Chef Bertrand Chemel of 2941

Chef Bertrand Chemel of 2941
October 2010

In an area of the country until recently confined to strip malls and burger joints, Chef Bertrand Chemel brings a welcome dose of Gallic flair at 2941. An Auvergne boy born-and-raised, it was no surprise, then, when Chemel fell into his first job in a kitchen. At 14, he found himself sweeping the flour from the floors of the bakery and pastry shop next to his grandmother’s house. An obsession was born.

He would soon be under the wing of renowned chef Michel Gaudin at his eponymous destination restaurant in Megève, France. The two fell in quickly and Gaudin became his mentor, sending Chemel to Geneva’s Hotel du Rhône for training. Aptly, this small nation known mostly for being neutral, and making nifty portable knives, would be that all-important exposure to international cuisines. He also spent time at La Bastide St-Antoine in Grasse, France, and at the Savoy Hotel in London.

If Gaudin was Chemel’s first mentor, Daniel Boulud was his stateside guru after his move to the US . It was from this master of French-cuisine-for-Americans that Chemel honed his culinary style. He began as a line cook in 1999 at Daniel and with a stop along the way as Laurent Tourondel’s sous chef at Cello, he eventually landed at Café Boulud in 2003.

The sleekly modern 2941 where Chemel has found his own resting spot is an astonishingly idyllic place where you have to avoid bumping into Rodin sculptures and Dalis in the herb garden where Chemel plucks his aromatics daily—an appropriate venue for the contemporary Gallic fare that he interprets through the lens of Americana, and Virginia’s bounty.

Interview with Rising Star Chef Bertrand Chemel of 2941 – Falls Church, VA

Francoise Villeneuve: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Bertrand Chemel
: When I was 14 I was looking for a summer job and my grandmother lived next to a French pastry bakery. So I started working for the baker, cleaning parts, sweeping up flour, doing little stuff. I did that for two months and the following summer went back again. He started giving me more duties, pastries, bread, and I really fell in love with it. When I went back to school, I had to decide if I wanted to go to college or do cooking. I told my parents I wanted to quit school. I did my apprenticeship at a very countryside restaurant in a town called Urçay in Central France. Then I moved back to my hometown of Montluçon, in central France, and I did two more years at Ducs des Bourbons. After military service I found [Chef] Michel Gaudin in Megéve.

FV: Did you do any stages as a young chef in France?
Michel Gaudin was a two-star Michelin chef who’d opened his own little restaurant in Megève, on the border of France and Switzerland. I worked for him for about three years. A particularity of working with him was that it was a seasonal job in the mountains; I worked from October to April with no days off, but from May to October we had four days off a week. During those four days off he made me stage at any two- or three-star Michelin restaurant in the area. Georges Blanc’s Hotel du Rhone in Geneva gave me all the inspiration of a true three-star Michelin restaurant. It [taught] me if you do a lot of stages with the best restaurants you can learn very quickly what they're doing without the inconvenience of working there for four years peeling potatoes.

FV: What brought you to the US? How did you get established here?
I worked for Jacques Chibois for two years in Grasse, and it was really the unexpected, a connection to outside of France. At Jacques we had people from Canada, from Brazil, from New York. I met a French guy that had just [come] back from Daniel. Michel Gaudin used to send people to Joël Robuchon in Tokyo, and he called Daniel Boulud for me. I couldn’t have been a younger chef at 24 years old. [I had to] learn English. I started at Daniel working as garde manger and finished as the executive chef at Café Boulud. I worked with Andrew Carmellini for three years at Café Boulud. When he left in 2005 I took over until the end of 2007; I got three stars from [New York Times restaurant critic] Frank Bruni. I already had enough years with Daniel; at that point you need to decide if you want to stay with him or leave. After that I came here.

FV: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
BC: It's to experiment [with] flavors and be seasonal. I think our inspiration is to have kind of like a mix of classic and creation, but we're not el Bulli. We want to keep our authenticity of French American cuisine.

FV: What goes into creating a dish?
We go back to seasonal; we have a [big] connection to our purveyors. We keep contact with them to see the best of what they have every week. We don't do signature dishes because it's just a dish that for me becomes a boring dish; for the cooks and the customer there needs to be a new experience. You come to a restaurant to have something different. When you leave the big cities it's a different mentality. The restaurant was very well-received here in Virginia; people were actually very demanding of change and seeing something different.

FV: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
BC: I like to get involved in the new generation and keep them inspired by cooking. I'm working a lot with The CIA, with local schools in Maryland, and Johnson & Wales. I also think it's very important we do a couple of charity events to support our local farms. There is Bastille Day for the French embassy this Saturday. And at Thanksgiving we provide food for disadvantaged families.

FV: What advice do you have for an aspiring chef?
BC: I would say that the only feel[ing] that I have is young cooks want to learn too much new technique before they know how to learn basic cooking. I think the main challenge now is to take a kid from school and inspire [him/her] to be a chef. [Being a chef] doesn’t mean getting a job after school and you are a chef after a year or two. I think the mentality to be a chef has changed a little bit, and it is a challenge. We are always pushing young kids from school to have a passion; we are open to give stages and training.

FV: What chef would you like to cook for you and why?
BC: Pierre Gagnaire or Michel Bras. I think of three memorable dinners in my career. [The first was] Pierre Gagnaire in Saint Etienne in 1990. The second was Thomas Keller; it was for me very interesting to find an American chef with a French culinary background. The first time I came to New York and discovered the food of Thomas Keller was amazing. I would say the most exciting culinary experience was el Bulli. It was more an experience; something way different—definitely more than a dinner.

FV: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your career?
BC: Here it is to try and become a four-star for the size of the restaurant we have. We always push ourselves to change the menu and find something interesting to do. I try every year to do something different.

FV: What has been your proudest accomplishment in your career?
I'm proud to be where I am right now and also very grateful for the mentors that I had, Michel Gaudin in France and Daniel Boulud in New York. Without them I wouldn't have succeeded. I learned how to manage a French American style restaurant with Daniel Boulud. I was very proud to be recognized in New York City, getting three stars and I am very happy to be welcome in the DC area.

FV: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?
That's very good question, I never thought about it…I think if I wouldn't be a chef I would be somewhere in the food industry. I don't have any other alternative like a painter. I don't think I ever imagined doing something else.

FV: Where will we find you in five years?
I would love to bring 2941 to reach four stars. It’s a big dining room: 135 seats, a 150-seat banquet, two turns on Saturday, 1200 to 1400 [patrons] during the week…so it’s a big challenge.

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