Interview: Olivier de St. Martin / Caribou Café and Zinc Bistro a Vins
RR: It is safe to say that Michel Guerard is one of the greatest French chefs of all time and it's interesting to note that you did your apprenticeship under him in France. How significant was this experience?
Olivier: In my mind, Michel Guerard is one of the greatest, and I am certain that most of the chefs like Paul Bocuse, Daniel Boulud, Claude Verger, and Juan Mari Arzak would agree. I worked for two years under him and it was an incredible experience. Sixteen hours a day, six days a week, and when we were not working we were partying, moto crossing, or sleeping. He didn't yell at you or throw things at you when he was upset; he just made you feel so bad that it hurt your ego even more. But minutes later he could give you a compliment. He always found out where the party was after the service (because cooks and waiters (100 of them), slept in various rented houses in the area and he sometimes just dropped champagne and left. Michel Guerard was originally a pastry chef, and was one of the first 3-Star Michelin chefs who created the "Cuisine Minceur" and started the "sous vide" frozen cuisine (maybe too early for his time).
RR: Why did you come to America and what made you settle in the Philadelphia area?
Olivier: In 1986, the late Gilbert Le Coze was searching for a chef to open "Le Bernardin" in New York. He asked Michel Guerard if he knew someone and Chef Guerard was kind enough to recommend me. In 1989, I came to Philadelphia because when Hotel Atop the Bellevue reopened under Cunard, I was awarded the Gourmet chef position and I fell in love with this fantastic city. It is a love affair that has continued for all these years.
RR: You have done great things with the Caribou Café, but it had to be an interesting journey to finally own your own restaurant.
Olivier: I wanted to own my own restaurant when I turned thirty years old, but it didn't happen that way! When you don't have the money, you go with partners, and 90% of the time you get screwed and there you go! I waited until I was forty with no partners. To actually own your own place is the best feeling in the world - especially as a chef.
RR: The Caribou Café was up and running for years prior to you taking over, and it certainly had a following, but it never enjoyed the impact of what we have seen under your ownership. What did you do differently to bring the Caribou to its newfound popularity?
Olivier: The Caribou Café was a coffee shop for ten years and then the previous owner (French as well) added salads, quiches and omelets, and he finally purchased a liquor license. Not a chef himself, he hired a new chef every six months in an attempt to present great French classic cuisine. It didn't work, and he eventually got burned out. He sold the café to me and my wife, and as a chef I was able to add a true classic cuisine like you will find in France. The past five years have proven that our value is true and genuine. Basically, there will be always a "je ne sais quoi" from a French chef that makes the difference.
RR: You recently opened a second concept called ZINC which is a short walk from the Caribou Café. One would describe this spot as a wine bar, but how would you characterize the Zinc experience?
Olivier: In Paris, you have these bistro/brasseries on the main avenues with big sidewalks where tourists, conventioneers, and groups of people go, and then you have the back streets of neighborhoods with smaller quaint bars, petit bistros or smaller restaurants where locals, artists, yuppies and others gathered. They want quality, value and want to be off the beaten path. They always know people there. I brought a real zinc bar from Paris to enhance the real Parisian effect. When you walk into Zinc, you'll know exactly what it's all about.
RR: What is the current picture of French cuisine in Philadelphia? Peter von Stark is long gone; Philippe Chin has moved to the South and Fritz Blank is in Thailand. Georges Perrier just opened a steakhouse and it just seems as though the city isn't as French as it used to be.
Olivier: French chefs are disappearing from the city and some of the ones who remain offer fusion French/American. But on the other hand, French restaurants are popping up and perhaps we'll see a new trend in Philly. I see so many beautiful, new restaurants, but all too often, the cuisine fails to match the ambiance. I do believe that Mexican restaurants should be run by Mexicans, and Italian restaurants should be run by Italians, and Chinese by the Chinese. It is the same for the French. A French restaurant should have a French chef in the kitchen. In the spirit of covering my tail, there will always be some exceptions.
RR: So much of what you do is about authenticity. How important is authenticity in your presentation?
Olivier: I push the envelope a little bit trying to promote French, French, French! I want my guests to feel the genuine French experience because this is why they came here. So be it! The décor is French, the menu is French, the chef, the taste, the presentation, the wall fixtures...everything is French. What I really should do is to charge in Euros!
RR: Both of your restaurants are great accomplishments, and you certainly have enough to keep you busy. Where do you see yourself five years from now and is this a fair question to ask any restaurant owner?
Olivier: In five years, I hopefully have Caribou Café and Zinc still going strong, and I would like to open a Rôtisserie "de Luxe". I am waiting for the economy to rebound a bit, so let's see what happens - maybe in the next two years or so. It is a fair question, and in this business, it's not all that easy to answer.
Zinc Bistro a Vins
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