There's something to be said for knowing a French chef is preparing your meal. You can generally -- though certainly not always -- trust the flavors will be pure and the presentation simple. That's why we were thrilled to smoke out a local Frenchie who has been flying under the radar for years: Pierre Sudre.
When we met him a week ago he had just returned from a vacation spent in his hometown, a village in the South of France of 1,200 people. "It's like a time machine each time I go back," he said, adding his appreciation that it hasn't fallen victim to 24-hour WalMarts, WiFi, or Starbucks. "At 7 a.m. you bring your milk bottle to the barn in a little wooden box with your name on it and you come back at 8 o'clock you take it home, boil it (to pasteurize it), and at 8:30 you're actually drinking fresh milk. That's where I come from. It's still happening."
As a teen, Sudre never thought he about being a chef. But traditional schooling didn't suit him, so he spent six years at a culinary school. He still returns to the campus annually to meet with and inspire future chefs. "It's nice when I go back and tell them there's something to look forward to with this job. I've been fortunate to get paid [to travel]," he explains to them. "If your dream is to work and live and go to Tahiti, this job can take you there."
At 16 he landed his first real gig as a chef de cuisine and 10 years ago, he left Europe to work at the Sofitel in Houston and never returned. Now he has nearly 20 years of experience and he shows it off at La Riviera, the main restaurant of the Sofitel in Coral Gables, where he has quarterbacked since the Super Bowl in 2007.
La Rivera's menu is loaded with French touches, from lobster bisque flambéed with Pernod to homemade foie gras and the requisite Nicoise salad. But to enjoy Sudre's more adventurous side, check out the restaurant's monthly wine dinners, held on the fourth Thursday of each month.
New Times: When and how did you know you wanted to become a chef? Who or what inspired you to cook?
Pierre Sudre: My mother knew. I was so bad in school. I'm not at all book smart. The first year was not a success. The second year was basically a disaster. I had a talk with my mom. She said obviously school is boring for you, so we need to find something else.
So were you a bad kid?
No. It just was not working for me, eight hours in class. I needed more action.
Were you cooking at home around that time?
Yeah, but like a kid you're doing crepes and chocolate mousse...
Maybe at your house! At mine I was lucky to master a mustard-and-bologna sandwich... Do you do pastry now?
Nothing intense. When you talk about pastry chefs you are talking about a different world. I would never mean to compete.
My grandmother does a great chocolate mousse that I'm completely unable to replicate.
What was your first job out of school?
I got my first job in school. It was a nightmare. But if I didn't have this first job I would never be where I am now.
You've seen fresh green peas when they are in their shells? I was working at this restaurant where they were bringing cases in--we were doing fresh split peas. So for the first four days I was taking the peas out of the shell, I was blanching the peas, and one by one I had to squeeze it to take the skin off. It's a true story. That is what I was doing for my four, full first days in the kitchen. And I'm asking myself, what am I doing here? From 7 or 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every night. By the fourth day I got tired and put [my feet up]. The chef took a copper saucepan from the other side of the kitchen and threw it at me. It ended up on the wall right next to me.
That restaurant was old school. It was very, very intense. The pressure was incredible because we were maintaining one-star Michelin quality. The first boss you get defines everything.
What do you believe is the most important advice to impart to a new chef?
It's not like cooking at home with your little music in the back and your bottle of wine. You have a couple of friends and this nice mood... and everyone says I would love to be a chef. You need to spend time in a professional kitchen to see; the music is gone, the wine is gone. It's a very intense job. You need to make sure you want to do it on a professional level. You need to make sure you really, really love it. Otherwise it's going to be a long day.
What job would you have if you weren't cooking?
I wanted to pilot a sports car. I still want to pilot a sports car now but cooking was more secure way to go.
Visit Short Order again tomorrow to discover why Sudre claims French chefs are better than anyone else, whose critiques unnerve him, and why he has a beef with cucumbers.