Pommes de terre à la crème (Potatoes with Cream) Mauviel Series

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Over the last several months I have been rigorously testing some cookware from legendary French maker Mauviel, and it has totally changed the way I cook. From searing meats to simmering velvety sauces or baking perfectly golden desserts, nothing cooks like copper. Even a thick steak won’t chill a hot copper skillet, and perfectly even heat plus instant response reduces scorching in a copper saucepan.

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Since 1830, Mauviel has been making some of the world’s finest copper cookware in a small village outside Normandy called Villedieu-les-Poêles, which is known as ‘The City of Copper’ for it’s 800-year tradition of copper making. Mauviel craftsmen still make each piece by hand, and each piece will last several lifetimes.

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I’ve noticed how much faster these pans heat up than stainless steel and even faster than aluminum pans, without any hot or cold spots; as a result I can cook at lower settings and so I rarely burn anything anymore, its like these pans have made me a better cook!  A heavy copper skillet is the best choice for cooking any protein, from delicately seared sea scallops to putting a crust on a thick juicy steak. Because of this, professional chefs around the world choose copper, and those who demand the best choose Mauviel, including Paul Bocuse himself, who selected Mauviel as an official sponsor of the culinary equivalent of the Olympics, the Bocuse D’or.

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This same legendary performance and durability is available to home cooks who appreciate professional quality. Mine have beautiful traditional cast iron handles which develop a lovely patina over time, as does the copper which darkens with use, like a diary of my cooking adventures! When I can’t wait any longer, I reach for the copper polish and it’s amazing how quickly the gleaming copper finish returns. These pans truly do get more beautiful with time unlike other pans which slowly degrade over time until they end up hidden in a cabinet; not so with these pans, you will be proud to display your Mauviel for decades to come.

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Today I’m writing about Mauviel’s tarte tatin, a round baking pan with little copper handles designed for the traditional French version of apple pie, though I’ve used it to make the French bistro classic potatoes à la crème. Decadent with crème fraiche and gruyère, it makes an excellent brunch dish when topped with a few twists of freshly ground nutmeg and served with a  salad.

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Potatoes with Cream (Pommes de terre à la crème)
adapted from LaRousse Gastronomique

2 pounds medium sized, starchy potatoes (yellow and red potatoes are the creamiest, but russets work as well)
1 cup crème fraiche, or substitute heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon sea salt (I prefer Sel de Geurande for its rich minerally character!)
1 whole egg
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2-3 small shallots
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoon butter, divided

Choose firm, starchy yellow or russet potatoes. Using a sharp chef’s knife slice them as thinly as you can, or use a mandoline if you have one to make the job easier and more professional. After all, you never know when a Michelin inspector will be stopping by!

Slice the shallots thinly as well and set aside. In a medium bowl combine the crème fraiche and milk, then whisk in the eggs, sea salt, and a few twists of nutmeg; set aside. Generously butter the inside of a shallow round baking dish, then arrange the potato slices in a spiral working from the outside toward the center, like a flower. Sprinkle with shallots, gruyère, fresh thyme, and a twist of nutmeg before beginning the next layer; repeat layering until pan is nearly full leaving room for cream.

Carefully pour the cream mixture into the center and spiral outwards, being careful wet the entire top layer. Tap tap tap the pan sharply on the table to help the cream make its way down to the bottom layers. Top with dabs of butter and bake in a 400’F (200’C) oven for one hour or longer, until the top is golden. Rest for 10 minutes or so before slicing and serve with a crisp white wine or better yet a lovely champagne. Garnish with chives and a dollop of dijon mustard. I’ve chosen a delightful dijon flavored with olives and herbs de provence from Maille to bring summer flavors to the dish; the bright acidity and garden fresh taste provide the perfect balance to rich, creamy potatoes.

Products featured
Mauviel Copper Pan
Peugeot Wet Salt Grinder
John Boos Block Walnut End Grain Cutting Board
Maille Dijon Mustard with Olives and Fresh Herbs
Le Guerandais Sel de Geurande 
Piper-Heidsieck Champagne
Revol ARBORESCENCE Dessert Plate (Ivory)
Revol BASALT Bowl
Wüsthof 4″ Pairing Knife Classic IKON

Interview with Executive Pastry Chef Anna Young of Café des Architectes – Chicago, IL

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Pastry Chef Anna Young is inspired by seasonality and nostalgia. “I try to think about not just what I like, but what our guests respond to,” she says. “Some dishes begin with a simple childhood memory – a piece of candy or chocolate.” Young discovered her love of pastry arts while studying at the Culinary Academy in Pittsburg.

A short time after earning a degree in Specialized Technology/Pastry Arts, she found herself on the opposite coast working as a pastry supervisor at the Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa, a Waldorf Astoria Collection hotel. In 2007 Young landed at TRU restaurant in Chicago under James Beard award winning chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand. It was here that she developed a razor sharp eye for detail, learning and working among the very best. In 2014, Young joined Sofitel Chicago Water Tower where she put her knowledge of large scale banquet operations and fine dining prowess to work.

Young presents a wide range of show stopping desserts including traditional yet timeless Parisian mini desserts at Café des Architectes, an ever-present offering that allows guests to select from Opera Cake, Paris-Brest, Macarons and other marvels presented in a rolling cart. Young also creates the restaurant’s rotating Dessert Degustation, consisting of mini tastings of her top confections.

How did you get started making desserts, and when did you decide to make a career out of it?
I took culinary arts in high school. We went to a trade show and I saw a lot of pastry chefs doing demo’s there. That’s when I first saw that there was such a variety to pastry.

Who/what inspired you to become a pastry chef?
My friends and co-workers have inspired me to push myself to become a chef.

Describe your culinary philosophy and approach to pastry in three words.
Seasonal. Nostalgic. Technique.

Is there a process you go through to create a new dessert?
The internet is always a good tool. I find pictures/desserts that I like and build from there. Other than that I like to pull inspiration from traveling and dining out at different types of restaurants.

Talk about a current trend in pastry that interests you, and where would you like to see the industry go in the next couple of years?
Panning. I just took a class in it and loved it. I would like to see panning in different variety’s and maybe put a savory spin on it.

What are your most and least favorite ingredients to work with?
“New ingredients” has to be the answer for both. New ingredients are hard to work with. Sometimes you don’t know your boundaries when combining new flavors. New ingredients are also my favorite because you’ve opened up new opportunities and flavors.

What are your top three tips for success as a pastry chef?
Patience. Attention to detail. Respect.

What city would you most like to visit on a culinary adventure, and what tool, ingredient, or book would you take with you?
Anywhere in Spain, still haven’t made it yet. I might bring a spoon with me, but I would not bring an ingredient, I would be searching for more.

It seems like chefs often open their own restaurants but pastry chefs seldom do. Would you ever open your own place? I’ve been looking for a desserts first restaurant with a broad menu of sweets and only a limited selection of savory endings. Do you think Chicago is ready for that?
I have owned a company in the past and the only way I would do it again is if I worked with people I know I could trust and that shared the same passion as me. Yes, I think Chicago is ready for dessert first restaurant, something I often think of myself.

Where would one find you on your day off?
In the South Loop/Printers Row area. When it’s nice out of course a park or the lake.

The critics have their favorites, but I like to eat where the Chefs eat. Besides Café des
Architectes what restaurants do you like to eat at here in Chicago and/or elsewhere?
My two favorite spots in my neighborhood are Eleven City Diner and Flo and Santos. Nothing fancy, but I love it.

After a week of working long hours, what do you like to cook at home?
I don’t, the last thing I want to do is cook. You’ll find me on GrubHub.

Do you have a guilty pleasure; something that you prefer to eat when nobody is looking?
French Fries and Chicken Soup! Something I started when I was a little girl and I’m still addicted to it.

What advice would you offer young pastry chefs just starting?
Follow directions, have patience and keep clean/organized. Some great advice I was told once a long time ago, that may not sound appropriate is “Keep your head down, mouth shut and ears open”. I live to those 3 rules.

There are many aspiring cooks out there like myself who are not beginners but haven’t yet reached the professional level; what advice would you give us to take our pastry skills to the next level?
Stage, Stage and Stage. The best way to gain experience is to do it. Some classes would be good too, to understand the technical/scientific background to it.

Interview with Executive Chef Greg Biggers of Café des Architectes – Chicago, IL

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Chef Biggers hails from Alabama, where he grew up watching his mother prepare Chicken and Dumplins’, a Saturday favorite. While attending Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina, Biggers worked at Blossom Café as a Pastry Cook, learning the art of baked breads and pastries. Later, he served as Private Dining Chef and then Sous Chef at McCrady’s, an inventive, farm-driven Charleston restaurant.

At Chicago’s 4-star restaurant, TRU, Biggers held the role of Chef de Partie under James Beard award-winning Chef Rick Tramonto, and then served as Executive Sous Chef at Morimoto in Philadelphia, developing his craftsmanship with seafood. Next, he rejoined Chef Tramonto as the Executive Chef of two 3-star restaurants, Tramonto’s Steak & Seafood and RT Lounge, before joining the team at Levy Restaurants’ Fulton’s on the River. In 2011, Chef Biggers came to Sofitel Chicago Water Tower to oversee all aspects of the hotel’s dining operations, including its restaurant, Café des Architectes.

Chef Biggers strives to build relationships with true artisans of the craft from all over the world. Biggers sources the best quality product available – from exotic fish flown in from Japan to game from Michigan’s Swan Creek Farm and small batch cheeses from France’s best creameries. He is proud to lead his team with a philosophy of incorporating both local and global inspirations.

Chef Biggers is the recent recipient of a StarChefs.com 2015 Rising Star Award.


How did you get started cooking, and when did you decide to make a career out of it?

I started as a dishwasher at a chain steakhouse when I was 15. I never was able to find my way out after that.

From 15-19 it was just a way to make money. At 19 I met a chef, Matthew Wood, in my hometown of Florence Alabama that showed me what being a professional cook was all about. From then on I was hooked on learning the craft.

Who/what inspired you to become a chef?
The pressure, the pirate lifestyle, the ability to create something new everyday and learn something new around every corner.

You were born, raised, and received your training in the south, what brought you to Chicago?
I was offered a job at the Acclaimed TRU restaurant back in its heyday by Chef Rick Tramonto.

Describe your culinary philosophy and approach in three words.
Love your Craft.

Who influences your style the most and why?
Everyone and everything… I think that everyone can be influence by anything… I take inspiration from other chefs, cooks, artists, artisan food producers, plate makers, knife foragers etc.

Is there a process you follow while creating new recipes and dishes?
Yes. I always start by getting ideas down on paper. Then I curtail them to what is in season. Once I have a good road map I start prepping from those notes. Once I get on a cutting board the plan always changes. 9 times out of 10 the dish is usually totally different by the time I get through than what I put on paper. But for me I always like to have some sort of organization to start with.

Name three dishes at Café des Architectes a first time guest shouldn’t miss.
Foie Gras Torchon
Chestnut Provisions tasting
Roasted Duck Breast

Tell me about Chestnut Provisions and how it came about?
Chestnut Provisons is the moniker of our in-house cheese, charcuterie, jams, and pickle operation. It all started with a Sofitel initiative for all the hotels to be HACCP certified which is a very high level of food safety certifications. Once we got that I wanted to push to see what all we could legally make in house so we started trying to get dairy license to make cheese, canning license to make jams and pickles and charcuterie certification to make all out own salamis.

Your authentic cheesemaking and charcuterie are unique in Chicago, and have made Café des Architectes a destination for those who appreciate this art form. How do your more casual guests respond when they learn that these delicacies are made right here on site?
Most people are very surprised. At first they may not realize how unique and time consuming it can be, but once we are able to share with them the process involved most people are very impressed.

What emerging trends do you see happening in the Chicago culinary scene in the next few years?
There is a lot of hard cider beer bars popping up lately with menus to match as well as dumpling houses.

What are your most and least favorite ingredients to work with?
I hate razor clams and fiddle head ferns.
Love about everything else.

What are your favorite unconventional flavor combinations?
Olive and condensed milk (olive dulche de leche).
Wasabi and grapefruit.
Miso and pineapple.

What cookbooks have you read lately? What are your old standby favorites?
Altier Cren and Benu are my two newest acquisitions.
Old standby: French Laundry, Morimoto, Culinary artistry.

What city would you most like to visit on a culinary adventure, and what tool, ingredient, or book would you take with you?
Tokyo. Chopsticks.

The critics have their favorites, but I like to eat where the Chefs eat. Besides Café des Architectes, what restaurants do you like to dine at here in Chicago (or elsewhere)?
Balena, kai zan, eleven city diner, Spacca Napoli, and En Hakkore.

Where would one find you on your day off?
Making dinner and doing homework with my 6 year old son Elliot…

After a week of working long hours, what do you like to cook at home?
Anything in a crock pot or anything on my son’s “approved” list—meatloaf, Chinese noodles, quesadillas.

Coming from Alabama, what dish takes you back to your roots?
Chicken and Dumplin’s. My Mom, who I love dearly but wasn’t the best cook, would cook them on Saturday mornings and it was the one dish she would nail. I would help her cook the dumplings.

Do you have a guilty pleasure; something that you prefer to eat when nobody is looking?
I am awful!!! I am a fast food tour de force kind of guy and am strong enough to admit it… Taco Bell, Arby’s, Chick-fil-A.

There are many aspiring cooks out there like myself who are not beginners but haven’t yet reached the professional level; what advice would you give us to take our cooking skills to the next level?
Don’t follow recipes to the letter.. Professional cooks got to where we are at by creating things based on preference and availability. Cook what you want! Switch out ingredients for things you prefer. It’s okay to change recipes. Trial and error….. Change the temperature of the oven on some things, change the protein or vegetables, add different spices etc…

Café des Architectes at Sofitel Chicago Water Tower Hotel.

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“Bonjour!” was the first thing I heard when I entered the luxurious lobby of the Sofitel Water Tower Hotel. The relaxed atmosphere and attentive staff are very welcoming and though I am tempted to linger awhile, my focus today is on the hotel’s crowning jewel, the restaurant Café des Architectes.

The dining room has an upscale European contemporary style, and is subtly sub-divided into smaller seating areas each offering a unique combination of colors and finishes, creating an impression of intimacy without physically dividing the airy, light-filled space. A clever row of pendant lights which are reminiscent of French chef’s toques convey the French theme in an understated and elegant way. To my eye they are an appetizer, and anticipation starts to build.

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Known for contemporary French cuisine with a twist, Café des Architectes’ Executive Chef Greg Biggers has created a stunning menu built upon fresh local ingredients, fine imported French cheeses, fresh seafood, and most impressively, an extensive array of artisanal cheeses and charcuterie made right here in-house!

To the casual restaurant guest, house-made meats and cheeses may sound simple, but it is important to note that Chef Biggers had first to acquire permits and licenses to certify and operate a creamery, not to mention constructing a humidity-controlled cave to age the charcuterie and cheeses!

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1st Course
Foie Gras Torchon with green onion puree, apple-cardamon jam, beet puree, brioche crisp

Perhaps the most delicate foie gras I’ve ever tasted, soft, buttery, and rich which is balanced by bright, aromatic spring onion and a wonderfully tart heirloom-style sweet apple cardamom jam and earthy-sweet beet puree. Apple and onion interact wonderfully together in this dish and together with the delicate foie gras, the combination is surprisingly delicious with the crisp, paper-thin slices of brioche offering textural contrast. While foie gras can sometimes come across as fatty, this particular preparation is light and creamy thanks to the long, delicate Torchon preparation.  

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2nd Course
Chestnut Provisions Tasting; Lomo, soppressatta, miso finnichionna, chevre, tomme, tellagio, brioche, sassparilla mustard, pickled cauliflower
An exquisitely presented array of delicious and authentic flavors, the individual selections vary by season; my tasting today consisted of soppressata, miso finocchiona, chevre, tomme, tellagio, sarsparilla mustard, pickled cauliflower, and toasted brioche. While several of these are familiar, a few are new to me and the sassparilla mustard is a unique twist on an essential condiment. Delicately sliced cured meats and cheeses with freshly baked bread is something most Europeans enjoy every morning, I would not hesitate to order this for breakfast with café au lait.

The quality and taste of Chestnut Provisions are quite remarkable, and will be featured in an upcoming piece that goes into further detail about the range offered and their preparation.

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3rd Course
Braised Pork Belly with artichoke puree, winter vegetable, roasted garlic jus
A classic combination of juicy and tender slow-braised pork belly with roasted vegetables. Blue potato, carrots, and brussel sprouts complement the deliciously deep meaty flavor of fork-tender pork belly; and are further enriched with a velvety artichoke puree and an umami boost of roasted garlic-infused jus. A rich and decadent combination, this is comfort food at its finest.

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4th Course
Poached Maine Lobster with butternut squash puree, truffle foam, baby vegetables
A generous portion of perfectly tender poached lobster with a natural briny flavor, rich squash puree and a delicately earthy truffle foam enhance the rich flavor of lobster without competing with it. Tender roasted baby vegetables, the parsnip was particularly good with seafood.

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When it comes to pastries and decadent desserts the kitchen is held up by Executive Pastry Chef Anna Young.

5th Course
Sticky Toffee Pudding with blood Orange, buttermilk, praline ice cream
The name of this delicious dish nearly says it all!  Rich, gooey, buttery, sticky toffee pudding served with a palate refreshing combination of creamy praline ice cream, sweet blood orange gelée and tart segments of fresh mandarin orange which are delicious with a dollop of light, creamy whipped buttermilk.

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6th Course
Chocolate Sphere with butter ice cream, caramelized cocoa nibs, salted caramel
An intriguing molded chocolate sphere reminds me of a birds nest with two “eggs” of buttery ice cream in a pool of rich salted caramel; an edible flowerbed of incredibly moist and rich chocolate cake studded with caramel cream and ice cream topped with edible flowers and crunchy cocoa nibs. Each element was executed perfectly and the result is a stunning plate that truly tastes as good as it looks.
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7th Course
Tower of Desserts
A striking architectural tower of delicate jewels perched dramatically on glass beams, an impressive presentation that literally elevates the art of dessert.

Dulce chocolate macaron
Macarons are by far my favorite French treat, and the timeless combination of rich dulce flavors and decadent chocolate ganache are at the top of my list. Perfectly smooth shells and just the right level of moisture gives them a delicate crunch and tender interior without being crumbly. Nothing beats a fresh macaron.
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Rubies Tea Truffle
A shining deep red chocolate shell tipped with gold accents and filled with a rich ganache infused with the flavors of black tea, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, and rose petals. These should come in boxes for valentines day!

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Apricot cherry nougat
There is something special about nougat that defies its simple appearance. Delicate, chewy, pillowy goodness studded with nuts and bits of dried fruit, I’m a sucker for this treat! Though it is mass produced (‘mandorlato’, with almonds) and sold in most shops across western Europe, the fresh-made version is something else entirely. My favorite source while living in Europe was a little Parisian candy shop in the 9th arrondissement called A l’Etoile d’Or; on this side of the pond, it’s Chef Young’s authentic version. Rich with floral honey notes, cherries, and apricots, this is something I’ve missed and look forward to enjoying again.
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Blueberry pâte de fruit
A traditional French favorite that can take on almost any flavor, this one highlights the deep flavor and delicately tart profile of blueberries in a sweet, sugary gelled confection with a tender yet dense consistency. Pectin gels are difficult to get right and can be gummy, these had just the right consistency; firm to the tooth yet tender and melting.

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An elegant menu, a passionate team of professionals, and an arsenal of artisanal pleasures make Café des Architectes a magnificent place to dine. Located in a modern architectural gem that is steps away from Chicago’s finest attractions yet conveniently situated on a calm street, the hotel and restaurant are easily accessible to locals and a magnet for visitors. The exquisite dining room is equally beautiful day and night, and make for a memorable dining experience all year round.

My sincere thanks to Chef Biggers and Chef Young for their hospitality and culinary expertise, and to their staff for the wonderfully attentive service.

Shadowing Executive Chef Dominique Tougne of Chez Moi and LaVoute Bistro & Bar

alacarte_shadowing_executive chef_dominiquetougne35_acookscanvas-copyright2012-2016_66Those who know me and longtime readers know that I dream of being a Chef one day, having started my site years ago while living in southwestern Germany. I got my start with a stack of cookbooks that my husband gave me as inspiration to start pursuing my dream. If you had told me back then that in 5 years I would be writing about Chefs who’ve trained under the legendary authors of that stack of books, that I would have the chance to watch them in the kitchen and taste their work, I would not have believed you.

Fast forward 5 years, and I have in fact written about and photographed many Chefs, attended dozens of glamorous culinary events, I’ve even attended a star gala and met the great people at Michelin guide! Though I have written about all kinds of cuisines and restaurants, lately my focus has shifted back to when I started writing about French food, and recently had the opportunity to shadow for a day one of Joël Robuchon’s own pupils, Executive Chef Domonique Tougne of Chez Moi in Chicago, a supporter, organizer, and participant in À la carte Chicago 2015.

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We met first thing at 8am at La Fornette for breakfast while Chef Dominique briefs me on the schedule for today. I enjoy a black coffee and pain au chocolat while Chef Dominique explains that La Fournette supplies his restaurant with breads, and in return Chez Moi prepares salads and small dishes for La Fournette. I’ve known of this bakery for a while as one of the few that come highly recommended by European expats living in Chicago. It was the first place we found shortly after moving back from Germany that made really good, authentic breads and pastry. The level of quality and authenticity are no surprise, given that the family who runs La Fournette came from Strasbourg in the Alsace region of eastern France. They came to America with the intention of bringing their generations of skill in breadmaking to the people of Chicago, who eagerly buy up all of the delicious French breads, patisserie, and macarons that La Fournette can produce.

NBC5 News Segment with Marion Brooks
Chef Dominique will film a news segment at NBC 5 Chicago with a French cooking demonstration while talking about À la carte Chicago. We start at Chez Moi gathering ingredients and supplies for the segment and head to NBC tower to shoot the segment.

When we arrive at NBC we head up to the studio to setup and Chef Dominique starts to prep the dishes he will promote, and as he works various members of the news team stop by to greet the Chef and he attracts a small crowd who gather to watch him cook and talk about À la carte with news anchor Marion Brooks. The staff at NBC were very friendly and have a lot of fun reporting the news, and I had a really nice time getting a behind-the-scenes look at how these segments are produced.
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alacarte_shadowing_executive chef_dominiquetougne8_acookscanvas-copyright2012-2016_66On the way back to Chez Moi to drop off the equipment, I had a chance to ask the Chef some questions about his background and training. He has had quite a distinguished career which began at Ècole Culinaire de Blois, going on to study with leading French chefs including Jacques Sénéchal and Joël Robuchon, both of whom shaped Chef Tougne’s culinary style. His first internship was with Chef Sénéchal in Paris at the Hotel Nikko’s Michelin-Starred Pont Mirabeau and Les Celebrités; after graduation he rose to become Chef de Partie and eventually Sous Chef before being recruited by Chef Robuchon who took him on as his protégé as executive Sous Chef at Le Relais du Parc. I asked Chef Tougne what it was like to work for such a legend, he simply said that he doensn’t have the words to describe his high respect for Chef Robuchon, that he is a very kind man and gifted in his attention to detail.

We talked about cookbooks, I mentioned that I started with reading Larousse Gastronomique, Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, and Joël Robuchon’s The Complete Robuchon. He said that he had something to show me when we arrived at Chez Moi that I would appreciate. Would it be a hidden library of secret French cookbooks? A miraculous piece of cookware that only French chefs can own? I was totally intrigued!
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We arrive at the restaurant and Chef immediately meets with his Sous Chef with precise instructions for the evening and asks me to follow him through the kitchen to another dining room whose walls held glass-cased Chef’s coats given to him by his mentors, some of the world’s most renowned chefs. Autographed coats from Paul Bocuse, Joël Robuchon, Jacques Sénéchal, Jacques Pepin; I was totally speechless, and the Chef had a huge smile on his face. He went on to tell me that when these were gifts given to him by these chefs, all friends of his, on their visits to Chicago. Each prompted a story; Joel Robuchon and Paul Bocuse had come to Chicago and prepared food for a reception and three banquets in the course of only four days; while Jacques Pepin was in town he celebrated his birthday at Bistro 110. I was overtaken with emotion and tears started to well up. I felt for the first time that I am in the right place and meeting the right people, and studying the right books; that if I have a future the culinary world, I had chosen the right influences to guide me.  Cooking from their recipes and studying their techniques, shooting photos of the journey is much more than a hobby and the attention my work has received has brought me into contact with the society of great chefs. Someday I’ll earn my own collection of chef’s coats, and maybe one from Chef Tougne will be among them.
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The next stop was a visit to La Fournette’s warehouse. Though all of the breads and pastries at the bakery are made in-house, all of the baked goods that La Fournette makes for Chicago area restaurants and coffee shops are hand-made and baked here. Chef Dominique tells me a bit about his friend Chef Pierre Zimmerman, who runs La Fournette with his wife and two sons. Though Chef Zimmerman was currently traveling in France, I had the chance to meet his two sons who operate the bakery and warehouse. The Zimmerman family came to America from the Alsatian village of Schnersheim when they sold their 110 year old family business in 2009, the Boulangerie Zimmerman. Chef Pierre Zimmerman, world baking champion, teaches L’Art de Ia Boulangerie at Chicago’s French Pastry School with family friends Jacquy Pfeiffer and Sebastien Canonne, co-founders of the school.  His vision for La Fournette is to recreate his family’s Alsatian bakery, and produce authentic Alsatian taste and quality.
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When we arrive at the warehouse, one of Chef Zimmerman’s sons greets us and takes us on a tour. I am immediately struck by how bright and clean the whole facility is, and I see a team of pastry chefs busily preparing traditional Buche de Noel; the beautiful log-shaped, flourless French holiday cakes. Everything here is made by hand, including breads, pastries, and macarons. Tasting as we walk through, we learn that all of the breads are made with a mother starter yeast culture that has been handed used in the family’s bakery continuously for generations.
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La Voûte Bistro and Bar
Next we visit Chef Tougne’s other restaurant, La Voute in the luxury boutique hotel La Banque in Homewood. Located in the historic former Homewood State Bank built in 1925, the stately landmark was a center for local commerce until 2013 when it was sold and renovated into a beautifully French styled hotel and restaurant. The restaurant is situated in the oldest section of the building and makes use of the former bank’s vaults and safe deposit boxes as decorative architectural elements. The lobby is very chic and hung with gorgeous artwork by noted German graphic artist Catrin Welz Stein, and the feel of the space is majestic and elegant.
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We have come today so Chef Tougne can coordinate two private events and the dinner service. First Chef gives me a tour of the kitchen and we sit down for a bite to eat; croque monsieur (one of my favorites!), sticky toffee pudding with date caramel cake, poached dates, bananas, and toffee sauce, and a glass of sauvignon blanc. This evening the bistrot is hosting two parties in addition to the regular evening service, and Chef heads into the kitchen with his staff. Trailing closely behind, I see large pots of stocks and soups simmering, cooks prepping ingredients, and a waitstaff meeting on the evenings menus. As I snap a few photos of the dining room and private rooms, I see the Chef visiting tables and talking with his patrons to ask how they are, and if they are enjoying their meals. The ability to be demanding and in the kitchen one moment, and warm and personal in the dining room the next is critical to running a restaurant, and Chef Tougne is just as friendly in dealing with his staff. His broad smile and frequent laughter are contagious, and it shows in the moods of those he employs.

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Just as the table settings are completed, guests start to arrive for the evening’s events; a birthday party of 20 and a dinner for 28 hosted by local brewery Lagunitas which I was invited to join. Chef Dominique paired Lagunitas Maximus beer with duck and pork rillettes, cornichons, and dijon mustard. The next course was Launitas Censored beer paired with pan-roasted salmon, ratatouille, and basil infused olive oil. The last beer was Lagunitas Sucks with petite brie en croute and endive salad and a sticky toffee pudding for dessert. A delicious menu of successful pairings showing that beer and French cuisine can work really well together.
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Most of us think Chefs spend most days in a kitchen cooking, but the truth is that in addition to leading the kitchen staff, there are meetings and press events to attend, menus and parties to plan, and sometimes an appearance on TV to promote culinary events. It was a surprise to me that the business side of being a Chef can be every bit as demanding as running a kitchen, and shadowing Chef Tougne for a day really opened my eyes to the broad skillset one needs to succeed as a Chef. Many thanks to my dear friend Chef Dominique for inviting me to spend a day with him and sharing so much about his life.  We’ve had a hard time re-integrating back into our home country and it helps to connect with people who not only share my interests, but also know how it feels to start over in a new country and integrate into a new culture. The multitude of Chefs and cooks that are drawn to Chicago from all over the world are truly a gift to the people of Chicago, and add so much vibrance and flavor to our beautiful city.

Passport to France Gala in Chicago

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Though the tragic events in Paris on November 13th cast a shadow over À la carte Chicago, the spirits of my French colleagues gradually recovered as hope and determination replaced fear. One week later the 31st annual Passport to France event began with an uncorking of emotions in a celebration of French culture and resolve.
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For more than three decades the French-American Chamber of Commerce Chicago has celebrated each passing season with the introduction of the first French wine of the year, Beaujolais Nouveau. What began as a gathering of Francophones and Francophiles celebrating the young wine has grown into an extravagant showcase of the best in French cuisine, wines, spirits, and culture.

Held at the historic and prestigious Union League Club of Chicago, this year’s event occupied two sumptuously appointed ballrooms hosting more than 50 Chefs, restaurants, and vendors offering the finest French indulgences in an atmosphere of friendship and celebration.
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Upon arrival we were warmly greeted by the guest of honor, a 2015 Beaujolais Nouveau. Light in body but rich in fruit and offering a crisp minerality and fresh acidity, this year’s first wine was an excellent expression of the style and a reassuring way to start the evening.
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For the next three hours we circulated through both ballrooms, greeting friends and colleagues while enjoying delicious contemporary French cuisine and a number of exquisite French wines. Sweets and savories mixed it up in a swirling experience of flavors. New to the event this year was the addition of a spirits lounge which offered guests a generous sampling of spirits from absinthe’s and cognacs to vodkas and pastis, and everything in between.
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A shining example of why the French table is truly King of the culinary world, the Passport to France is a reminder that French cuisine evolved deep inside the gated mansions of the bourgeoisie, locked away from the French people until the revolution set it free and released the spirit of celebrating every day to the masses.

Luncheon with French Consul General Vincent Floreani

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I recently had the pleasure of attending a private luncheon for the Consul General of France, Mr. Vincent Floreani. The event was part of À la carte Chicago, a celebration of contemporary French cuisine and culture. Fifteen guests gathered at Chez Moi in Lincoln Park to experience a four-course menu prepared by Executive Chef Dominique Tougne, featuring some of the Consul General’s favorite dishes. Before each course was served, Consul General Floreani introduced them, explaining what makes each dish special, and why they hold meaning for him.
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First Course
Porcini and Foie Gras Risotto with Red Wine Sauce
Wine: Chateau Loronde Desormes, Bordeaux Superior ’10
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Consul General Vincent Floreani is part Italian and part French, and so he has a great love of risotto, which was one of his favorites as a child. What makes a good risotto is a very careful cooking that leaves just a slight crunch in the rice, to contrast with the creamy texture. Chef Dominique’s risotto was perfectly cooked, demonstrating the ideal combination of textures.

Second Course
Pan Seared Maine Scallops, Ratatouille, Safran Beurre Blanc
Wine: Triennes, Viognier Sante Fleure ’13 (Daniel Boulud’s Sommelier recommended)
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In France, scallops are often served on special occasions, these lovelies came from Maine where the season runs from October to May. Ratatouille is a classic stew of rustic vegetables, a dish that reminds the Consul General of his childhood, a dish he grew up eating, and which even today is very popular among French children.

Third Course
Classic French Camembert, Baguette
Wine: Francois Montand, Brut Rose, NV
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Camembert cheese, which comes from Normandy, was given to French soldiers along with a baguette as a daily ration, and was all that sustained them during battles along with a daily ration of wine. In France today, nearly 320 baguettes are consumed every second.

Dessert
Vanilla Crème Brûlée
Wine: Chateau Haut Charmes, Sauternes ’10
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Though the French, the Spanish, and the British each claim to have invented this delectably creamy dessert, the French enjoy it the most. As it is found on nearly every menu in France, it must therefore truly be a French invention. The classic crunchy layer of caramelized sugar is difficult to achieve properly, but the secret to a perfectly glass-like consistency is to use brown sugar instead of white sugar; the hint of molasses improves melting and lends deep, rich flavor.

Not only was the meal spectacular, but in addition to dining alonside the Consul General I enjoyed the company of a table full of native French speakers. Though I couldn’t follow the entire conversation, for my sake they very graciously spoke mostly in English. The feeling was very familiar and if only for a few hours, I felt like I was back in Europe.
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Biography
Consul General of France in Chicago Mr. Vincent Floreani

Vincent Floreani became Consul General of France in Chicago with jurisdiction for the 13 midwestern states on August 23, 2014. Prior to this assignment, Mr. Floreani was Deputy Spokesman and Deputy Director of Communications and Press at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and assistant director of the press since 2011.

Vincent Floreani is an alumnus of l’Ecole nationale d’administration (ENA). Upon graduating from the ENA in 1999 he was assigned to the United Nations and international organizations Division, Sub-Department of Political Affairs in Paris. His responsibilities included Iraq, Libya, and reform of the Security Council.

From 2002 to 2005, as an expert in the Security Council, Vincent Floreani served as First Secretary at the Permanent Mission of France to the United Nations in New York.
He became Head of the Press and Communication Office at the French Embassy in London in 2005, and in 2007 served in the British Department for International Development as exchange diplomat.

From 2008 to 2011, he was Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of France in Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates).

Earlier in his career, he served in Romania, Indonesia, Kenya and Uganda.

Vincent Floreani is married and has three sons.

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