Fred Eliot didn't intend to cook for a living. Growing up in France, he learned plenty of useful kitchen skills from his grandmother and mother, but his English Literature studies led him away from food. A move to Iowa and then Ohio with his first wife took him even further from food culture, surrounding him with fast food chains. The shock this caused was enough to get him "cooking more" at home again, which ultimately convinced Eliot he needed to stand in front of stove rather than sit in front of a computer. An education at New York's French Culinary Institute allowed him to stage in Michelin-starred kitchens, and he worked in New York City for 5 years: At Le Cirque, The Oak Room, and Prune. But big city living wore him down.
Four years ago, Eliot moved with his family to Portland, beginning in fellow New York chef Eric Simeon's kitchen at Grace. Last fall, he left failed restaurant Spread to take charge of the kitchen at Petite Jacqueline, where he has garnered accolades. It seems like an appropriate twist of fate that the American-trained French chef is now cooking French comfort food in a bistro setting. In part one of a longer interview, Eliot discusses differences between NYC and Portland; his long road to a professional kitchen; his take on the importance of culinary school; and even his experience learning to butcher a rabbit. You'll never look at a lucky rabbit's foot the same way again.
You came from New York City to Portland. What's the difference between the two cities?
New York City is so much bigger, you don't bump into each other. Here it's all the time. You see cooks, chefs all the time. That's the big difference, that and the talent pool. The talent pool in New York City is much wider. I worked there for five, six years, kind of felt done with it—not that I'm done with restaurants there 'cause there are so many of them, but I felt like, alright, it's time to step back a little bit, have a family life, have a life, move to Portland. I ended up working at Grace for Eric Simeon 'cause he was a New York chef. In New York there's no comparison, these guys are monsters. They have so much money, access to so much amazing equipment, you know? Here, for me, my first year was a hard adjustment. I had worked in really good kitchens, Michelin-star kitchens. I staged for Alain Ducasse, I had worked at Le Cirque, the Oak Room at the Plaza when it was redone—all the combi ovens you wanted, you name it, we had it. Money was no object.
So coming here to Portland the adjustment was pretty big, you know what I mean? I cooked in copper pans and all-clad pans, then I come here and everybody's cooking in warped pans, black steel pans. It's like, What is this, what are you doing? It's a challenge! I feel like in the end it makes you a better cook, because you have to do a lot more. When I was in New York I never had to scrub the floor, clean an oven, plunge a toilet, figure out why some sink is leaking. It makes you a better, rounded cook to do that stuff. In New York everybody does that for you. You have porters who clean hoods, they clean everything. So that's the biggest difference: Here you do a lot more.
I was reading that you learned to cook in France from your mother, your grandmother. Did they have the same level of equipment you found here in Maine?
My grandma and mum, they had good cast iron pots, just something they had. But in my grandma's farmhouse where I went every summer—because, you know, French people don't wanna work, they get 8 weeks of vacation every year—I had two to three months every summer that I spent in the farmhouse and there was just cold water, an outhouse, no hot water, no heat. Her knives were definitely not sharp. It was just a huge wood fire stove.
It was kind of cool 'cause my grandma would do everything with that. She'd feed the fire, and there were compartments, so you had one oven at the bottom just under where the fire was that was really hot. Then she had little ovens on the other sides. There was one all the way at the end where she'd keep her slippers, so they'd be nice and warm, or she'd keep a brick in there, and put it in her bed at night, to keep her warm. She was very cool, and she was a very good cook too.
So it was very rustic. My grandma, the first thing she showed me how to do was kill a rabbit. And she didn't do it the nice way. She would just hang a rabbit by the back legs, find a piece of wood, and just crack it in the back of the neck. Most of the time it didn't die right away anyway.
I always tell the story of the bloody paw: She'd give me a paw for good luck, but, you know, just cut it off and give it to me. It'd be in my pocket, and my mum would go, "What's that smell?" Oh, it's just a paw that's rotting in my pocket. My grandma was pretty hardcore. She made an amazing pot-au-feu, this French beef stew, simply because it was cooking all day long. Big bones, we'd put a huge marrow bone in there, fatty parts of meat, lean parts of meat, usually a whole beef shin with the meat on. So I did one when I first started here at Petite Jacqueline. It's good. It's just comfort food. That's what I grew up with, French comfort food, so that's why I love it.
So you jumped from that experience to culinary school?
When I was in college in France I studied English literature, and I met this American woman, my first wife. She was doing her PhD, so we decided to move to the US. We first moved to Iowa, she was at the University of Iowa, so, that was, uh, talk about culture shock. Then we moved to Columbus, Ohio, 'cause she had family there, which was also interesting. Really deep America. Very little food culture, lots of fast food chains. A ridiculous amount of fast food chains. It was pretty weird. I had a really hard time. I remember this one store that since then Whole Foods bought out, the Wild Oats chain. They had a selection of French cheeses, and I was like, Oh my god, I'm in Heaven, I love it.
I started cooking more in Ohio because there was really nothing. I remember watching Jacques Pépin, bought his cookbook, then my life kind of fell apart. I got a divorce, met someone else. She was miserable, she was doing architecture, she wanted to cook too, so I said, "Let's just move out and go to culinary school in New York." So we moved. I worked in IT at the time, in a corporate office. I was miserable, I just hated sitting in an office, neon lights, sitting there, it was a nightmare, I was miserable. So during the day I would go to my job, then I would go to culinary school at night. It's very hard to make this transition, to go from making decent money to making absolutely nothing. That's the thing they don't tell you about culinary school.
But it was useful for me because I was the one paying for it, so I was paying attention, and we actually had pretty good teachers at night. They were all French chefs that used to own restaurants, some of them still did. They were very good, talented guys. So I actually got really good training, 'cause they have a restaurant called L'Ecole on Broadway. You actually went through service. They had four levels at the time, and at level four you'd just come in and prep and cook. They don't teach you about food costs, they don't say, "Be careful with your prep, you're wasting a lot, that's why you're paying so much money," but it teaches you how to cook. It teaches you a good amount of stuff.
It's really dependent on what kind of teachers you have. If you have good teachers it's beneficial. But it doesn't make you...you don't start as sous chef, you still start low level making $10 an hour, so that doesn't matter, it doesn't help you that way. It helps you progress faster because you know the basics, you understand stocks, you understand terms and terminology and how things work, but you definitely don't start at a higher rate.
Speaking of culinary schools, many of them have faced lawsuits regarding promises they make students. In response to that, Eater National recently asked chefs if culinary school gets cooks hired. How much does it matter to you in the hiring process?
For me, if you went to a really good school like the Culinary Institute of America or French Culinary Institute, I think it's beneficial if you're older. When I started I was older, so I didn't have the experience the whole time, so school was kind of a jump start to the time that should be spent in kitchens that I missed. I got a condensed experience. But the thing is it's a bunch of different things that make you successful. You have to really want it. I was hungry, I wanted to cook. I worked like 100 hours a week. I worked for free at Le Cirque for about a year. I would do my regular job 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., go to Le Cirque, and do four shifts a week. Just so I could learn. And I learned a ton. I had a really good chef that I worked with, but that's just dedication. If you really want it, it's there.
But I think if you're 19, finish high school, go to a good restaurant in Boston, New York, San Francisco, go to a restaurant and say, "Hey, I want to cook." They'll start you on a station or maybe as a dishwasher, but they'll give you the best training you can get.
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