Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Philip Tessier: I think it was an evolution of things. I started cooking at home. My mom would leave a note so that the kids could eat earlier, so I started cooking. I was the second-youngest but we would all pitch in. We didn’t have an oven for four years, so we would grill, and that became my thing. I enjoyed doing it. Thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, I wanted to do something I loved. I got a job almost by accident at the Williamsburg Inn. That was where it began—one mentor passes you onto the next. I didn't know much about the fine dining realm of things.
Katherine Martinelli: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs? Do you hire chefs with and without culinary school backgrounds?
PT: You know, it’s a tough question. You get out what you put in. I saw hundreds of kids in my position as a fellowship student—of 350 students, 275 were wasting their time and 75 were doing great. It’s something individual. If you can afford it, do it. If you can’t, it’s not the most important thing; the most important part is finding somewhere to work with good habits.
I have no preference for people who have gone to culinary school, it’s more about the mentality. You have to be motivated; it has to be the passion of your life and something you’re committed to giving time to. A lot of people go to school just because they want to go to school somewhere and their parents will pay for it. If you live in New York City or somewhere like that, just find somewhere good to work. But for me, growing up in Virginia, or if you’re growing up in the middle of nowhere, you go to school to open your horizons and broaden opportunities.
AB: What advice would you offer to young chefs just getting started?
PT: The most important thing is to be patient and stay focused. The trend here is that there are so many opportunities in the US that people seem to jump for the money before they are ready.
AB: Who is the coolest chef you’ve worked with?
PT: Eric Ripert. I worked at Le Bernardin when I came back from France, and Eric taught me to have an intense focus on flavors—respecting the dish as a whole. Everything on the plate plays off of each other. We made sauces twice a day, it was very systematic. The effort and time spent on creating a new dish was usually a month.
KM: What changes did you make when you arrived at Bouchon?
PT: The first and most noticeable change was rebuilding the kitchen. We made a $2 million renovation. My first job was to orchestrate that and keep the restaurant running despite the fact that it was under construction. We had to work in what we affectionately called the “electric kitchen.” We doubled our space and were closed for just three weeks. I’ve also worked on creating a marriage between the bistro mentality and the culture of The French Laundry and Per Se. It’s been a big challenge. We had our tenth anniversary recently, and now we’re just working on getting through the winter. We do regional dinners, and we’ve got Bastille Day coming up, so there’s always fun stuff going on. We just opened up the courtyard—there’s new seating out there.
AB: What goes into creating a dish?
PT: That's a good question. I’ll have to put my answer in the context of where I am right now. I start with what is coming out of our garden right now. The key is not losing track of the dish’s focus. With every dish there is a center piece—you can add cabbage to pork or romaine to pork, but romaine and cabbage don't go together. It goes back to the core focus of the dish and bringing that to the forefront. We always think of color, presentation, ease of execution for a busy restaurant, and cost, especially in these economic times.
AB: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
PT: For me it’s Japanese and French—I get that from Le Bernardin. A lot of the ingredients we use are those of a French chef, but our discipline is that of a Japanese chef. I get excited about the ingredients between the two countries. You are kind of limited here with the bistro concept, it doesn't apply too much here.
KM: What is your favorite ingredient right now?
PT: We have our garden, so everything comes out of there. I like anything that grows next door, like fresh fava beans. My favorite ingredient right now is Spring and local ingredients—and positive attitudes.
AB: At StarChefs we publish technique features for chefs to learn new things. Is there a culinary technique that you use in an unusual or different way?
PT: The predominant thing that seems to be missing in restaurants as a whole is sous vide. We just came out with a cookbook that was a collaborative approach; everyone has a backyard approach to it. You are going to see more of an effort to use sous vide as it becomes more mainstream and is presented as an educational element at school. I hope the CIA has it as part of their curriculum. Or even just vacuum packing, which helps you achieve things you wouldn’t be able to traditionally.
AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
PT: The most challenging thing is training people. All of us have a tendency to have our own way of doing things. It is the ultimate measure of your success. It’s hard to move forward and advance yourself when you’re still training people on the basic levels. You need to figure out how to train, what makes your cooks tick, how they learn, and what melds with their personalities.
AB: If there were one thing you could do over, what would it be?
PT: That is a tough one. There are so many pieces to that. The biggest challenge has been the remodeling we’ve done here over the past year. The one thing that I would change would be the approach we took to the staff during the remodeling—implementing a kitchen culture and bringing new life to the kitchen that would involve everyone. We had a huge shift from one culture to another, evolving into a culture with more discipline and newer techniques from Per Se. We should have moved more slowly towards where we were going, which is a hard thing for chefs to do.
AB: Which trends do you see emerging?
PT: Two very different trends: slow foods and organic foods versus molecular gastronomy, with restaurants like Alinea, wd50 and El Bulli moving in another direction all together. The people who do both trends well will be the most successful over the next 10 years.
AB: What chef would you like to cook for you?
PT: Escoffier. I just think that if anybody has had the most impact on me, it would probably be him or Joël Robuchon.
AB: How involved are you in your local culinary community?
PT: We do what we can to bring attention to the area, like through charity events and donating items. I'd like to find a way to do more things like we did in New York—taking what we don't use in the restaurant and giving it to homeless shelters and the like. We’ve worked out a program to send bread to schools and to the nearby veterans’ home. We’re also working on a program to bring people from the veterans’ home out of rehab and get them started again in the community through entry-level positions in the restaurant.
On a more local level, we’re also very dedicated to our garden; we go through the seed catalogs and pick out what we want to grow.
AB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
PT: The biggest challenge is the economy. I think we are doing really well; the downturn has taught us to stop and think more about our approach. We poured a lot of money into a kitchen, and maintaining our seat numbers has kept us on our toes and made us pay more attention to a lot of things.
AB: What are you doing to survive this economy? Are there any practices that are working for you?
PT: The first thing I do is look hard at what we’re purchasing and be creative. We have no rack or loin, and we get in fish items that are more local, that way we spend less on shipping. We try to go green. The most important key to success for us in the kitchen is to work as team—making sacrifices as needed, taking on more work in a given day, and even sometimes working fewer hours so someone else has enough. The numbers reflect that this is working.
AB: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?
PT: I stopped asking myself that question a long time ago. I might be a food writer—I enjoy writing.
AB: Please explain what steps you’ve taken to become a sustainable restaurant.
PT: I already mentioned the garden. We went to Sweden and did a series of dinners, and I tried the water, it was Nordic-fresh. We brought it out to all of our restaurants; that was one of my crowning achievements. I've made a push to work with purveyors that are geared towards working with sustainable fish. We've always had that approach to meat. We are getting lamb from a farmer in Pennsylvania who is raising sustainable land. Our goal is to support him so he can have an impact on the husbandry of lamb across the country. That is sustainable. He is dedicated—he cleans where they sleep. It is the cleanest tasting lamb. I’m proud of being able to support someone with a vision.
AB: What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
PT: There are two moments: The first is being a part of Per Se when it opened—being a part of a group of people who didn't know each other but came together to break the record books. Each of us felt like we contributed to make Per Se happen. The second is reinvigorating this restaurant, bringing a breath of fresh air and a forward-looking vision. All of that has really melded together. We never stop working together and are always looking at what's next. Coming in here and seeing this place change over the last one-and-a-half years has been the most rewarding experience.
AB: What’s next for you? Where will you be in five years?
PT: I think at some point I will end up on the East Coast near my family. I'm from Virginia, so probably in that area. I’d like to bring some new life to that area and work sustainably there. The Inn at Little Washington has been around for a long time, but nothing else has come along. I’d like to open something that would have an impact in that region, like when Per Se went to New York—it changed the restaurant scene. Maybe I’ll be the person who elevates people around there.