Those 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.
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.
On 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.