This is a three-part interview. Part One and Part Three are also available.
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 two of a longer interview, Eliot gets into differences between France and America; dissects his aversion to cloves; explains why he cooks food he likes; and responds to haters.
Were people around you supportive of your efforts to switch careers?
A lot of my chefs that I worked for asked, "What are you doing? What are you doing? Why do you wanna cook?" A lot of them told me, "If I could do something else, I would!" It's like, well, this is America, so you can do that if you want to.
France is very narrow-minded. They have tunnel-vision when it comes to that stuff. You go to school, you do what you're supposed to do, and then you follow that path, and that's it. You don't question anything. It's funny: It's a socialist country, but very narrow-minded. If you're gonna go to college to do English Literature, you're gonna become a teacher or professor, that's it. You're not going to do anything else. If you're a mechanical engineer, you're going to go into engineering, that's it.
I was never like that, I think that's why I was meant to go to the US. I was always questioning, and they hated me for that. And I had an American accent too, so that was not good!
European schools typically teach British English. How'd you pick up an American accent?
When I was growing up in Paris, I listened to a lot of hip hop. In college I was a DJ for a bit, I did east coast hip hop. So I picked up a lot. In France we listen to a lot of American music, so you pick up things here and there. I did go to England for an exchange for 3 months when I was about twelve, so that helped too. Nothing like going to the country to speak the language. That was it. So I got better and better. But people still tell me they can't understand me. It's the joke in the kitchen: "No one understands me!" I like the east coast, though, 'cause there's a lot of history attached to it. People are nicer. I like Mainers, they're down to earth.
Maybe not all of them: You've been called a hack by a commenter on this site before. Any response?
Hey, if you think I'm a hack, if you think I'm a…why don't you come here, Petite Jacqueline, and I'll cook you a 3-course meal for free, on the house. Show up, be a man, or woman, or whatever, and show up to the restaurant, and I'll cook you, on the house, a 3-course meal, and then you can form an opinion. I'm just saying. I'm calling you out! You have a big mouth. Choose anything from the menu and I'll cook it for you. It pisses me off. We're here debating things, and then what happens is, these kinds of commenters prevent people from making critical comments.
On the other hand, there's another commenter, I don't know who the guy is personally, but he makes interesting comments. He always has something to say. He doesn't look just at the Portland area, he also looks at all the other areas, where there are so many good cooks out in restaurants where people are trying.
If I don't agree with you, I'm just not gonna agree, that's it. And it's fine, you can have a different opinion. I don't care. I'm not gonna go into a two hour argument with you, I'll be like, "No, I disagree. I think French foie gras and Spanish foie gras and Quebec foie gras is way better than American foie gras." It's like saying, "French beef is better than American beef." No. French beef is terrible. We all know that. American beef is much better. That's what Eater's for, sharing opinions, "This is what I think about this." I'm okay with people disagreeing with me. I don't have a problem with it. The food industry is so varied. You can't say this or that's the absolute truth. It's always, "I think this is…," "In my opinion this is what I feel...." I do the best with what I have.
I don't use French foie gras. I use what I think is the best foie gras in America, which is D'Artagnan, because they select everything carefully. They have a much more rigorous selection process, and it's also the French method, so it's a different type of foie. It's 100% corn-fed, it's eviscerated while it's still warm, so it makes a big difference. I think the foie gras we make here is classic. It's not cooked, it's cured, and the flavor is incredibly clean, and it's foie gras 100%. I don't try to mask anything. If you want foie gras, you get foie gras, that's it. I don't coat it with anything else, I don't put gelée on top, I don't mask anything. I give you a piece of bread and some foie gras, and that's it. If you like foie gras you'll like this.
I don't try to do anything else. I've seen too many restaurants here will use foie gras pieces. It's disgusting, that stuff is bad. I want people to be able to say, "Okay, I've had foie gras, the real deal." But that's my opinion, some people like to do different things. Whatever. For me, when I want foie gras, I want foie gras. It's the same thing when I want bone marrow. I want the flavor of bone marrow. I don't want it to be mixed with anything else.
You believe in what you do.
I believe in what I do, so I'm not gonna pretend that I don't. Everything I do, and everything I cook, it's because I like it. I think it's important, you have to cook the food you like to eat. If you don't, you're not gonna make good food. I love to eat offal, I grew up eating that stuff because my parents weren't rich, my grandmother wasn't rich. So we only ate offal. It was brains, kidneys, livers. You name it, I ate it from a super young age.
Everything is anchored in your memory. I had a discussion with another cook the other day. You don't realize how important it is, the food you ate when you were a kid, the memories you have when you were a kid, how important they are to later on in your life. Why do you like s'mores? Why do you like peanut butter and jelly? Why do you like that? Because that's what you ate when you were a kid. It's anchored in there. When I was a kid I ate baguette with nutella in it. That's my peanut butter and jelly. I'm okay with PB&J, it doesn't really bring any memory, not like biting a piece of baguette with nutella in it.
You don't realize, it really starts programming your palate in a way when you cook. Deeply inside I think that's always what you're looking for. Some people don't have that exposure to a lot of flavor, and it's too bad, but you can fix it too. Sometimes you go as far away as possible because you have bad memories of that. For me, it's like a lot of spices. Allspice, cloves, cinnamon, even. Cinnamon we use in France is a lot less aggressive or spicy than here. When I first came to the US, I thought, "Ugh, I can't stand it." Holidays and eggnog, I still can't stand eggnog. I find it absolutely repulsive.
Or clove, for example. I remember going to the dentist, you had a cavity, they'd put a piece of clove in your tooth to kill the infection. For a week or two, then you'd go back and they'd take out the piece of clove and put the permanent filling in there. Every time I go to the dentist, which I HATED, I would always have this flavor, this taste of clove in my mouth, so every time I smell clove, I'm like, "Ugh, no. Dentist!" It's very funny, your memory and your flavor. Whatever you taste and smell is so accurate to your childhood.
So no cloves in the kitchen?
No, anytime they want to pickle anything, I tell them, "No fucking cloves, no cinnamon, no fucking allspice, I don't want to see any of that!" Anise or coriander, I'm okay with that, but if you put one piece of clove in there I swear to God…! It's funny, that's what your palate is like.
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