chef interview: Justin Girouard
chef Justin Girouard
Saturday, July 20, 2013
Interview by Katie Culbert
Photography by Denny Culbert
After dinner at The French Press bar on a Saturday night in July, we sat outside the restaurant with Justin and discussed his culinary upbringing and the pros and cons of being a chef/ owner over martinis and beer.
I don’t cook at home enough because of the demands of the business. It’s a very special night for my kids and my wife and me to all sit down to dinner. When I can go shopping at four o’clock, plan a meal, casually cook and hang out with my kids, listen to music, and carry on a conversation with Margaret. It’s a pretty rare scenario to pop up, but when it does, we make the most of it and I’ll cook anything at all.
Scarlett (age 4) will eat anything. Literally, anything. And, not only that, but she takes a liking to things that aren’t very common. Shrimp tails…. that’s her favorite thing. Chicken livers. She loves chicken livers. Anything we put in front of her she will eat. Violet (age 6) on the other hand, you generally have to convince her to eat stuff, but once she tastes it, she likes it. And then she remembers she likes it so from then on she’ll eat it. I mean they cheer about Brussels sprouts, you know.
Frog legs were an ingredient that I never considered. Then I got exposed to some fresh ones from the Atchafalaya, and they won me over. It’s an amazing, delicate, beautiful meat. And from right down the road, you know. I mean, we can go gigging in the coulee by your house if you want.
I always have to have a good pair of tongs. They have to be symmetrical. They can’t be bent out of shape. And the tips have to touch perfectly. If I don’t have that, I’m out of sorts. It’s a direct extension of your fingertips. Tongs are like my Edward Scissorhands.
Lately in the kitchen, we listen to a lot of Ween, a lot of Conway Twitty, and a lot of Frank Ocean. Bobby Charles too. Bobby Charles is like the soundtrack of The French Press. They are all great kitchen artists because their music is upbeat enough to not drag you down, but it’s also mellow enough to calm you a little bit…..so you can stay in a good rhythm.
My mom is a great cook, and she learned from her mom who learned from her mom and dad. They are all Cajun, so it’s all stewed stuff, roux, gumbo….regular Louisiana food. But my dad came from an Italian family, so my mom learned how to cook Italian food, and because she was such a good cook, she was just naturally able to cook great Italian food. I’ve got a soft spot for Italian food. Her chicken cacciatore is amazing. Her lasagna is great. Not to mention her rice and gravy. It’s just perfect. She set the bar pretty high as far as quality. So from a very early age, I could tell if someone was taking shortcuts or using bad ingredients. I didn’t know that was the problem, but I could tell that I didn’t like it as much as something cooked from scratch or fresh.
96% of everything I know, all of my technique, came from Stella!. I came from zero/nothing/point blank to running two restaurants in six years. I started out as a dishwasher. My friend, Chris Allen, was cooking over there and he asked me if I wanted to wash dishes for $50 cash because their dishwasher didn’t show up. That’s how I got the job. The chef asked me to come back the next day and I said, sure, this is fun. So the next day I’m cutting cherry tomatoes, and then the next day I’m peeling shrimp, and then the next day I’m doing both of those duties plus another duty and still doing the dishes. Two months later, I’m on the line. Eight months later, I was on the hot line. And then a year later, I was the sous chef.
Until I got into a professional kitchen, I didn’t know why good food was good. And then I realized its because it takes a lot of work and effort and thought.
A lot of people came through Stella! and just left because it was too hard. But the beautiful thing about Stella! is the more you could do, the more Scott Boswell, the chef, would let you do. So it was up to you completely.
The possibility of going to France kept me around for a couple years. I knew Scott had a connection there. The first serious conversation we ever had, he asked me “what are your plans, where are you going, what are you doing, do you like cooking?” And I asked him if he could send me to France one day, and he said he could make that happen. And that was hook, line, and sinker for me. I just really wanted to go cook in France and live in a different country. When I accepted the sous chef position, I said I’ll do this for 12 months and then you have to send me to France. And he agreed.
Cooking in France is where the other 4% of my knowledge comes from. I was already the sous chef at Stella!. I had a pretty good understanding of how a kitchen should run from managing product to managing people to managing service. But when I got to France, it was a whole new ball game. A much bigger operation, a much more organized operation, and things were just more thought out. If you think about it, the French have been doing it centuries longer than Americans. I learned more about the mechanics of a kitchen as a whole than I did about actual food. I came back super confident, ready to be a leader… like in a different kind of way… like in an efficient, intuitive type of way.
I never went from being an executive chef to a chef/ owner. I was never in a situation where I could just run the kitchen with no one above me except the owner. That’s usually the progression you go. I kind of went straight from following and enforcing someone else’s orders to trying to do it all on my own. So there’s a big learning curve there.
Sometimes I wish that I had somebody that could run all of the rest of the business and I could just focus on the kitchen. But I knew this was the way to go. What I need to do is figure out how to create that time for myself.
Working with my brother is like having a twin. I can say fragments of sentences and get my point across. Whereas with other people, you got to say paragraphs and paragraphs and then it still doesn’t come out right. And his ability is superb. It’s a natural born thing and he has it. I can tell him I want a salad and it needs to be a little tart and poppy and a little sweet… and he nails it. Better than I could. Better than my own head can transfer to my hands. He brings it to me and I’m like oh my god that’s amazing. And he’s only 23 years old. He’s so much more progressed than I was technically and conceptually at his age.
When I talk to people and give them the chance to come stage, I tell them this is a New Orleans style kitchen. First of all, it’s sink or swim. Secondly, no one is in here to babysit anybody. We will help you out if you need help, but the last thing we are going to do is babysit you. And thirdly, you progress at your own rate. Like if you are a bad ass and you want to come in here and be better than your coworkers, than by all means do it. You will progress faster, you will be working with more important positions in the kitchen, and you will make more money. I’m sticking to that because that’s all I know.
We recently had someone call about a position in our kitchen. She said the environment she is looking for is a small, busy, understaffed kitchen. And I was like, oh my god, we are your dream come true.