Marcel Vigneron is probably still best known for season 2 of Top Chef, during which he displayed his talents for molecular gastronomy — and for getting under the skin of his competition. After the show Vigneron, who still has his signature gravity-defying hair, moved to Los Angeles, where he was sous chef at José Andrés' The Bazaar. This February, Vigneron became the opening chef at the new Bar210, a posh lounge in the space previously occupied by Trader Vic's, adjacent to the Beverly Hills Hillton.
Last week Vigneron took some time to talk about growing up on an island in the Puget Sound, the origins of his well-publicized interest in molecular gastronomy, and how he wound up in Los Angeles. Oh, and that memorable day swigging single malt with Bobby Flay at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. Check back later for the second part of our interview, and for Vigneron's recipe for boneless chicken wings.
Squid Ink: You're from Bainbridge Island, Washington. So how'd you get into food on the island?
Marcel Vigneron: Well, it wasn't so much that I got into food on Bainbridge, although. Well, that's not true. I did actually get into food on Bainbridge. What happened was that I was going to high school, and my parents were like [in old folks accent], You need to go out and get a job and start making some money. So I was like, Okay. And I started working at a little diner, it was called Streamliner Diner on Bainbridge as a dishwasher. And realized that dishwashing was kind of like grunt work and it wasn't really for me. And I saw these prep cooks working with like vegetables and stuff and I was like, Oooh, that looks like a glamour job. I totally want to be a prep cook. So I worked my way up to prep cook, and then I worked at all the different restaurants on the island. There were like four of them.
I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I'd saved up a decent amount of money and after I graduated from high school I went to Europe for five or six months and was out there just backpacking around and I had this epiphany that cooking was what I wanted to do. And I just needed to take it to the next level.
So while I was in Paris I looked at the Cordon Bleu and a bunch of different cooking schools in Europe and then decided that I wanted to go to the CIA. I did my associate's and bachelor's [degrees] and stayed on and did a fellowship there: I was running one of the restaurants that was open to the public. It just fulfilled every sort of aspect that I would want in an occupation, you know. It's physically challenging; you're not cooped up in an office, you're running around in a kitchen. It's mentally challenging, you're doing recipe costing, or trying to figure things out. And it's a huge creative outlet, whether you're plating up a dish, trying to figure out what goes where, or actually doing the flavor profile of the dish. I was lucky enough to figure out what I wanted to do very early on and dove into it headfirst.
SI: No cubicle for you.
MV: No. Can't be contained.
SI: And no college.
MV: Well, the CIA. It was more of a trade school. It was what I considered to be a college.
SI: Where did you work in Europe?
MV: I staged in a lot of different restaurants. The first trip — I've been to Europe like three times now — I was just checking it out and going to restaurants and dining. The second time I went out there was for a scholarship and I went to Campagnia to all the really nice restaurants and I ended up staying there after my scholarship was over and working for a restaurant called Ristorante L'Europeo, which is rated number one — it goes back and forth between number one and two — in the region of Campagnia and it's just a classic old school Italian restaurant. They have a glass case and customers would come in and be like, “I want that piece of fish,” and they'll grab the fish and take it back and cook it. We're talking 6th generation pizza cooks, where the dough is like an extension of their hands. So I worked there. Let me see, the last time I went to Europe I only went to Spain and I was out there at El Taller where Ferran and Albert [Adrià] have their laboratory. I was out there taking classes on avant-garde cooking techniques through their company. I spent like a week and a half in their laboratory, and then I checked out some other restaurants in Barcelona and then I went up to San Sebastian, and mainly just ate my way through Spain.
SI: So where do you trace the interest in molecular gastronomy? Cooking school, or Adrià?
MV: Basically through research and development — and curiosity. I can't really trace it to somebody that I worked under, because I basically taught myself the majority of most techniques. I taught myself spherification in a garage in New York while I was getting my associates degree. I called elBulli before I'd even been there and got on the line and asked them for a sample packet of chemicals. And they mailed me the chemicals.
SI: You can do that? You can get those through the mail?
MV: Yeah, no problem. This was totally pre-9/11. They sent me little gram bags of each one, all labeled. So I was doing research online and found Ferran's recipe for apple caviar and bought a little digital gram scale and was trying to make it. I remember me and my friends we made coffee caviar, and we were like blown away. We were like, Oh this is the coolest thing. So I continued to do a lot of research and was buying elBulli cookbooks and I was reading and studying up on all the avant-garde chefs around the world and what they were doing and figuring out what a thermal immersion circulator was. Even though I didn't have one, I was studying all the temperatures and it was all like through curiosity.
And then I went to work for [Joël] Robuchon in Las Vegas and we weren't really doing anything avant-garde. We cooked a couple proteins sous vide, and we had the spherification technique. We were doing a grapefruit caviar, but other than that there wasn't really anything. Because Robuchon's very traditional, fundamental, and doing the basics but doing them perfect. And I was helping them with the spherification, because some of the chefs had been working for Robuchon for like 20 years and they didn't really know what it was, because it was relatively new. And they were like, Why are they like hard pellets? And I was like, Chef, we have to make them a la minute, because they continue to cook. And they were like, Oh, okay. It was fun, because I'd actually made this before. It was through curiosity that I got into the whole thing. I was self-taught, and then I went to El Taller and that's where they showed me a lot of new techniques that I've been utilizing to this day and developing on.
SI: How did you get connected with José Andrés?
MV: I've known José for like 6 years. I originally met him in Aspen at the Food & Wine Classic a long time ago. I was one of the students who was getting paired up with the chefs: we were their assistants. I was Bobby Flay's assistant for his cooking demonstrations for the Food Network. We were on the bus and it was me and a bunch of other students. I wasn't actually eligible because I was a TA at the time and it was only supposed to be students. But it was like, whatever, it's Marcel, we're going to send him. So I got to go. It was pretty rad. They were going over all the chefs, and they were like, José Andrés is working with Tony! And Wolfgang is working with Samantha! They had the list of all the chefs and I was scratching them off and then it was me, because Vigneron, I was last on the list. And it was Bobby Flay, and I was like, Fuck! Goddamn it, out of all the chefs, I get paired with Bobby Flay.
But he actually turned out to be a really cool guy. It was right after he'd done Iron Chef, and he took his cutting board and threw it, and I was like, Oh my God, that's so disrespectful. And I didn't really like his TV persona. But then when I met him — despite the fact that he showed up for his demo hungover, five minutes right before it. And he was like, What am I cooking? I had everything lined up: I had a bell pepper, a bell pepper diced, a bell pepper cleaned. Just in case he wanted to do anything, I had it all out. And he was like, Man, you're fucking good, dude. So I was like, Thanks, bro — and here's your recipe. He was like reading it during his demo. And I was like, Oh, man, this fucking guy. Are you kidding me? This is how it's done? This is how the chefs do it these days? But then like he did a bunch of really cool stuff. In the middle of his demo he was like, I would just like to say that none of this would have been possible if it weren't for Marcel, he's one of the best students at the CIA and he prepped everything. And then this huge grand tasting tent of like 2,000 people are like, Aaaaahhhhh. And I'm like, Oh my God, I'm so embarrassed. And he was like, When I was in culinary school, my chefs always talked about consistency, and I was drinking a lot last night, so in order to keep it consistent, I'm going to do a shot. It was like 10 o'clock in the morning mind you. And he's like, Marcel, do you want one? And I was like, Okay. My nerves were shot. I'd never been filmed before, let alone on a stage in front of 2,000 people. And there we were, doing shots of 12 year-old Macallan.
SI: Not bad, especially at that altitude.
MV: Yeah. So we totally hit it off and had fun. But it was out there that I originally met José and then I saw him again at Spain's 10, which is where they brought the ten best chefs of Spain over, and I was pretty close to his research and development chefs, Katsuya [Fukushima] and Ruben [Garcia]. They're pretty much responsible for the majority of José's dishes, because José is like out kissing the babies and doing his TV shows and doing his thing. I had totally hit it off with those guys. And I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I'd come back from commercial salmon fishing in Alaska. I'd left Robuchon. And I was like, where do I want to cook?
I heard that José was doing something in L.A., so I hit up Katsuya and I said, What's the deal? And he said that [Michael] Voltaggio was going to be the chef there. So I talked to Michael a couple times and he brought me on as his opening executive sous chef. In the beginning José and I were like totally friends, like buddy buddy. In Aspen, he'd be like, Come over to my house, let's barbecue. When I started working for him, it was a totally different relationship. He was much more stern and more of like a chef figure. Which was cool, and exactly what I wanted.
For the second part of this interview, and a recipe from Vigneron, check back tomorrow.