This is part two of our interview with Kevin Lentz, owner of Phoenix's French Grocery. Yesterday he told us about how he dreamed of opening a cottage bistro in New Orleans - and how that dream led him to French Grocery. Today, we learn about how he fell in love with the restaurant business and get his first impression of Phoenix as a restaurant town. If you missed yesterday's portion of the interview, you can go back and read it here.
See also: 7 Best Gelato Shops in Metro Phoenix
The luxury of doing things right is one of the upsides of French Grocery's pretty unique business model, Lentz says. Unlike in a traditional restaurant setting where the kitchen has to focus on efficiency to get through a busy dinner service, Lentz can take the time to focus on quality above all else.
Lentz's passion for food that's rooted in the French classics isn't so surprising when you learn that most of his experience in a restaurant kitchen came from working at an upscale Creole restaurant in New Orleans. It's since closed; the lakefront building was lost in Hurricane Katrina.
"The few people I knew who were working in restaurants [in college] were in the front of the house, because that's where all the money is," he says. "But I was just not interested in that, so I did something really stupid and went to work for minimum wage [in the kitchen]."
He stared as a dishwasher, though he only held that position for a couple days before a prep cook didn't show up for work. He got promoted and would stay there for the next three years. He even took a year off of school at Tulane to learn the ins and outs of the business from his colleagues, some of who were classically trained culinary school grads. When he finished graduate school the lure of weekends off and regular hours landed him at a comfortable corporate-type gig, but "there was always that bug biting me at the back of the neck," he says. He knew he belonged in food.
And it's not just the ability to work with food that he loves about French Grocery. Lentz, a self-described introvert, sees his work as "an opportunity to get to know people, one at a time." The best way to get him chatting, if you want to know, might be to ask for his help selecting a bottle of wine.
The rows of mostly Old World wines at French Grocery are a new addition, one of Lentz's pet projects and a way for him to share his knowledge about the more obscure varietals of French wines. He's gathered an impressive knowledge of wines the easiest way you can - by drinking them, he says. And thanks to a good friend who worked in the distribution business.
When he used to dream about his white tablecloth restaurant, Lentz always knew he'd have a great wine list. But since opening French Grocery he's found a new outlet for his booze-y passion.
"I never thought I would get to pop open a bottle of wine just to taste it - and have a good reason for it. A business reason for it," he says with a smile.
He's found that because of Arizona's proximity to Napa, many people are much more knowledgeable about California wines. By contrast, in New Orleans he says the focus lies more in Old World wines. It's created an opportunity for Lentz to appeal to wine lovers looking for a new place to pick up a different varietal of French of Italian wine, as well as for him to educate the masses.
"Every bottle over there was hand selected," he adds. "So it has a purpose for being here."
It's just up to you to ask.
Your favorite drink and where you get it: A sazerac at The Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans. It's a special experience.
Your best recommendation for dinner in New Orleans: Either Arnaud's, Antoine's or Galatoire's for a "grand Creole experience." It's old fashioned - the food is still very much stuck in the past, but there's a place for that. It will be a revelry.
Your favorite meal ever:
My favorite meal at a restaurant was at Mosca's Restaurant. This is an Italian restaurant that goes back to the 40s, so this place was known for being a mobster hangout. It right on the bayou; it's like the last stop of civilization before you're in the bayou. My friend had just gotten engaged so we were to celebrate. It's very good down home food, it's pricey but the food is extraordinary. I look a 1992 Borollo and the food is all family style - we went all out. It was a feast. The simplest dishes but big flavors. We ordered the filet mignon to share, which was funny because there was nothing "mignon" about it. You could carve off slices. That meal holds a special place in my heart.
My favorite meal at home was the night that my first daughter was born. We had a dinner party and I had fresh speckled trout we caught, because that was in season. And I had gone to the Shrimp Lot, which is like a parking lot with a bunch of kiosks in it. The dinner was ridiculous. But the thing was, we go to bed - and I was in bed thinking, "I drank a little too much, I'm really looking forward to going to sleee," and it couldn't have been more than an hour later my wife was like, "Honey, we need to go to the hospital."
One trend you're totally over: My cheeky answer would be kale. I'm tired of everyone I meet just having discovered kale. Also, the whole micro gastronomy thing - like foam - that never took hold in New Orleans and I'm grateful for that.
Also, IPAs. There are good IPAs and there's a place in the world for IPAs, but what I've discovered now, as someone who's trying to sell beer and wine, is that hoppiness is just a way to cover up bad beer.
The best comfort food is: Red beans and rice with a length of chaurice, fresh spicy pork sausage, which I haven't found an acceptable substitute for yet.
Describe your first impression of Phoenix as a restaurant town: I feel under qualified to answer this ... but I'm surprised I don't see a lot more white tablecloth Mexican food.
What's a foodie: This is someone who, while enjoying or anticipating one meal, is already thinking about the next.
What are your thoughts on bacon: We're guilty of doing a thing called praline bacon. And I really do feel guilty about it. I love pork and I love pork fat, but usually I don't put pork belly where it doesn't belong historically.
Your best advice for people when picking out a bottle of wine: Always build upon a previous experience in wine so that way you're not always having wine you forget about.
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Where do you see yourself in ten years: I would like to be continuing the work I'm doing now, making good food accessible. I'd like our brand to be one that's trusted for quality and taste.
Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with:
Aurore de Beauduy - Vogue Bistro Justin Olsen - Bink's Midtown Marco, Jinette, and Edmundo Meraz - Republica Empanada Brian Peterson - Cork Brian Webb - Hey Joe! Filipino Street Food Lester Gonzalez - Cowboy Ciao Renetto-Mario Etsitty - Tertio German Sega - Roka Akor Marco Bianco - Pizzeria Bianco Brad and Kat Moore - Short Leash Hot Dogs and Sit...Stay