A Conversation with Chef Alain Giraud

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Interview with chef Alain Giraud . Editor Cheri Sicard sat down for an informal conversation with the Provencal chef back when he was at the helm of Santa Monica's Lavande restaurant.

Fabulous Foods editor Cheri Sicard spoke to chef Alain Giraud back when he was at Lavande Restaurant, located in the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel. Lavande is a wonderful restaurant specializing in the foods of Provence, food known intimately well by its then star chef and director.

Giraud had a very hands on part in every facet of Lavande, from the menu all the way down to the decor. He wanted to evoke the Provence of his childhood. The casual, yet elegant dining room is decorated with vintage provencal pottery, the scent of lavender gently wafts through the air and the food is superb. Giraud says it came naturally, for California and Provence have a lot in common.

Alain Giraud had 17 years of culinary experience and numerous awards behind him when he first came to America in 1988. He began his career here as a private chef, but he quickly joined Michel Richard at L.A.'s famed Citrus Restaurant. While that was a wonderful experience, the challenge of creating his own restaurant was too inviting, and hence, Lavande was born in January of 1998.

Giraud is an animated man who exudes charm, personality and energy! This last is crucial for the hours he puts in at Lavande. The night I stayed at Loews, we said our good nights at well past midnight. When I ventured down to the lobby early the next morning, Giraud was already there, busy at work.

His energy and enthusiasm make him an easy subject to interview. He speaks with a heavy French accent that is incredibly charming, frequently going off on long, albeit interesting, tangents (as you'll see below). Ruggedly handsome, his eyes have a constant twinkle, the smile on his face often turns into a big wide grin when he's talking about something he loves and he has a little boy charm that's impossible to resist. Giraud is the type of person that most people take an instant liking to.

After our interview, as I watched him walking away, talking animatedly to one of his assistants, I was left with the impression that here was a true renaissance man. A person who could do just about anything he put his mind to and have fun while doing it.


Cheri Sicard - Alain, you're obviously French and you were trained in France. How traditional is your cooking, how much do you "play with the classics"?
Lavande FoodAlain Giraud - Whew! Oh, this is a very tricky, tough question here. I think the way I like to cook, I find inspiration in the classics, because it's like a type of art, if you don't have a classic base, then you lack foundation.

My cooking is partly classic. The cooking here is Provencal, which is not just a way of cooking, it's a way of life. I don't use cream, but that's not classic for a French chef. I serve an average of 150 people, but use only 1 quart of cream for the entire day! It's for the mashed potatoes, because it's really difficult to make them with olive oil. That is not really classic.

I do a veal daube, you have to cook it slowly in the oven with a nice amount of liquid, to make my own interpretation, I change it a bit. I don't use a piece of beef, I use a cheek of the beef. On the foundation I use glazed baby carrots and spring onions and olives. The combination is still classic but the foundation is more modern and lighter on the palate. When I do a fish soup, I stay close to the classic recipe.

But I don't want to name my cooking classic, my cooking is Provence style, done in Los Angeles in 1998! I have a lot of sources for cooking and ingredients. There's a wonderful farmer's market in Santa Monica and I have a garden. I have people to help me with cooking from Guatemala, from Salvador, from all over South America, from all over the world really, and you learn a lot from these people. I was trained in a very, very classic restaurant, with classic rules. I learned a lot. When I see a young chef coming to work without any classic base, I try to teach him a few classic rules. After that, you can do whatever you want, but you need that base.

{pagebreak} Did I say enough or do you want me to go deeper on that story? I cook in a classic way and when I started I was looking to work in Paris. And I think Paris is like New York, it's like Los Angeles, it's like any big city in the world. You come with your own heritage, the one inside you, then you absorb the world around you. It's what happened to me in L.A. I found this place here and it reminds me of Provence. It's not Provence, it's thousands of miles away. But you have the same sort of climate, same weather. The people have a really honest way of life, it's Santa Monica. It's...cool, can I say that? You have this wonderful atmosphere here. Like I said, the farmer's market it's like an escape to an island for me. Wonderful people, I like the interaction in the market. I have a lady, she's very nice, she grows sweet basil. She's a farmer! Very sweet, very honest. The market is very important for us because you get fresh produce, fresh fish from the people who are growing it. They know about the land, about El Nino. (He Laughs.) Wow, if you let me go on you'll have to ask only one question!

Lavande FoodCheri Sicard - That's all right, it makes my job easier. But I will ask, since we're on the subject of market, what are your favorite ingredients?
Alain Giraud - Favorite ingredients are the very simplest ones. Maybe tomatoes, I'm in love when the tomatoes are going to look good, the skin, the flavor, and you have so many different kinds here in the market. So, tomatoes, olive oil. I use a lot of olive oil. Hehehe, chocolate (he says with a devilish grin), any dark chocolate, the darkest I can get. I love a lot of seafood, but you have to be very sharp when you cook seafood. Meat is easier but fish and seafood are very...precise. I mean, what I tell my chefs is that when they start to work in the fish station they have to be very precise, if you go one more minute, it's over. And truffles, I love truffles. because they are rare, number one, they are very rare. I like them, not because they are expensive, but I really enjoy truffles because they are like a gift from nature. What is really interesting about truffles is that the hand of man doesn't touch it, just dig it out of the earth. It's not like caviar, it is a pure gift.

Lavande Ice CreamCheri Sicard - What kitchen tool could you not live without?
Alain Giraud - My knives. Knives, and I have a black iron pan. I was lucky when I came here, I found three old ones. I like to use those. I don't have any non-stick pans. Not one! And, I have an ice cream machine! I love ice cream. I fought for that. Nobody understood why I wanted an ice-cream machine, but I said I want it. (Editor's note: when we dined at Lavande, we understood perfectly well why Alain fought for the ice cream machine, for the meal was finished with the most delicious, delicately flavored lavender ice cream. Now, I am a serious ice cream addict, and I have to say that this was the most exquisite ice cream I have ever had!)

Cheri Sicard - Do you have any other kitchen gadgets like that, that perhaps aren't really necessary, but you really like them anyway?
Alain Giraud - I have plenty of them! A Japanese machine that cuts potatoes, a Japanese mandolin. I have a machine to open eggs, from China. A small blender, I have two of these at each station. A hand (immersion) blender. It's great, if the sauce is a little too thick, you add some olive oil and voila! And a big blender too, to do grains.

Cheri Sicard - You've won many prestigious awards. How important were they to your career?
Alain Giraud - Ahhh, I want to be against...not competition, I like competition, but when I was working in Paris, in a big hotel, you see these people walking around and it was like they had lost something somewhere. The competition had some power over them. The competition I did, I was attracted to because the judge was matching the wine from the South of France with any type of food you wanted to create for the competition. I was working in Paris, but this took me close to my roots, to the South of France. I met a lot of people through that. I was lucky. I won it. It was the last one I did. It was the only won I made. I made one, I won it, it's enough. I don't need anymore. Thank you. I met a lot of people though. I have a lot of connections, many friends in the wine business. I take the honor with me, but the competition doesn't change my way of thinking. (Editors note: Giraud has won other awards, they just haven't been through direct competition.)

Cheri Sicard - You came to Lavande from Citrus?
Alain Giraud - Yes. I was the chef de cuisine, which is a French title for the person running the kitchen. In America you have the executive chef, executive sous chef. In France, chef du cuisine means a lot. I like this title. At Citrus, Michel Richard was chef/owner, the man behind the spirit of the place, for sure! I don't know if you've ever had the chance to dine at Citrus, but it is a beautiful restaurant. I think it was the prototype of a restaurant of the 80's in California. Something clear, simple, not pretentious, very serious food, bright. I like Michel. We did a lot of things together, he's a very good friend. He's moved to Washington now. I was looking for something different. Not only different, but something for myself. When I came to Loews, we negotiated for a while. I didn't want to be just a chef in a hotel. I wanted a baby! I have already two at home, I wanted number three here! I had the need to have something that was a part of me. Someplace that I can cook anything that I like.

{pagebreak} The View From Loews Santa MonicaCheri Sicard - So you had a lot of say in what this restaurant would be?
Alain Giraud - Oh yeah. From A- Z. The concept, I came up with the concept. For a long time I knew I wanted a restaurant with Provencal style. If it was on the east coast or in the middle of the snow in Aspen, maybe it would have worked too, but then you would have wanted some more...comfort food. But in this area, it's more natural. It's a beautiful place to be. I Love L.A! You meet so many people who are negative about L.A. Sure we have gangs here, sure we have earthquakes, sure, sure sure. But, sure we have palm trees, sure we have beautiful people, beaches. I think the balance is right.

Cheri Sicard - What does Lavande mean?
Alain Giraud - It's lavender. That is the spirit of Provence. I was thinking of a name. I would like to use Provence, but it was already being used in America. There's one in New York, one in Washington, it's everywhere. I was thinking about a sunflower, or anise, aneeese, aneeese, no, it doesn't sound right. And my wife does a dried lavender business, she has pillows and such. I'm living in lavender all the time and I thought, why not Lavande? Lavender. I worked with the concept.

Cheri Sicard - Do you find, over the years, that your tastes are changing, and if so, how?
Alain Giraud - Oh yeah. I think they are changing, not each day, but through education. This is one of the most exciting parts of cooking. Each morning is different. The flavors are different, the wines are different. Cooking is an evolution for everything you can receive, the flavors! You're in a wonderful world. I basically like the same flavors, I like sweet, I like chocolate, but there is an evolution of the taste. I'm getting older. The older I get, the older the wine I like (laughs). I don't have expensive tastes. I like things very simple. For example, tomatoes, some nice salt, black pepper, olive oil. You don't need...the cook has to stay in the back. You know the farmer's market in Hollywood? In the summer I go with my kid on a Sunday, we buy tomatoes and we have a picnic. And, I have a garden. I think the evolution of taste is to be more natural. I think it's the same in my cooking, it's getting more...I clean the plate more.

Cheri Sicard - Your cooking is getting simpler?
Alain Giraud - It was all the time, simple. That's why I was so happy at Citrus. It was very sharp, very clean. Generally in Paris when you cook, you want to impress by being different. I think simplicity is best. If I buy a beautiful tomato, I don't want to shock it or cancel flavors. Maybe make it just a little better. Some salt, olive oil, just a touch. But the beauty is there, you don't want to destroy that. And with other food, it's the same thing. You find something nice, and beautiful, you just give it some support. This is my evolution of taste. Simplicity, more natural. With my kids, I decided to grow some vegetables, because I want them to understand that this is not just something from the supermarket. It's natural, it's from the earth, from the ground.

Lavande FoodCheri Sicard - How old are your children?
Alain Giraud - Seven and five.

Cheri Sicard - Are you teaching them to cook?
Alain Giraud (beaming) - Ahh! My daughter did a chocolate mousse with me. If they are in the mood. For a while my son was interested then everything tasted, you know 'yucky'. It goes in waves. I don't push them. I'm available. Like Sunday morning, they wanted to do a chocolate mousse. We went into the kitchen together, we made a big mess. She liked that! Then I said, you have to wait four hours. She said, "What?" I said in four hours the chocolate will be deeper. She said, "I want to eat it now!" It was 8 o'clock in the morning. I said no, you have to wait.

And to grow vegetables with the kids is great. We have cherry tomatoes, we pick together. Again, more natural is the evolution of taste. I know I gave a long answer, but it was a very deep question.

Cheri Sicard - Do you have a secret chef's tip you can share with our readers?
Alain Giraud - When I cook a stew, it's really a Provence style trick, I put dried orange in it. I use a lot of dried orange peel for seasoning. You take the peel (zest) of the orange and dry it in the kitchen and I use this in a lot of different ways. I grind it in a coffee grinder and I use it in salad dressings to give it some...je ne sais quoi. I use it in a sachet in a stew, in a beef stew, in a fish soup. It's an unusual seasoning, dried orange. You can dry them on the top of the stove. Sometimes if I'm in a hurry, I use the Japanese machine to peel strips and they are dry in one hour. After you can grind them and it keeps forever. I use this a lot.

Cheri Sicard - That's a great tip! Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. I know you have dinner to prepare, so I don't want to keep you any longer.

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