Arguably Memphis' first celebrity chef, French native José Gutierrez was a progenitor of fine dining when this barbecue town was barely a blip on the culinary radar. He was named one of the country's best new chefs by Food & Wine in 1990 and received the eminent title of Maître Cuisinier de France in 2011. He held the reins at Chez Philippe for 22 years before opening his own downtown restaurant, Encore, in 2005, then heading to River Oaks in East Memphis in 2009. As he celebrates his 30th anniversary in Memphis and his first anniversary as owner of River Oaks, Gutierrez sits down to talk about what he's learned.
Were you always interested in working with food?
I wanted to be a fashion designer first. I don't know why. I just wanted the creativity part of it. But they rejected me, so I went to school to learn to be a maitre d' or a chef. After two years, you have to decide whether you want to be a chef or a waiter. My English was so bad I couldn't possibly be a waiter, so I found myself in the kitchen cooking instead. Now I realize that food has the same [creativity] as couture, even better because you can see, smell, touch, and taste it. It's four dimensions.
What is your creative process like?
I worked under Chef Roger Petit [at Hotel de France], and he told me to take one item and, until I'd come up with an idea for how to transform it, I wasn't allowed to think about anything else. If I daydreamed, that's what I had to think about. I did that for the first 10 years. The good news is, you go to the store and you see a carrot and immediately you've got 15 recipes because your creative muscle is always going. The bad thing is, you become socially awkward. I do that less now. Now, I take a blank piece of paper and I design a plate and I start putting things together. I see the colors and the architecture of it.
In your 30 years in Memphis, how has your culinary vision changed?
When I was at Chez Philippe, my role was to put Chez Philippe on the map in the United States. To do that, you have to work up the press and cater to sensation and the avant-garde. The food was limiting in that sense. It was only for a few. The press loved it, but it's not necessarily what people want to eat. The reason I wanted to open [my own] restaurant is that I don't want people to come see me once every six months, birthdays, and anniversaries. I want people who come three or four times a week.
Is that when you moved more toward what many have termed "French with a twist"? Can you explain what that means?
I felt like my first menu wasn't really understood. Beef sweetbreads with truffle mousse. Squab with chanterelles. I realized I was talking Greek to people. The locals said, "José, you need to get acquainted with Southern food." In the '90s, that's when I started doing Southern nouvelle cuisine. I took Southern cuisine and mixed it with Italian, French, and Spanish, and it was things like hushpuppies with shrimp Provençal, catfish bourride, turnip green ravioli with bobwhite quail à la king. It's very French in principle, but we just gave attention to Southern cuisine.
Where do you see yourself in the growing trend of locally and ethically sourced foods?
I always look for the best product no matter what. In the old days, it was a matter of taste. Now it's a matter of taste and health. We need to know what the farmer or the big company gives to the chickens to eat or what they inject their beef with. We need to take back our food supply in this country. It's being taken over by big business. It's not okay. We are digging our graves with our teeth. Food has to be made for the body (for health), for the soul, and for the intellect. You need all three. It's a balance you need to create in your life. If you just do the soul food, you'll never be healthy. If you just cook for the intellect, you're not healthy, you've got no soul!
The thought of purely intellectual food doesn't sound very enticing.
Is it interesting to cook something with liquid nitrogen? Yes, it's interesting. It's cute. Is it effective? No. Do you want to do that every single day? Absolutely not.
Do you ever feel like you're all tapped out of French twists on Southern food?
No. I've barely scratched the surface. People's tastes are evolving, changing. I change with them. Chefs think they are creators, artists, and we are to a certain degree, but the first thing we are is a servant of the people. It's not about us; it's about them.
Celebrate with Chef José at one of two wine dinners at River Oaks (5871 Poplar) on Wednesday, Oct. 17th, and Wednesday, Oct. 24th. Both dinners begin at 6:30 p.m. and cost $75. To make your reservations, call 683-9305.