Shannon Castrec is the proverbial man behind the curtain at the Coral Gables French-themed eatery Frenchie's Diner. Opened in 2013, this local hot spot has garnered significant praise around town for its homey take on classic French fare. Together with her husband, Gabriel, Shannon performs the herculean task of running an upscale restaurant while raising a bustling family of three young children.
If you're as curious as we were about how she does it all while still serving bubbling cauldrons of French onion soup without a hair in sight, check out our Bastille Day sitdown with this no-nonsense chef de cuisine.
New Times: Growing up, did you always want to cook, or was it something you fell into?
Shannon Castrec: Well, I always liked to cook, but it was never something I thought of doing as a career. I was in college as an English student and I really wanted to write. Unfortunately, my freshman year at University of Florida was around the time Danny Rolling was murdering a bunch of girls in Gainesville, so I got sidetracked from college and ended up in New York City. I went to cooking school at the French Culinary Institute; it just sort of happened. So, no, it wasn't something that I always knew I wanted to do even though I always loved to cook.
Did your mom or grandmother teach you how to cook?
No, actually. I wish I had one of those really good stories about coming from a big cooking family, but I don't. Growing up, it was mostly me and my sister making mac 'n' cheese for ourselves.
How did you break into the New York food scene after culinary school?
At school they would have chefs come in and do guest lectures, and one of them I just kept asking questions after class. Eventually he said, "Hey, ride in the cab with me; I've got to get to dinner service." He was so much fun to talk to, but I got a little nervous because he was a big chef at the time over at the 21 Club, and I got out of the cab without paying my half. So I wrote him a letter and stuck $5 in there, and he called and gave me my first job.
What came next?
I worked all around the city. The same chef who hired me at the 21 Club brought me over to Windows on the World. Picholine was a tough kitchen to work in, but I learned so much while I was there from one of their sous-chefs, Dave Pasternack, who's now a big chef in the city. Every place I worked in New York was hard-core.
That seems like such a stark contrast from Frenchie's, which has a more laid-back feel.
You know, all those places I worked in, like Aureole or Picholine, gave me a really strong backbone. So when my husband and I decided to open Frenchie's, I remained hard-core within myself, but I'm not a chef who needs to scream. It's tough working in that environment, so I'd rather work in a more homey setting. It doesn't mean I'm not less hard on myself in terms of what I'm cooking.
How did you meet your husband/future business partner?
We met in New York City. He was in the restaurant business as a maitre'd, and we met through mutual friends. We traveled all over the world together and lived in France for four years, and we came back here because it's where I grew up and we wanted our kids to be around their grandparents.
Where do you draw your inspiration from nowadays? Do you still travel?
No, I'm actually so boring. We're a family of five now, so we haven't been back to Paris for a while. But I constantly look for inspiration and motivation within myself. I have a stack of cooking books I'm constantly scanning, trying to learn new methods, and I'm always experimenting in the kitchen.
Do you play outside the box in terms of flavor profiles and presentation?
I definitely do. I went to a French cooking school, so my background is very French, but I'm so not French. We get classified as a French restaurant, but I get mad about it because everyone thinks my husband is doing the cooking. Our weekly specials are my space to play around with things a bit... But for me the important thing is cooking the basics really well. I'm not into cooking something different just to be different. I'd rather make a great roast chicken than something with a puff of smoke.
What's been the biggest challenge you've faced the first year Frenchie's was open?
We've been so lucky in terms of people finding us. I think the biggest obstacle, and my husband would agree, is working with your spouse, in a restaurant no less. It's crazy because there's always something breaking or missing. So striking a balance between working and trying not to bring the craziness of the restaurant business home is something we constantly struggle with.
How do you manage that? Do you just have a gag order on all work-related talk at home?
We try not to, and obviously sometimes we do. At the beginning we were bickering a lot back and forth, but now I think we're both very respectful of each other's space. He runs the dining room, and I don't go near it. If there's something that's really not right, I'll go and say something, but most of the time it's pretty quiet under his watch, and he stays out of the kitchen. So we try to give each other our space.
So it's just you and a sous-chef in the kitchen right now?
Yes, and it's incredibly tough. It's something I'm looking to fix going forward. I feel like I have a 70-year-old's body; I constantly have to go get shots of this-and-that for a bunch of muscle aches and pains. But for the time being, it's just us two. Let's just say we're all looking forward to vacation.
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One of the things that sets you guys apart from other restaurants in town is that you're really family-owned/operated and you close on the weekends to spend time with your children. Do you ever see Frenchie's opening for Saturday-night dinner service?
That's a hard question. We know that we would do better financially if we were open more. Luckily, most people have backed off; we used to get a lot of grief for not opening on the weekends. But most of our customers are repeat customers who are so nice and understanding. It's something we're open to considering, but I have to keep a balance in my life too.