Chef Michel Troisgros: Simplicity and Refinement, Part 1

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The French chef shares what it was like to work in an iconic California kitchen

“[T]hat time of my life gave me a real sense of what liberty is and what being yourself is.”

Michel's brother, Claude Troisgros, whose L'Olympe restaurant is named after their Italian mother, has established himself in Rio de Janeiro where he owns three other restaurants having also ventured into New York and more successfully into Miami. Jean Troisgros’s son George, following family tradition, is a well-known chef in New York City. Many celebrated chefs have trained in the famed kitchens over the years including Bernard Loiseau, Guy Savoy, Judy Rodgers, Traci Des Jardins, Elena Arzak, Pascal Barbot, Andre Chiang, David Burke, and many more. Michel's older son Cesar followed in his father's footsteps, training in the French Laundry kitchens under Chef Thomas Keller, and both father and son happily share anecdotes about their California experiences. He has also authored several cookbooks including his popular “La cuisine acidulée”.

We sat down one morning with the articulate and affable Michel Troisgros in the chic grey-toned sitting room of Maison Troisgros for a very interesting and enlightening conversation. It is not only his cuisine that speaks, as the well-read and informed chef is open to conversations about many varied subjects. We took a trip down memory lane with him to the Chez Panisse days, and he shared both the excitement and apprehensions of the future and the upcoming move to new quarters and working side by side with his sons.

The Daily Meal: You spent time in Chez Panisse kitchens in your early years. What were your first impressions of California?
Chef Michel Troisgros:
In 1977 I went to work there but the first time I visited California was for a special dinner at the Mondavi Winery with my uncle Jean who was at that time a star of nouvelle cuisine Francaise .It was the era when French chefs were stars around the world. I had started cooking at seventeen and to get an opportunity to go to California was like a dream for anyone my age. I was a fan of rock n roll and many American singers. I spent a week in San Francisco and Napa Valley with my uncle and on our way back we stopped at Chez Panisse for a meal. That was the first time I met Alice Waters. I was impressed by the sensitivity  of the place and at that time the idea of living and working there was very appealing as it as such a contrast to the place where I had grown up.

What was so different?
I had by that time worked with Japanese chefs, with Alain Chapel, Roger Verge, Frédy Girardet, and also worked at Taillevent. I was nineteen when I went to California and found their way of working, of considering the staff, the social connections between the people, the cuisine, being yourself, and being in the presence of a charismatic chef, going to the markets with Mark Miller, who was the chef at that time, very appealing. We very quickly became good friends and since he was in charge of the market I got to learn about the produce. In 1978 Alice was already very well-known and some very unusual people were cooking in her kitchen. Another difference was that as opposed to France where we have a colony of producers and longstanding connections, this system did not exist in California. I felt that in a new place far away from my home with new people, new language, new culture, that time of my life gave me a real sense of what liberty is and what being yourself is. California is a melting pot and I met people from many different parts of the world. The diversity gives you the opportunity to explore other cultures like Chinese, Italian, American, etc. and so it was a very enriching experience for me.

Who else was in the kitchen at Chez Panisse besides Mark Miller?
It was a dream team with Jeremiah Towers, Judy Rodgers, Jean-Pierre Moulle and a fabulous pastry chef who has since passed away. The atmosphere was beautiful and Alice though not really cooking was providing a good spirit to the place, being very open to everyone, traveling, writing, thinking about what could be done to make it the best place for everyone. Prior to that experience I was a chef but with my hands and not with my mind and that was where I learnt to work with both. Talking about the cuisine I still remember a caramelized almond tart which was baked a very long time in a slow oven, resulting in something so delicious that I got a piece of it twice a day because I loved it. That dream tart is my favorite memory of Chez Panisse!

Related

This is the first in a three-part interview with chef Michel Troisgros. You can find the second here, and the third here.