The Evolution of a Chef: with Thierry Rautureau
Full disclosure: I’ve long been a fan of Chef Thierry Rautureau. Of course, there’s the food that he’s brought to Seattle for so many years at Rover’s, Luc and now Loulay – his newest restaurant in the heart of downtown. There’s also the fact that he’s a master at brand marketing. From his appearances on Top Chef Masters to his radio shows on KUOW and KIRO; the ‘Chef in the Hat’ is one of the most well-known chefs in the Pacific Northwest. Add to that the fact that he’s an engaging individual who has a near-unmatched joie de vivre and uplifting presence. Nearly every time I’ve eaten in one of his restaurants I’ve had the opportunity to at least say hello to the man. He does his best to make sure that you feel welcome and you are enjoying your meal.
The man has been around the block several times. He came from humble beginnings in a small town in France and learned to cook the hard way – as an apprentice in an old-school kitchen working for pennies and an education. After spending six years learning to cook in France he came to the US with very little money and a dream. After a false start in Chicago and nearly penniless he found work at La Fontaine which began his ascent up the culinary ladder. Nearly 40 years later – he truly represents the proverbial ‘American Dream’.
Starting a Revolution in Food
One might think that at this stage of a career, one might be content to rest on their laurels and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Or that an old school French chef would be mired in tradition. Not so. What many in the food world already know is that Chef Thierry Rautureau has been a progressive influence on what we eat and where it comes from.
I recently saw him speak on a panel at the Farmer/Fisher/Chef Connection event with Maxime Bilet of Art for Food on the topic of eating sustainable, locally grown food in season. His passion and knowledge on the subject is clear. While he appreciates culture and tradition he is not a traditionalist per se. Rather, he is passionately focused on innovation and education of producers and consumers alike. This came through loud and clear when we spent 10 minutes discussing why eating strawberries in January is a bad idea. To quote Chef Rautureau:
Dejeuner Avec Chef Thierry
I met Chef in early June at Loulay. After trying to find a time to meet for nearly 6 months I thought I would have an hour, tops, with the man. Thankfully I was wrong – what was anticipated to be a rushed interview turned into a nearly 4 hour meal and conversation about food, life, world cup soccer, history, urban planning and how things break in restaurants – all the time. It was by far the most pleasurable interview I’ve had a chance to do in this series. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Thierry’s stories and his openly candid nature. His story follows…
Tell me why you became involved in food
I would love to be romantic and say that I got involved in it because I was sitting next to my mom in the kitchen everyday – but that would be bullshit. The truth is, I come from a small town where you ate twice a day. Breakfast was toast and hot chocolate. Meals were a sacred moment. You eat at 7 and that’s the end of the story. There was no snacking or eating outside the meal. If you missed the meal you could look forward to eating the next day.
When you like to eat you want to eat well all the time. When you live in an environment where food is sparse you figure out how to cook for yourself. My mom was working so she would leave me a note every day saying that when I came home from school what I should start prepping for dinner. I was the oldest so this was my job. I’d go in the garden and pick the haricot verts, peel turnips, put the cabbage in water, etc.
When I graduated the French equivalent of high school and I could either choose to go to college or apprentice. I couldn’t stand still so I decided to go and apprentice. I came from a poor family and I remember on some days I would to ask my dad for money and I would always have to answer ‘what the money was for’. Dad was a very hard worker – sun up to sun down and then he’d come home to take care of the vegetable garden. I was naive at 14 and thought that I would go work and make some money. I didn’t realize that for the first six months I’d make seven dollars a month. But hey – I had no expenses!
Where did you get your start in the restaurant business?
The first place I worked was really lame and the chef was horrible. But the father was a very nice man – older and much calmer. Every Monday night he would teach me. The chef was just terrible – he’d be condescending and would say terrible things to me. After 2 years I graduated and then went on to work in different parts of France; Le Mont Saint Michel in Normandy, Chamonix in the Alps and Hendaye in the Pays Basque. Then I went to the Army for a year and afterwards started to look for a job. I found an ad in the local paper looking for a cook to work in the USA.
So, I decided to apply – mind you this was 35-40 years ago. I went to Chicago and the guy was a total doofus. The place was a dump – there were no customers so I started working on maintenance in the restaurant. He never paid me so I left. I had a return ticket to go to France but I didn’t want to go back. I was out of money and I felt like I couldn’t return empty handed. The one day, I was in a bar and this French guy from La Fontaine asked me to come work with him there.
I will never forget having the ticket in my hand, tears in my eyes, and thinking there was no way I was going back.
Who are some of the most influential chefs you’ve worked with in your career?
I think that every single person I’ve worked with I’ve learned something from. I would put some higher than others for the growth factor. It is because I was not at the stage I needed to be to learn from them. I worked with a guy at the Regency Club and I had a fabulous time there while learning a ton. Every step of the way I was learning.
The key to growth and success is to constantly look for more and to not be complacent. It’s a philosophy you should always keep with if you want to grow. I’ve never been the kind of chef I thought would die in front of the stove. At first, I wondered if I could do this cooking thing because of my first apprenticeship. I lacked confidence. But once I was in the States I really grabbed onto the policy of ‘yes I can do it’. It’s a great thing for someone like me who’s ADD and creative. My biggest fortune in life other than my wife and children is that I’ve able to flourish and use my creativity and artistry in cooking.
I’m reading Julia Child’s ‘My Life in France’ right now. It seems so idyllic and wonderful. What are the things you miss the most as the country has changed?
We constantly keep doing that as people. We always ask – ‘what do we miss the most?’ People ask if I miss France. I never live my life asking myself if I miss something. I miss my dad who passed away 8 years ago. But there’s very little I miss in terms of life in general.
I’m not the kind of person who would buy a vacation house and go there every weekend. I’d want to go somewhere different all the time. I’m content having the minimums in stability as far as wife/house/family but I don’t miss my childhood. I have that now – just a different version of it.
What do you love most about the restaurant business?
When I started, what I loved the most was not the business but the cooking. The fact that you can come to work, spend 14-15 hours in the kitchen, leave exhausted but feeling very accomplished because you gave it everything you had. And you did some really good, tasty, tight, crafted work. That felt really, really good.
Obviously this career requires a lot of physical and mental effort. It’s great when you are younger. As you grow older, if you pay attention, you lose the testosterone and you are able to relax and look at the big picture. You can focus on the quality of things that are available, local, simple, and your mind starts to expand into a bigger horizon. You start thinking about the big picture. Some people grow into this, some never get it.
For example, Tom Douglas has told me for 20 years to move downtown and open a bistro. For 15 years I said no, I wasn’t ready. Then I opened Luc and it has become what it is. You see this often when people convince themselves not to do something and they really hurt themselves by not taking the chance. I wasn’t ready but I took my time and waited and am happy I did.
What do you like least about it?
To this day, even though I know it’s a business; the thing I like least is the fact that we have to mix artistry and business.
Beyond that, it’s probably when I can’t find a way to satisfy someone the way that I like to with their dining experience. For example, last night we had a table that had to wait 45 minutes for their entrée. No matter what I could have done we couldn’t have saved these people. We tried and it’s a shame. We comp’d their drinks, we gave them something in between. When I can’t save that fish from being out of the water it makes me pissed. When we screw up and we know it we try very hard to save it. It really hurts when we can’t do it. It’s a reality of life that you can’t make everyone happy but you can try. I believe in putting smiles on people’s faces. That’s what I wake up every day to do. I try to make sure people remember being in my restaurant. I want them to talk about it and have a great time. The idea is that every day I try to make a small impact in every person’s life that comes here.
It’s a beautiful business and perfect for a guy like me who can’t stand still and has 300 things going on in his head all the time. I’m like the guy in the theater looking at a full house except for 2 empty seats – and hoping 2 more people come in to fill them. Everyone is a VIP, everyone should get the same, consistent thing. And that is the hardest part. Consistency. Everything we do gets touched by 4, 5, 6 people. Love that challenge.
Who would you rather dine with: Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Daniel Boulud or Paul Bocuse?
I’ve had dinner with all but Paul – but I had dinner in the same place as Paul was cooking back in 1979! I must have met him 3-4 times over the years. I had dinner with Julia twice and cooked for her once at Rovers. I can’t go to NY without saying hello to Daniel, Eric Ripert and Mario (Batali). If I go there and Daniel knows I didn’t come by to say hi he gets upset. Eric is the nicest guy ever. He’s a very gracious man, we’ve been friends for years. So I guess dining with all of them at once, but on the condition of cooking the meal with them first.
OK, so you’ve eaten with almost all of them. So who would you like to have prepare a meal for you?
I would love to prepare a meal for each and every one of them. I love every single one of those people and I have a tremendous amount of respect for each of them. Since I’ve never had Jacques or Julia cook for me I would just love for them to make me a meal. Jacques is a super normal person and sweetheart of a man.
What is the best meal you’ve ever eaten and where was it?
Not to be PC or anything but one meal is a very cheap way to get around the world. I’ve had many incredible meals in my life. And at different times in my life – those were the best of my life. Today, in 2014 at my age, I think as I grow older the company of the meal is as important as the meal. It changes the demographic of this question. I used to only focus on one plate, then it became the entire meal. Going to Daniel the 1st time I was with Tom Douglas and Monique Barbeau – I remember the cold pea soup I had there 20 years ago and it was incredible. Then, after that I got like 10-12 courses that were just mind blowing. My first meal at Per Se in NY was awesome. There was a time when I couldn’t get enough of those types of meals. Now, it’s a little bit different in terms of what I enjoy.
One meal that really is still part of my growth in terms of appreciation was at el Bulli just before it closed. It was unreal. It was so crazy good. It was a new chapter for me in many ways more than one. The flavor, richness – each time it was unreal. The shock factor of what the dish looked like was different than what I thought it would be. The flavors were amazing. That was really, really one of those peaks of like ‘oh my god’. The same things happened my first time at Jean Georges and the French Laundry. Fortunately, in my world I have a bit of an advantage as a peer. The first time I came into Per Se was through the kitchen. I came to say hello and then I know when I left everyone in there was like ‘we’re going to blow his mind.’ Those are good friends for you!
What would you like to see more of coming in from local farmers/growers?
Distribution is still an issue and one that will save the world when we get to it. When I say distribution it means that, right now, almost every little farmer has to come to town to bring their product to market. I want to see Charlie’s produce trucks full and driving around town – instead of all of those little trucks – kind of a co-op distribution.
There’s also an educational component for the public. Just don’t buy strawberries in January. They aren’t even good. Go buy them in season, taste them, bring a basket home, and enjoy it. You’ll never buy out of season strawberries again. The ones in January never even smell like a strawberry.
As a foreigner coming to the States it’s a weird thing. My parents never went to the store to buy a vegetable. You ate what was growing when it was ripe. You get here and you’re like wow – everything is here but nothing smells like anything at the produce stand.
What/who is your inspiration?
I think that my inspiration comes from trying to stay open minded. If you bring me something to the house and we’ve got to cook it – I think ‘how would I like to eat it’. I don’t serve anything I don’t want to eat or wouldn’t eat. I travel, I eat in many different kinds of restaurants, and I try to sneak in some ethnicity into my food. I love Moroccan food – like harissa and preserved lemons. And Asian cooking using kefir limes, ginger, etc. I try to use some of these things in my cooking. I get inspiration from expanding my palette, my horizons, and my experience.
The key is – I know what to do with an apple 4, 5, 6 different ways. But I’m always going to try things with some basis of knowledge and an idea of where I want to go with it. I may have never done it before but I always have a guide.
What is your favorite ingredient?
I don’t want to be in a box like that. I don’t want to be like that. I want to be creative. There are so many variables. It changes every time. Where I am, who I’m with, what time of year it is, if I’m tired or rested. Would you have an artist who says what his favorite color is? No, there are too many good colors man!
What advice do you have for people looking to get into cooking?
My best advice is – don’t settle for buying low quality. Learn to be a bit of a scientist in terms of changing and creating things. Recipes are a great base for a start. Follow it to the end the first time you try it. Make sure you have a great mise en place. Make yourself a cocktail and go at it! You should only use one hand when you cook! Don’t try to be a mad scientist the first time. Understand the logic and sensations. There’s a reason why the chef wrote the recipe the way they did.
Never, ever be afraid of trying things when you are cooking. The worst thing that’s going to happen is it won’t taste good. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
As a chef – remember to think about food costs. When you are a young chef, you need to get your yahoo’s out. But if all you are making is Pig’s ear there will be 3 people that will love you and nobody else will want to eat it.
What do you see in the future of the restaurant industry in Seattle?
The beauty of Seattle is all those little restaurants, Chef/Owner operated places, which are like workshops. It’s extremely attractive and I don’t think it’s going away. It will grow and be nurtured. The confusion in this town is between craftsmanship and fanciness. This town has a hard time separating the two. Prices will go up a bit because eating out here is pretty inexpensive relative to other cities. I really think that the small places will grow and help define cuisine here. It’s really attractive to customers and they will pay a little more.
Service will improve as its one side of the business that’s lacking and people are becoming more demanding. I believe that service in smaller restaurants needs to improve and they will need to charge more for it. Service can be casual yet professional. Hello, goodbye, please, thank you – use it! People are even losing these simple rules my father taught me. It’s a business transaction – but it can be done in a way that is professional. It should always be done.
If someone invites you to their home for dinner what should they cook?
Cook the things you like to cook the best. Because you will be successful at it and we will have a good meal. You should not be afraid. There’s nothing more fun for a chef than to have someone else cook for them.
Who are some of the best chefs in Seattle right now?
We have a long list of people and there are very many talented chefs and cooks in Seattle.
I haven’t had many bad meals in Seattle in the last few years. I could name so many chefs in Seattle that are doing a good job, but the list is big.
The thing about eating out is that people want to do it and they expect it to be part of their budget. It’s the nature of the beast. What the restaurant used to be when we were kids vs. what it is now is completely different. It’s like taking a shower – I do it once or twice a day, and I also go to a restaurant once a day. Dining out is a commonplace event and to be too specialized as a restaurant is getting harder and harder. But quality is becoming a standard.
What is your last meal?
I was raised on a farm and we went to my grandparent’s home every Thursday. My grandpa would come back from the stable and bring the milk from the cows. My grandma would cut the country homemade bread, put a fork in it and put it in the fireplace to grill. Then we’d take the homemade salted butter, spread it, and dunk it in the hot cocoa she had made with the milk.
I’ve been asked this question many times. I want to sit at that table, and be as big as I was, and experience that again. The memory is soothing and this was an awesome feeling in my life. If I know I only have two hour left, I want to be back at that table.
The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
I truly enjoy meeting inspiring, engaging people and hearing their stories. It was difficult to compress 3+ hours of discussion into this interview. There were worthy stories about walking through Chicago’s Cabrini Green mid-winter without enough money for bus fare. Ideas about converting Seattle’s downtown alleyways into art and entertainment space. Behind the scenes adventures on Top Chef Masters. And even tales of French knighthood! Chef Thierry Rautureau is a one-of-a-kind. True to himself, abundantly creative and always looking for the next great innovation…
If you enjoyed this interview with Chef Thierry Rautureau of Loulay and Luc then please check out my other articles in the series at Chef Interviews and stay tuned for future conversations with more of your favorite well and lesser known Seattle-based Chefs! More interviews are coming soon to The Hungry Dog Blog and on my Personal Site!
A Recipe from Chef Thierry Rautureau
Red and White grapes, Feta Cheese, Chives, Honey, Champagne Vinegar, Olive Oil Dressing
- 1 cup of red grape (cut in ½)
- 1 cup of white grape (cut in ½)
- 1 cup of diced feta cheese
- 3 tablespoon of chopped chives
- 3 tablespoon of honey
- 1 tablespoon of Champagne vinegar
- 4 tablespoon of olive oil
- salt & pepper to season
Marinate the grapes with the honey, vinegar and olive oil for about 2 hours prior to mixing with the feta and the chives.
This salad makes a great lunch or an appetizer especially when accompanied with arugula or lettuce leaves.
© Thierry Rautureau 2014
The Chef In The Hat ™