Rory Herrmann has tasted the best of both coasts, growing up in the beauty of California and Utah and training in the culinary crucible that is New York City. After training at The French Culinary Institute, Herrmann went westward like a culinary pilgrim, working the kitchens of Sundance Resort in Sundance Village, Robert Redford’s cultural oasis in the wilds of Utah.
After several years of cooking in Utah, Herrmann returned to the East Coast to work with some heavyweights of cuisine in several top New York area restaurants, including Alain Ducasse at his eponymous Essex House restaurant and Dan Barber at Blue Hill. Furthering the good impression he was making on the city’s culinary landscape, in 2004 Herrmann was chosen for the opening kitchen team for Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant, where he worked first as chef de partie, then sous chef. Herrmann eventually became the private dining chef, where he oversaw all private events and parties for the restaurant.
When Keller opened Bouchon Bistro, Herrmann headed back to California to helm the kitchen as chef de cuisine in November of 2009. Since its opening, Bouchon Bistro has garnered constant praise, even ranking as one of Angeleno Magazine’s Top 10 LA Dining Spots. Meanwhile, Herrmann continues to learn from his mentor, Keller, ensuring that each and every plate that goes out bears the same mark of irrefutable quality.
On top of his culinary pursuits, Herrmann is a firm believer in giving back to the community and actively contributes his culinary talents in helping raise funds and awareness for charitable organizations such as Meals on Wheels, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, March of Dimes and the Starlight Children’s Foundation.
Interview with Chef Rory Herrmann of Bouchon Bistro – Los Angeles, CAKatherine Martinelli:
What year did you start your culinary career? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
I grew up with my family entertaining a lot. My fondest memories were of holidays, or just big event nights where my family would gather around with friends, and the memories of the meals and conversations and leaving those times feeling so happy. Conversation, food, wine—I enjoyed that so much that I really wanted to be a part of it. My access to that was to become a cook. It inspired me. I’ve always loved food. I’ve loved the exercise of dining and this was my way to be a part of something I had enjoyed so much growing up.
KM: Did you go to culinary school?
RH: I did. In graduating high school and starting college, I found that there was something missing, the one thing I enjoyed the most: that exciting atmosphere of dining, the hustle and bustle of the restaurant, whether it was in the dining room or traveling with my family and eating at different restaurants. So I went to the French Culinary Institute. I remember walking through the FCI when I was 17 and I thought “This is where I want to be.” Looking at everybody in their white jackets, their precision, how methodical they were in all their actions, it really spoke to me.
KM: Would you recommend culinary school?
RH: It depends on a couple of things, like whether you can afford it. I would steer anyone clear of being too far in debt, especially in this economy. If you can afford it and have done the research, it’s a great tool. It’s one tool that can help you, but it’s not going to make or break you. A good cook has desire. That will lead you to your goal—desire plus a good work ethic. You have to have the drive. This industry is truly a labor of love. There’s a lot of glamour, celebrity chefs with great success, especially now when it’s almost a rock star status. But there’s a certain attraction to it that people don’t see, the hard work that goes into it behind the scenes. People should be cautious of getting into the field and know what sacrifices they will make—and have to want to make to be successful.
KM: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
RH: I’ve met a lot of people in my culinary career and I’ve been so blessed and lucky to have worked with some of the greatest chefs. I started working for Trey Foshee and Jason Knibb at Sundance, then Dan Barber at Blue Hill for quite a while. Mike Anthony joined Dan’s team and I fell in love with him as a chef. Through his time in France he sent me to Didier Elena at Ducasse. I moved to work there for several years. And everyone in their career wants to work, meet, or at least walk through one of Thomas Keller’s kitchens, and I was in the opening kitchen at Per Se. Each in their own right is a master of his craft.
KM: What inspires you?
RH: I’m inspired by all chefs because I know how hard it is now to be a chef. I get inspiration from a chef at a café, a casual dining restaurant, or a three star Michelin restaurant. It takes so much to be a chef and so much is put into it. I get inspired by all chefs. I have a profound respect for this career. I’m truly inspired by the whole industry.
KM: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
RH: Take it slow. Learn as much as possible. I would say concentrate on being the best cook you can before ever wanting to become a sous chef. A sous chef really studies not only the food but the management side of the business. So many people want that next position or title before they’ve gained everything they possibly could.
KM: Is there anything you would do over if you had the chance?
RH: I’m one of those believers in the idea that if I had taken a left instead of a right I wouldn’t be where I am. I’m humbled at where I’ve arrived. I may have stopped to relish the moments longer. My advice for young chefs is to take your time and absorb everything so looking back, you don’t say “I missed that.” I can’t say I regret anything. I’m very happy with what I’ve done so far and very humbled by it.
KM: What is your proudest accomplishment as a chef?
RH: It would have to be surviving the opening of Bouchon in Beverly Hills: to be able to stand in a kitchen where I had the opportunity to be a part of the construction, hiring the opening team, training them, and watching it grow. My proudest accomplishment is seeing it start from nothing and grow and meanwhile continue to be taught by Thomas. Every day he inspires me and gives new light to things. To be in a position to receive that information is what I am most humbled by and excited about every day.
KM: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or under utilized?
RH: I think that if you had to have a couple, sea salt would be one. I think sea salt and acids. They’re the two things that enhance flavor. I’m also not afraid to use fat sparingly. Sea salt, acid, and fat are three of my favorite ingredients and the hardest to balance in a dish.
KM: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
RH: I really like playing with sweet and savory together. A lot of times we think of those things as being separate. Adding a fruit component to a savory dish or taking something you wouldn’t commonly think of as being sweet and adding an ingredient to it, like adding something to a confit, is fun. The cross between sweet and savory, opening people up to that, is good play for me. I enjoy that.
KM: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
RH: I think the way I cook food now is the way I like to eat food. I like it to be flavorful but refreshing and wholesome. I like really clean flavors, where you’re able to get a lot out of a little. We talk about freshness being so important and having pristine ingredients. I think using those [guidelines], you walk away from the table not only feeling satisfied, but you leave feeling nourished, which is so important. You satisfy your cravings and leave feeling nourished, like you ate something wholesome.
KM: How are you involved in your local culinary community? Nationally/Globally?
RH: We work with the farmers and our purveyors, not only securing their relationships, but having them reach out to [other] farmers as well to carry products for us. We support local farming and use seasonal products even more, and we cultivate our relationships not singling any one person out. We also hired 90% of our staff locally; very few came from other places. I traveled here two months before opening just to do job fairs. We work with local schools on internship-externship programs as well as supporting as many charities as we can. Over 65% of our openings were events for charities. We have the double purpose to serve charities and local communities—and getting the restaurant up to speed. We’ve built huge relationships with March of Dimes and Meals on Wheels. It’s something that Thomas is very adamant about, that we have been given so much that we really must give a lot back.
KM: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
RH: I am so excited about where I’m at now; all my focus is here. When I think about tomorrow, the next day, or a year from now, it’s about this place—growing with Thomas Keller’s restaurant group. It’s hard to think of something bigger and better than that when this consumes so much of my life. For now I’m so focused on this. I haven’t thought too far down the road. I’m in the middle of it now, in the beginning of an opening!