expensive but not very expensive. Two Michelin star, you begin to see -- how do I say -- some kind of luxe, like china, big wine list. The food may be a little more expensive. High end, really good produce, really good service, sommelier maybe. That kind of stuff. When you think about it, in France there are probably between 450 to 500 one-Michelin star. And then I think two-Michelin star is only 85 to 90, and three Michelin star is about 20 something -- it's not even 30.

EOW: Not even 30, wow. So what makes it a three Michelin star?

PV: Perfection. Everything. From the knife they're going to serve the steak to the whole setup. Amuse bouche. There is a lot of staff in the kitchen and dining room to make it perfect. The restaurant is probably really beautiful, really creative in a way.

EOW: So, if you go to a restaurant, does the Michelin star matter to you? As a chef?

PV: No. For example, I used to work with a guy who took over his grandmother's restaurant in Southwest of France, in a village called Ciboure in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, near Biarritz and Spain. I love to go there. There is no Michelin star, there is no tablecloth, but the food is super good. They get the fish from the sea, you know? They are cooking very simply, but it's very good. Its called Mattin, and pretty much they do French Basque cuisine. And it's hidden in a very narrow street on kind of a hill. You have to know to go because it's not on the main tourist street, but it's always full, so it means it's good, and no Michelin star.

EOW: Since you worked in a Michelin star restaurant, does the staff know when the Michelin people come?

PV: No. Usually they don't. They are suspicious. Often, the guy or the lady comes by themselves. Usually, if you have a Michelin star, or you're going to have one, or have two -- someone is sitting by himself, suspicious all the time. Always, I remember the maitre d' coming: "We have a single." Depending on what kind of food is ordered. He's not going to just have a salad. He might have a tasting menu, or taste several things. But they can come with two, and then it's hard to figure it out. Michelin are always incognito. Other guides they do, before or after. Michelin, they don't.

EOW: Okay, fast forward to you're in San Diego.

PV: So I worked at Tapenade for seven and a half years. And then in 2005, after I married Monica (Bui, his wife), we opened a little restaurant, 50 seats, called Cavallon. So we were doing pretty good, and then the recession came, and it changed the game a little bit.

EOW: When did the recession hit? What happened?

PV: 2008, October. The market crashed. And the restaurant was empty -- not just ours -- it was like that everywhere. Anyway, we handled it pretty good. We revisited the way we were doing business. We tried to cut expenses. And then 2009, we came here to Houston to visit her brother, we were going out every night to good restaurants -- Cafe Rabelais, Le Mistral, Reef, a bunch of other ones -- and we were noticing that they were busy compared to San Diego. So, we decided to sell everything and move here.

EOW: So just based on that one trip visiting your brother-in-law -- you decided to move here?

PV: Yes.

EOW: So when you came here, did you already have this location?

PV: No. We came here, then we were going to figure it out. But, we found this location right away -- it just wasn't available right away.

EOW: Okay, so tell me about your food here. It's pretty classic French. Is there a specific region?

PV: It's more -- pulling from what I learned from all over France. But mainly, I like Provence and I like Southwest of France. Foie gras, espelette pepper, red bell pepper, olive oil, all the duck products -- duck fat, duck confit, duck foie gras. But pretty much, we are French classic. We have coq au vin. I like cooking that, and people like it, too.

EOW: What are your favorite dishes here, and then what are your customers' favorites?

PV: I like foie gras torchon, it's an appetizer. I like to eat it a lot -- I've liked foie gras since I was a kid.

EOW: So, aren't you glad you're here in Houston and not in California?

PV: I'm glad I'm out -- that stupid ban. I don't get it. I'm glad we have the freedom to do the food you feel like doing. So, torchon for me. As for the customers, I think what people like the most is the duck breast a l'orange and the short ribs. Those two meat dishes, we have really good success with it.

EOW: So you personally, if you were a customer and you were coming here for the first time, what would you order?

PV: The torchon, and the scallops dish on my menu. It's pretty light, meaning, no cream, no butter. It's a tomato concasse, a lot of onion, garlic, fresh tomato, cooked down for a long time with a lot of thyme. Then, we mix it with sauteed fennel, black olives, and finish with fresh herbs. We put fresh diver scallops, quickly sauteed, medium, medium-rare, and then on the top of it, we do a balsamic onion marmalade. So you get sweetness, acidity, background of anise from the fennel, the sharpness of the black olives. It's a lot of tastes in one spoon, but not a rich, heavy taste. It's a great summer dish.

EOW: So last question: Your last meal. What would it be, who would make it, and where?

PV: My last meal, it would probably be something you cannot find at a restaurant. It would probably be a woodcock.

EOW: A woodcock? What is that? I don't know what that is.

PV: It's a game bird. If you read old French Escoffier recipes, they were cooking that kind of stuff. Now, it's forbidden in restaurants because it's very rare. There's the gaminess, it's very delicate. To get it, you would need to hunt it yourself or know a guy who hunts who's gonna give you one or two. There are some in Europe, and some in the States. It's a migrating bird, so they go North to South and South to North.

EOW: How would you make it?

PV: You roast the whole bird with the insides; you don't clean it. It's a small bird. Every time he flies, he poops, so you don't need to worry about it, it's very clean inside -- it's true. So you roast the bird, and you take the tripe, and you're to going to mix it with a little bit of foie gras, and you're going to put it on the toast, and you're going to put the breast and the leg on the toast. And with the bones, you make a quick sauce. If I can, I will make it myself, otherwise it will be a good friend of mine who can make it as good as me or better. The last time I had it was probably 2005 or 2006. In my life, I've had that dish probably about 20 times because my parents were hunters and knew a lot of hunters, and my dad was a fan of this.

Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Verpiand's classic French cuisine.

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