Kevin Lentz Chef, Owner French Grocery www.frenchgroceryinc.com
This week we sit down with Kevin Lentz, owner of French Grocery in Phoenix. The market, which opened this summer, offers a friendly neighborhood spot to get everything from gelato to French press coffee -- roasted locally in Tempe. Today Lentz, a Southern boy who spent most of his adult life in New Orleans, tells us about how he got the idea to open a French-Creole grocery and gives the scoop on where you have to eat when you make it to the Big Easy. Don't forget to come back tomorrow for the second part of the interview, in which Lentz spills the beans on how he got started in the biz and his not-so-secret passion for Old World wines.
Food lovers, if you've ever dreamed about quitting your day job to indulge your passion by owning a little, neighborhood spot where the community would gather over good food, drink and company, know now that Kevin Lentz is living that dream.
Sure, he didn't set out to open this grab-and-go market that's part grocery store part neighborhood coffeehouse and bakery, but that's just the direction in which things have been developing. At Phoenix's French Grocery you'll find a selection of pre-cooked meals - Creole comfort foods like beef bourguignon, shrimp etoufee and red beans and rice - as well a few hard-to-find grocery items, a nice selection of wines and freshly baked goods. The biggest hit so far, to Lentz's surprise, has been the macarons. They're selling up to 1,000 a week.
"We're becoming more of a bakery than I intended," Lentz says. "But I'm ok with that."
What he intended to be, or at least what he had always dreamed of owning, is something entirely different - though in a way, exactly what he has.
Lentz, who learned his kitchen skills while working in fine dining in New Orleans, wanted to open what he calls a "cottage bistro." He saw himself as the man behind one of those chef-driven, white tablecloth places housed inside an old converted home in a quaint New Orleans neighborhood. He wanted to focus on "building big flavors" and "bringing people together over good food."
While he might not have the white tablecloths, he is definitely bringing people together with his food. Their ultimate goal is accessibility, making well-thought food to appeal to everyone from well-traveled, food-obsessed types to I-eat-at-Olive-Garden diners.
"We get people who have been to France, and they know a lot more about that than I do," Lentz says. "But if you want a 'ben-yet,' hey, I can do that too."
With his wife Erin and her sister Melissa, Lentz opened the French Grocery this June. Lentz and his wife moved to Phoenix in December from New Orleans, leaving the city in which they met behind to be closer to Erin's family. None of them had ever owned a restaurant before, though Lentz says he and his wife had been thinking about opening up their own business for a few years.
"We lack a lot of institutional knowledge," Lentz admits. "But we have a fresh way of looking at things. We're kind of just trying to be ourselves - simple but exquisite."
He's a firm believer in doing things the right way and often times, that means the long way. Which is a bit counter-intuitive since each of the pre-made dinners at French Grocery can be picked up, popped in the microwave and enjoyed. You'd be wrong to assume these are just locally made t.v. dinners though. Lentz insists on taking the time to do things the traditional French way when he's making his Creole dishes, like whisking the roux for French Grocery's gumbo for 45 minutes and slow-cooking the onions for their French Onion Soup in the oven rather than caramelizing them in a pan.
"If you do it in a pan they cook too fast," he explains. "They get too sweet. It will never taste right. We made a lot of bad French Onion Soup before we got it right."
Three things you miss the most about New Orleans: 1. Oysters. Those are the best oysters in the world. 2. Live oaks. I miss the live oaks canopy. In New Orleans you can walk for blocks with out being under the sun. 3. Jazz music
One thing you want people to know about the French Grocery: While French Grocery has been an evolution, I was deliberate ... about doing something that was more connected to people. Being an introvert, I see this as a way to connect to people one at a time. I really just want to build relationships and build trust.
What would the French Grocery theme song be if it had one: La Vie En Rose, the Louis Armstrong version.
The best thing about being a restaurant owner is: Well it's the best thing as the worst thing. I'm living out my imagination but that's scary too because you never want to spoil a good dream with reality.
Four qualities of good Creole food: 1. time 2. love 3. good ingredients 4. very specific process
One dish that represents your style of cooking the best: A lot of times when people are coming over I make this dish I call paella-laya. I've always thought jambalaya got a little too separated from its Spanish roots so I bring some of that influence back by using saffron and seafood. I also like to cook it in a paella pan. What that dish says about me, I guess, is that I love to layer flavors and I love the history of cuisine.
One thing most people don't know about you: Most people don't see me as a ridiculously gushy father who's freaking out because his child is walking now.
Your personal mantra: Accessibility. I want a brand ... that's accessible to everyone, so on a very meager budget you can still get something special. It's also my personal goal to be bold and to be accessible.
Your favorite childhood food-related memory: When the first Mexican restaurant opened in town. I grew up in a small town in Mississippi so New Orleans was our cultural capital. I remember when I was probably a middle schooler, so probably 12 or 13 years old, we started getting Mexican immigrants coming to town. They opened up a restaurant and it was all the rage because we had fast food and a lot of mom and pop soul food places. I remember ordering the enchiladas and they were covered in this really lusty red sauce. That was the first time I ate something that I couldn't stop thinking about.
The most undervalued ingredient: I would say wine. I think people need to cook with wine more. I cook with sherry and vermouth a lot and what people don't realize is there are a lot of flavors that are wine soluable. So they don't get released until you booze your food up.
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(His recommendation: Amontillado-style sherry)
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