Interview with Chef Jean-Michel Diot

Up, close and personal:

- How did you become interested in culinary flavors and savors?
Chef Diot: I grew up in a family surrounded by women; Germaine my maternal grand mother, my mother and many aunts, were each culinary masters. That was a daily leisure, of course Saturday dinners and Sunday lunches were more lavish.

- So, women were the kick, anyone else?
CD: Male chefs represent the technical aspects of my education. They became involved in my career later. To be more accurate, the mid-seventies, when I started my apprenticeship at Restaurant Magnard in Vienne, a two star Michelin restaurant. It was the old fashion way to learn, a professional immersion at a young age.

- Was there a chef in your career who was more influential than others?
CD: All chefs had a role in my career. Every “Maison,” as we call it in France, had a different interest. After Magnard, I went to Three-star Michelin La Pyramide, where I learned traditional and classic styles. I learned to create a special with what a fisherman or a hunter pulled from his game bag. I also have the fond memory of Mrs. Point who was decorating her late husband’s photo with a bouquet of fresh flowers every day. Almost like a god with a touch of nobility, a beautiful endearment.

- How can you go beyond that?
CD: In Neuilly sur Seine, the very chic Parisian suburb, Chef Michel Rubod opened my eyes to urban cooking. I would be half kidding if I told you that the langoustine looked Parisian…. It is a feeling….Which means that at 4.00 am we were attending the market in Rungis, one of the largest and finest markets in Europe, and bringing to the ingredients the pomp and circumstance of the great Parisian nights. The sophistication of the cuisine and the cunning of Chef Rubod were an impressing match.

- And you left him?
CD: It is common to change “Maison” in this profession, at least during the first years, to learn different styles as quickly as possible.

-Tell us about another “Maison,” to give us more appetite for this profession?
CD: Michel Guerard, a perfectionist, in all aspects. Known for unusual ingredients like Ortollans, an herb garden, a kitchen equipped with a traditional fire place to grill lobsters. He was always working on details to emphasize the taste, rendering the flavors to visualize their nobility. The savors at Guerard’s were unique and the use of the spice was probably the strongest I had experienced in my entire career at that time.

- Any time in your career you felt like settling down?
CD: Going down South, to the Royal Gray with Jacques Chibois became a serious professional accomplishment for me and I stayed there for 4 years. I became a sous-chef with head chef function. Jacques was a leader and took me to New York, where I worked under his consulting for Hotel Maxim’s de Paris. This was after my one year stint at the Chateau D’Esclimont, near Chartres, where I was Executive chef.

- Is there any highlight you would like to raise about Cannes and the French Riviera?
CD: I was conquered by the richness of smaller food markets, and discovering a regional cuisine. At that time, you would never come across the term organic on a menu. Although food was mostly organic, all chefs I worked for never used the term. There were regional pedigrees, like chickens were from Les Landes or from Bresse. It is amazing to see now we all have to use that term because food and marketing have evolved in a certain way. Today, I use the term “organic” on my menu regularly, and am eager to use as many and talented farmers.

- So you have a starred Michelin resume? Where could this lead you?
CD: Yes, star Michelin experiences only, until I went to New York where the Guide Michelin was not published yet. I landed in New York in November 1987, to open the Hotel Maxim’s de Paris, the actual Peninsula Hotel. There I was the Executive Chef. I was quickly captured by the City and when I decided to conquer more, I opened Park Bistro, Les Halles and Brasserie des Theatres, which were instant successes. The interest of the press, whether national or international, was impressing. The bistro concept had been restored and it was well greeted by New Yorkers. Park Bistro was one of the first bistros to receive 3 stars in the New York Times. It was the first time “Bistros” were considered for a higher rank. People could start to believe in the bistro concept again and it was more than an award, it was a statement.

- 10 years in New York and you are on the go again. Any comments?
CD: I love New York, but it was time for me to challenge myself and think a bit more about raising my children in a different environment that would allow them to expand themselves… become organic… Just kidding! California seemed to be the next step and we moved to San Diego in 1997, opening Tapenade in June 1998. It was a wonderful move. We sometimes visit New York. My children were born there and they are still very attached to the City.