By David Minsky
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He's kidding, but he's also serious. “I've never signed so many checks in my life,” he muses. “My wife keeps telling me we need to open soon. But it's what I want to do. I came here to be my own boss.” After decades of intention and chat, Oudin's contemporary French restaurant, Pascal's on Ponce, is scheduled to debut at the end of this week in Coral Gables. “It'll be something when I put the first plate on the table,” he sighs.
Oudin's story also reveals much about the mechanics of the restaurant industry itself. To fulfill his dream, the chef literally had to invest everything -- not just money, but time and reputation. For starters he's personally overseen and helped with the renovations to what was formerly Thoa's on Ponce (and before that The Bistro), construction that has taken about four months. “My body aches right now,” he admits. “Too much construction and cleaning. I was the guy on the site every day. If someone comes in with the flu right now, I'll probably catch it.”
This get-'em-dirty hands-on approach is a far cry from one of Oudin's most recent and memorable positions as executive chef of the Grand Café, the nationally acclaimed fine-dinery he opened in 1994 at the Grand Bay Hotel. “There I would go into the kitchen for a half-day, then come back later,” he says. “Sometimes I didn't see the kitchen for three days. I got the fame and recognition, but there were a lot of people behind me. I had six or seven people cooking for me on the line. I had a pastry chef,” Oudin recalls, despite the fact that he trained as a pastry chef and is more than capable of making his own sweets. The rest of his time was taken up with corporate meetings, food-and-beverage management -- in general being the biggest cog in the well-oiled corporate machine known as a luxury resort hotel.
Oudin is not bitter about the Grand Café experience (the hotel unexpectedly decided to close the restaurant in 1998, and it became Bice not long after); in fact he's grateful for it, because it brought him a lot of national attention from magazines such as Esquire and food-and-travel correspondents like John Mariani. But he's eager to get back to the line and intends to be the sole chef (with three cooks) at Pascal's on Ponce. “[The Grand Café] was a lot of status but also a lot of pressure,” he says. “This country can put some chef on top of the world who's not even good. But when the media writes something good about me, I'm going to meet those standards.” As a result of living up to his image, however, Oudin says he put far too much pressure on himself, became stressed out, and lost too much weight.
He's also relieved to have put the style of food that brought him so many kudos -- tropically influenced cuisine with a French edge -- aside. He says, “The Florida stuff I'm trying to put behind me. No more plantains, no more yuca, no more jicama. I've had it. It worked for me at the time  to be competitive with Norman [Van Aken], Mark [Militello], and Allen [Susser]. But I had to push myself to introduce the tropical in my style.
“It was always my intention to open my own restaurant and go back to French food,” Oudin continues. “Before it was business. Now I don't have to do [New World cuisine] anymore. I can bring back to the Gables what isn't here anymore. I'm classic; I cook vegetables like we do in Europe. It's the right way to cook, the way I've been trained. Like you see in New York. Classic but also moderne.”
Indeed he's wagering that old customers will remember him not just from his executive chef days at the Grand Café but from the other major hotel restaurants he opened here, including Dominique's at the Alexander and the Aragon Café at the Colonnade. Dominique's, where in 1983 Oudin introduced Miamians to $32 Dover sole, was the classic side of him; the Aragon Café, which he started after returning to Florida a couple of years later from Washington, D.C., where he had moved, had a more progressive French menu. Judging by the fare Pascal's on Ponce will at least preliminarily offer -- terrine of muscovy duck and pistachio with petite salad; veal rib eye au jus with braised endive and mushroom fricassee; and red and blackberry mille-feuille with vanilla cream and passion fruit aspic -- we can probably expect an eatery similar to the Aragon.