Chef Chat: Jacques Qualin, J&G Steakhouse

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In a world teeming with celebrity chefs, Jacques Qualin isn't particularly well-known. The J in J&G Steakhouse -- the newish, top-of-the-bill restaurant at The Phoenician -- stands not for Jacques, but for Jean-George, as in J&G's creator, namesake, head chef and owner - Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

But if you're lucky enough to dine at this particular J&G -- Vongerichten's first venture in the Valley, but just one in a long line of his Michelin-starred restaurants worldwide -- the experience will be all Jacques. Chef de Cuisine Qualin was the one in the kitchen from the beginning.

Soft spoken with a thick French accent, Qualin can certainly take the credit for the extraordinary food that is turned out daily at the steakhouse - not that he would. This is not a guy who's going to gush. Not in English, anyway.

For a man with little name recognition himself, Qualin's resume is littered with the names of famous chefs: He studied under Michel de Mattei, Claude deLigne and Daniel Boulud at New York's Le Cirque. He worked at the legendary Taillevent in Paris and was the First Sous-chef at Vongerichten's Jean Georges restaurant in New York.

He's a chef who's clearly stuck to the basics during his 27-year career. Having started as an apprentice at a small hotel in the France-Compte region of the French countryside at age 16, he sees cooking as profound and essential.

"In France, people love to eat," he says. "It's three meals...It's sitting meals, and it's serious. People are very serious about eating."

Unable to choose just one ingredient that he loves most, he explains what's at the core of the kitchen: "The main, main, main ingredient in a kitchen - you turn around, it's always onions, potatoes, garlic," he says. "And that's really simple ingredients - but the way you do it could be elaborate."

And it is, at this steakhouse -- where the menu includes everything from potato gratin to to sweet corn ravioli with basil butter and cherry tomatoes (for that recipe, check back with us tomorrow) -- the food philosophy is evident. Simple-made-elaborate is right.

Whether it's filet mignon or short ribs, every cut of meat is offered with no fewer than seven different sauces to choose from, in true French form (not to mention the ten different side dishes).

Now at J&G, surrounded by the most breathtaking view in town, Qualin finds himself a Frenchman in Phoenix. (That sounds like the beginning of a joke - probably one at the expense of the French. Or Phoenix.)

But he has not lost his precise Frenchness, at least, not in the kitchen. Both drive and discipline bubble to the surface during our interview, even through his tight-lipped English.

"It's a domain where a lot of things are involved and a lot of precision must be maintained; quality has to be maintained, and you cannot relax too much on yourself," he says.

However you say it, Jacques Qualin clearly loves being the man in the kitchen.

"It's the beauty of cooking," he says. "I couldn't see myself doing something else."

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