Chef News

Chef Vincent of Vincent on Camelback, Part Two

Yesterday we brought you the first part of our conversation with Chef Vincent Guerithault of Vincent on Camelback. Today our talk continues.

What was the new life like for you when you came to America?
It was a lot of work. I didn't speak a word of English so it was tough and I was working 16 hours a day, six days a week, which was a little more than I was doing in Paris. But now I'm glad that I learned how to work that many hours because that's what we do all the time here. If you want to work 40 hours a week you might as well stay in France, you'll work 36 hours a week. We do that in two days, after 25 years in business that's what we do, my wife and I, we are working from morning to midnight, whatever it takes to stay in business.

How do you stay relevant as a restaurant after 25 years?
We have done some remodeling in the restaurant, trying to bring in a new, younger crowd. Over the years we dealt with an older crown and we need to learn how to renew that crowd if we want to stay in business another 25 years, it's part of the business. It's not easy but it's been done before. You cannot stay static. When we opened the couple in their 40s would come with their little kids, well now they're in their 70s and the kids have kids of their own already. So you have to try to attract them.

And the key to your continuing culinary relevance?
Of course the products and having a wonderful wine list is a must....If you work with cream, well you work with cream, not half-and-half or milk, you have to use the cream. Butter -- don't use margarine, use butter. So if it's truffle, it's truffle, if you're willing to pay the price. You have to try to use the best products and then of course you have to have the basics.

How would you describe your restaurant concept?
When we opened it was not like a French restaurant you would see in San Francisco or New York because we wanted to do something a little different, to combine the ingredients that you find in the Southwest with my French background, French techniques. And so when we opened it was more like a Southwest, French-Southwest, or some people call it French-Mex.

How is that reflected in your menu?
So we see some lobster chimichangas or some duck tamales, smoked salmon quesadillas. It's not Mexican but I learned and we looked at what was being done in Mexican restaurants here and we mixed it with my French background, so I still use cream, butter, and foie gras, and escargot sometimes....I think we were the first ones in Phoenix to do that.

Is there any French food you wouldn't serve to Phoenicians?
For example sweetbread [think offal, not brioche], veal sweetbread....Kidneys, lamb kidneys, veal kidneys I'm not sure, veal liver I'm not sure, tripe. Rabbit we do very seldom, as a special we do it once in a while....Frog legs very seldom, escargot once in a while.

You've also written a cookbook...
It's a lot of work. It takes a long time....We are not a Julia Child or Jacques Pépin....There's so many cookbooks being published every year but very few of them make any money. If you look at the most successful cookbooks it's the ones, nowadays, that are associated with a cooking show.

So what sets your book apart?
The fact that it's what's traditionally Southwest and some recipes are a combination of Southwest and French. It was the fact that it's recipes from the restaurant and it's dishes that we still do, so you can do that at home without having a professional kitchen.

And what do you cook at home yourself?
Not much, very seldom. We're not home very often, so maybe one night a week or Sunday night, but by then we're a little tired. If I make a mess in the kitchen here at least I have enough people to clean up after myself, at home it doesn't work. We don't ever go out, just very simple, maybe some fish and cheese and a good bottle of wine and that's it.

You must have a favorite thing to eat...
I like game. In the winter time. Pastries, I enjoy baking. I like veal, fish, lobsters. There's not much I dislike.

Do you take vacations?
We go to France in the summer time for two or three weeks and that's it. I mean, we enjoy France and traveling. We used to do a lot of cruises, we don't have much time to do that anymore. Two or three weeks out of the kitchen, I go crazy. I try to be here all the time and I enjoy being here. And you have to enjoy what you're doing. If you're going to spend eighty hours a week, you better enjoy what you're doing, and you learn how to enjoy it too.

What's your recipe for success?
You have to lead a balanced life and make sure everything is smooth at home. We've seen too many businesses falling apart because the business may be doing OK but something at home is not. It's been a challenge but so far we've been very successful at it. We're very proud of that....I think that what is very important is for you to like what you're doing and that you're willing to work long hours.

Check back tomorrow for one of Chef Vincent's original French-Mex recipes.

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Maya Dukmasova