Interview with Chef Tony Esnault of Alain Ducasse at the Essex House—New York, NY
Antoinette Bruno: Why did you start cooking? What, or who inspired you?
Tony Esnault: I think my greatest inspiration comes from my grandparents – they had a farm in the Loire Valley. The farm had cherry trees that lined fields of wheat. I used to spend a lot of time in those trees. My grandmother taught me many techniques that I apply to my cooking today at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. For example I use my grandmother’s technique for pickling cherries with vinegar, coriander, bay leaves, and cloves for a Griotte reduction and a Bing/Rainier Cherry relish that accompanies a squab dish currently in place on the menu at ADNY.
AB: Did you attend culinary school? Would you recommend it to young aspiring cooks?
TE: Yes, I went to school in Lyon for four years, which taught me about the basics and gave me a good foundation of technique. I would definitely recommend culinary school; after you learn the technique and traditions, you can start to experiment and become more innovative.
AB: Who are your mentors? What are some of the most important things they taught you?
TE: Alain Ducasse, first and foremost, taught me how to maintain flavors without transforming the product too much. I don’t ever mix more than three ingredients in one single dish.
Sylvain Portay. I worked with him at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. He is like a father to me and taught me about the American sensibility.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
TE: Consistency from the kitchen to the dining room.
AB: Are there any secret ingredients that you especially like?
TE: I have no secret ingredients. To help my team learn a little more every day.
AB: What flavor combinations do you favor?
TE: I like tomato, truffle, and basil- the peppery side of basil combined with the acidity of the tomato, and the richness of the truffle.
AB: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool?
TE: My team, both front and back of the house.
AB: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or use in an unusual way?
TE: I like to finish red vegetables in a little bit of vinegar, like beets, or radishes. It preserves and intensifies the color.
AB: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
TE: “What are your goals?” I want to see if they have a larger commitment for the future. I look directly in their eyes to see if they have the ambition and drive to work 12 or 13 hours a day in a very demanding environment.
AB: What tips would you offer young cooks just getting started?
TE: I’d tell them to observe, first and foremost. I believe that it’s very important when you’re starting out to keep a low profile. It’s like life. The first step is observation. And also, you must always anticipate the effect of your actions, and always ask questions if you do not understand why.
AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
TE: I like Escoffier for all the basics and of course Alain Ducasse’s Grand Livre de Cuisine series !! I also love antique cookbooks.
AB: What cities do you favor for culinary travel?
TE: I love what the 5 boroughs New York have to offer; you can get every type of ethnic food here, and there is so much energy!
AB: What are your favorite restaurants off the beaten path in New York?
TE: It would be difficult to only name a few.
AB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
TE: Definitely an orientation towards ingredient sourcing as the consciousness and the interest for the product becomes today even more important going hand in hand with the issue of biodiversity. We need to pay greater attention to how varieties of species are preserved and consider the entire chain, from the producer to the client.
AB: Where do you see yourself in five years? In ten years?
TE: Next to Alain Ducasse as I have already learned so much from him in Monaco and now New York.