Yesterday we spoke with Beaumarchais chef Nicolas Cantrel about the shuttering of brunch hot spot Bagatelle. Today he tells us about how he got into the cooking business and why he’s a gruyère master.
Tell me about your background.
I started in France at age 15 and apprenticed for four years at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere in Normandy. And then I was in the military service in Paris for 10 months. After that I worked for Alain Ducasse for nine years and then came to New York. In the beginning I worked for Ducasse here, and after I moved to Daniel. Then I helped open Country before starting my first place, Bobo, and then Bagatelle and now Beaumarchais.
Fifteen is quite young to start a career by American standards. Is that common in France?
If you aren’t too good at school, you have the option to go to an apprenticeship. So as a teenager you go straight into the adult world and say goodbye to Mom and Dad. But eventually, if you like your job, then it’s not a job, it’s an occupation. After 10 years you don’t have much life, but after 15 years, you’re settled. One thing that’s different, though, is that when you’re in France, [restaurant] service is from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. and in America it’s 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.
When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
I always wanted to make this my career. [Growing up] I saw my grandmother — she was in the business, too, but just a small café. And my other grandmother was on the farm and we had vegetables growing up, so I always knew.
And now you’re an Iron Chef!
Yes, I was on Iron Chef. It was on TV on January 23. I was in a situation and I was not very comfortable with the camera at first. But after it was an excellent commercial for the restaurant and for myself. It’s hard at the beginning, but afterward it’s OK. But they have to stop constantly and touch up your makeup. But then you cook straight for an hour.
What was the secret ingredient?
The battle was gruyère. We made cheese puffs with gruyère and gnocchi Parisienne. And then, endive. In France, we have a very traditional dish of endive with gruyère and ham, but I substituted banana and it was delicious. And veal medallions with aligot and pickled shallots and veal sauce. And we went with a traditional clafoutis with apricot and gruyère and gruyère candies.
And then you won!
Yes, against Iron Chef Marc Forgione.