Chef Rémi Lauvand does not have a pop up restaurant, but he's been popping up a lot in the last few years. Before he came to rest at his current home, Café Pierre in Manhattan Beach, Lauvand popped up in BreadBar last fall as part of the Hatchi series. Before that, he appeared behind the stoves at Rivera, helping his friend John Sedlar open his downtown restaurant. Prior to that, Lauvand was at Citrus at Social. Lauvand took some time before service recently to talk to us, detailing his journey to Café Pierre and the stops along the way, backwards from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara and New York and back to his native France.
Although the questions went in reverse chronologically, Lauvand is most definitely going forward. His menu is unquestionably French, but it's market-driven and has a spare beauty to it. And it's focused on the ingredients that Lauvand is so fond of. Most recently, this came in the form of most of a whole pig from Jude Becker, the Iowa farmer who raises acorn-finished Berkshire pigs for La Quercia. Check back tomorrow for the second part of our interview, and for Lauvand's recipe for brandade.
Squid Ink: Before we talk about you, can we talk about Jude Becker's pig?
Remi Lauvand: I learned about Becker when I was chatting with Herb Eckhouse about his prosciutto about 2 years ago. I always wanted to try few thing with the hog itself. This time I basically got the whole hog minus the back legs–they go to La Quercia for the hams–front legs and shoulder, whole rib cage, belly, loins and tenderloins. Can I taste if it is acorn fed? The flavor comes out more with a drying and aging process for sure. It is however one of the best-tasting pig I have encountered. We made some sausages with part of the shoulder, braised the belly and short ribs, pan seared the tenderloin, slow roasted the loin and chops. All plates get an assortment of different cuts. With some of the scraps you get while butchering the whole animal I made some little jars of rillettes. The best part about a hog is nothing is wasted.
SI: Wow. Thank you. Now we can talk about you. So how long have you been here?
RL: I started full-time here after Memorial Day, and before that I came here a few times to guest chef, once every two weeks. One night I had a special menu and I guess it was well received.
SI: What's your connection to Café Pierre?
RL: With Guy? [Café Pierre owner Guy Gabriele.] I've known Guy for about 8 years now. I first me him when he would organize trips with his good customers up in Los Olivos at the Fred Brander Winery. At the time I was in Santa Barbara and Fred Brander asked me to join that little get-together, and Julia Child came a few times, it was a group of chefs, it was [Celestino] Drago and all those people. That was how I met Guy and we became friends and over the years I came down a few times.
SI: How long has Café Pierre been here?
RL: 32 years now. Its a Manhattan Beach staple. Guy's kind of the unofficial mayor.
SI: Have you redone the menu entirely?
RL: Yeah, there's like a few items that are staple. But most of it, about 80% has been transformed. Which is challenging when you have a very well established clientele.
SI: So before this, you did the Hatchi series, and spent some time with John Sedlar at Rivera, and then you were at Citrus. Did you open Citrus?
RL: Yeah. Well, I don't you if you consider that opening more than a rebirth, because it was Social first, then they closed for like a month and a half and we rehired a lot of staff and redid the menu, so it was like a quick turnover. Michel Richard was the one who asked me to come along.
SI: How did you know Richard?
RL: When he had Citronelle in Santa Barbara, he used to escape and come see me at Bacara [Lauvand was the chef at Miro, at Bacara Resort and Spa in Santa Barbara]. It was like, I can come here, have good food and nobody will bother me. You know, sit on the deck, have a big cigar, look at the ocean, it was nice. It was nice to see him.
SI: We're going backwards now. Before Citrus, you were in Santa Barbara.
RL: So I came to Santa Barbara in 2000 to open Bacara Resort. I had the fine dining restaurant there, the stand-alone restaurant Miro. So yeah, it was a good experience. It was a good change for me. I got a good connection with Santa Barbara, and I knew already some of the wine makers from being in New York. And when I came to Santa Barbara I reconnected with a lot of them. Santa Barbara is basically my second home, even today. I got connected with all the farms, it was a great thing. When I opened Citrus, I went for a month and a half every day [communting] while looking for a place here. The thing happened so fast. Michel offered me the position, then I left Santa Barbara to go to Washington for awhile, and really the time between me coming back to L.A. and opening was so little. So every day I'd come in from Santa Barbara. My god, almost a thousand miles a week. That was kind of brutal. I miss Santa Barbara. It's a beautiful place, but it's not really conducive to food. I don't think you have such big audience. You have wonderful product, a beautiful farmers market, some of the best farmers around, and I don't think it's well received.
SI: Why is that?
RL: I don't know. I think overall it's a very wealthy town, but it's also a big college town. There's a huge student community. And also I think the price of housing, the cost of living is extremely high. So people spend a lot on that and that leaves them with little disposable income to go out, so they're looking for very casual. It becomes more of a beach community.
SI: And where were you before Santa Barbara?
RL: In New York. That was a major part of my life. I came to New York and I started at La Grenouille as a sous chef there. And then I went to open Montrachet in, oh my God it scares the shit out of me, in 1985 I think. There was nothing down in TriBeCa and it was with David Bouley and I moved along, there was some friction, it was very difficult. And so anyway, I went on to work with Daniel [Boulud] at Le Cirque. I stayed there almost 9 years. Daniel left in I think '92 or '93 to open Daniel, and in the mean time Sylvain Portay, who used to be the chef for Alain Ducasse, came along. I stayed with Sylvain until they closed the old location. And then one day I got a phone call from Drew [restaurateur Drew Nieporent] and he said Montrachet is yours if you want it. And I said, oh it only took I forgot how many years, to finally get the job. So I took it. I was going to be the first French chef at Montrachet. Montrachet was always the breaking ground for a lot of young American chefs. There was David Bouley first, and a lot of people. I was very concerned and thought, well, we'll see how it goes. I got a great review from Ruth Reichl, I couldn't believe it, I was blown away. It lasted 2 years, there were a lot of conflicts and difficulties, and then a new opportunity to come to Santa Barbara came along.
After all those years in New York I have to admit it was a welcome change. I was doing very well, but mentally and physically it really took a beating out of me. I'd never been to Santa Barbara before, and when I came to see the project for the first time, it was like, oh my God. It was challenging moving, it was hard. It took me a year. The scenery, everything, it was a different lifestyle. Just communicating with vendors, it was a different pace. I had to slow down a lot. It did me a lot of good. The quality of life in California is definitely much better.
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