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Vincent Guerithault of Vincent on Camelback

This week we sat down to chat with Phoenix food scene legend Vincent Guerithault, the man behind Vincent on Camelback, Vincent Market Bistro, Vincent's Van Go and The Camelback Market.

Think of Guerithault as the local Mr. Miyagi of fine dining: years of culinary experience have endowed him with wisdom for home and kitchen and taught him to work hard, know the basics, and embrace localism. Check back later this week for one of Guerithault's original restaurant recipes.

When are you from in France and when did you come to the US?
My parents live in Nice. In May '76 I had an opportunity to work in a restaurant in a suburb of Chicago so I had all my visas for it, and I thought I was gonna stay a year....It was nice, it was a different pace, different way of life. At that time I lived in Paris so it was great for me to try to see something else.

Obviously you ended up staying for a little longer than a year. When did you open your own restaurant?
The main restaurant we opened in December of '85 and then we opened the little bistro here about nine years ago. Before that I was a chef in a little restaurant called Oaxaca from 1979 to 1984.

How could you have traded Chicago for Phoenix?
The snow and the cold and the blizzards of Chicago.

What is the biggest difference in the restaurant business between France and the US?
I think the pace. It seems to be faster here....You go to a restaurant in Paris and most of them, the fancy places, don't open before 7:30 at night, that table of four that you made a reservation a month in advance, it's your table for the whole evening. Here you try to turn the table twice or three times and you open at 5.

How did you get into cooking?
I always liked cooking at home, always helping my mom. And I was I guess doing better in the kitchen than at school so my parents decided it was time for me to try to enter working life, and that's what I did when I was sixteen years old.

Where did you work?
I was an apprentice in a restaurant, washing dishes, moping floors, doing things that nobody else wants to do. That's not very interesting but at least it's the foot in the door, it allows you to experience life in the kitchen and slowly you've got the knowledge and you look at what the other chefs are doing, and that's the way it's still done. A lot of kids go to cooking school but most of them I would say still go through an apprenticeship when they are young. It's pretty hard but it's the fastest way to learn.

How long did it take you to actually start cooking?
It takes year before you're really by yourself in front of the stove but as you wash dishes and do things that nobody else wants to do, you're still participating, peeling apples or doing sorbets and ice creams, doing deserts, doing things that slowly allows you to go up the ladder and do pastries. So it takes years and years before you start learning all the different parts of the kitchen.

Jack of all trades
It's so important when you want to be a chef to learn all aspects of cooking. And when you're an apprentice in a restaurant when you're sixteen, seventeen years old, usually the first part of the kitchen where you're assigned is the pastries. You learn how to do pastries first because you don't put too much pressure on the pastry guy or the kid who is doing all the work for the pastry chef. Being on the line is a lot of pressure form the waiters, from the customers.

Who inspires you?
The chefs who taught me, the first owners of restaurants I had to work with, it was tough but I remember what they were teaching me. The chef owner of the restaurant in Chicago, who's seventy years old now, he started when he was twelve years old so that's another teacher. Successful guys....When you look at what a chef like Wolfgang Puck did in Los Angeles, it's amazing.

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Why Wolfgang Puck?
I had the pleasure of working with him in the south of France.... I admire what he's done over the last forty years. You see a lot of guys who open restaurants but most of them are not chefs. Wolfgang is a chef and that's very seldom that you will see that.

What was it like to work with him?
At the time we were kids, I was 16, he was 19 or 20. We were just playing around. It was in Provence in a place called Baumanière in a village called Les Baux, south of Avignon. You're in a the kitchen with 25 other chefs and a bunch of kids like me who didn't know what we were doing. At the time Wolfgang was one of the many, many other chefs. He wasn't the only one who was great but after that he was the only one that I knew then that I still know who was so successful.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of our interview.

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