Q & A With Remi Lauvand, Part 2: French Cafeteria Food, Getting to New York + Cooking Backwards

Yesterday in the first part of our interview with Café Pierre's Rémi Lauvand, the chef talked to us about how he got to the Manhattan Beach restaurant from, ultimately, his native France. It was a journey that took him from New York to Santa Barbara and to the now-shuttered Citrus at Social. Today we continue our conversation. And check back later for Lauvand's recipe for a classic brandade.

Squid Ink: Continuing to go backwards, how did you get from France to New York?

Rémi Lauvand: Oh my god. It's a long story. I was working at the time in Paris for Gerard Pangaud, who had a 2 star Michelin in Paris. I talked to Madame Masson [owner of Le Grenouille], she was a tough businesswoman. And she said to me, we'll take care of everything, but you have to be in New York next Wednesday. It's a deal or no deal. So I said, send me a ticket. In less than a week I was in New York. That was 1984.

SI: Did you go to cooking school?

RL: I went to hotel school in the north of France. I mean cooking is not rocket science, once you understand the basics. I'm not saying I'm a genius at it, but a lot of it is common sense. If you put your heart in it, and you cannot memorize it. There are definitely techniques that are more difficult than others, but you know I've always been into more just the true flavors. I'm not into going completely crazy. If it's good, it's good. The toughest part of cooking is searching for the right ingredients. If you get that, you don't have much to do with it.

SI: Where are you from originally?

RL: From the southwest of France, the Périgord region. I was fortunate, there was always good food around. I didn't really always realize that what I had was really great. It's kind of the principle of, you don't know what you have until you don't have it anymore. You go to school, you eat at the cafeteria, and that's when you realize, hmm. Damn.

SI: Did you always want to be a chef?

RL: No. Not really. I wanted to be more in science, which I'm still very interested in. But it happened that I became a chef. I don't regret it. I think I'm much more of a social person. I don't see myself working in a cubicle or in a lab. I would be bored to death. I need the interaction of a lot of things, and I need to fabricate things, to see the result. I need to see people happy, that's really what fulfills me. Nothing pleases me more than a full dining room with everybody smiling.

SI: It's a social profession.

RL: That's really what I like. I wouldn't do anything else.

SI: So you don't want to quit and become a scientist?

RL: No. Not anymore anyway. There are a lot smarter people than me now.

SI: Are there ways of cooking that you still want to explore?

RL: What do you mean by that?

Si: Well, I've always been curious, especially with chefs who've cooked for awhile and evolved, how much more they want to evolve?

RL: It's interesting, because when I talk to my friends who've cooked for a long time, we're actually going backwards. For awhile, we're like the wild horses, we experimented with a lot of things. Some were great, we learned a lot of things; others were not so good. Now we're going back to the true simple dishes. I think for me right now it's all about flavor. I don't want people to second guess what they're eating. It doesn't have to be complex. For me personally, I don't want to have the deconstructed things and all that. I see young chefs now and they're into a lot of really impressive techniques, which, when I was their age, I would have been the same way. I can see myself in them; when I was that age, I was exactly the same. Now it's like, it's over. You can't reinvent everything. It gets overdone. When I started cooking it was that whole Nouvelle Cusine was already on it's way down, and I could see why. There was a lot of great things that came out of it, but in the end, it was always the ingredients. I'm fine with that. I don't need to reinvent the wheel. I'd rather talk to a farmer who tells me, you have to make sure the pig is this way. I'd rather focus on that than techniques.

SI: There's probably that arc for everybody.

RL: Yes. It's a cycle. And you know a new thing might come along, and I might find it beneficial for what I'm trying to achieve, and I'll embrace it. I'm always learning. But the weird flavors, the weird combinations, it's not me. I appreciate a lot of cuisines. You know, if I eat out, I rarely eat French food.

SI: What do you like to eat?

RL: I like a lot of Asian food, a lot of Chinese. South American cuisine. Indian cuisine. I like bold flavors. Unusual spices, techniques, fish. Because I think there's a lot to learn from different cultures. And if you can mix what you have in mind with different things. I mean, what is French cooking, what is Italian cooking, do you need to put a label on cooking or do you just want great food? I don't want to be locked into a traditional French recipe. Because in France, it's all been done, you have an encyclopedia of it. I want to break out of that. Can I use a French technique or a French recipe and tweak it a little with a little Indian spice, bring it to another level? That's the beauty of cooking: it's endless.

interior of Cafe PierreEXPAND
interior of Cafe Pierre
Vanessa Stump

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