When I think of the chef Jean Michel Bergounoux, the French term "terroir" comes to mind. It refers to the way a particular region stamps its mark on certain foods, such as a certain regional coffee bean or wine grape. With Jean Michel, the regions influencing him were simultaneously influenced by his presence, namely great kitchens such as Trois Gros, Connaught Hotel and Leon de Lyon.
He definitely influenced me, as both boss and mentor. There were two primary lessons he imparted to all of his cooks; use the simplest, but also freshest products, and then employ as much of that simple, fresh product as you can, never waste! From a secondary cut of beef and carrots, together braised in a white wine, Jean Michel could conjure a dish that left you with the sense that your soul, as much as your belly, was nurtured. Simple but so satisfying.
Luck was good to me introducing me to Jean Michel, as it gave me a chance to work alongside him at a turning point in both his career and my own. I spent three years under his eyes at Restaurant Raphael, the restaurant where he readied to open his own restaurant L'Absinthe. Working under this master chef offered a plethora of lessons, methods and techniques, each rooted in a French tradition. Today, I still follow many of the basics Jean Michel taught me; his braised rabbit in mustard, the way to roast a chicken, or even his vinaigrette. His lessons could fill a book, if only he would write one. Such a book would be a page-turner, as I remember my years with him as a mix of laughs and wonder listening to his stories of working alongside some of the most important chefs in contemporary French cuisine.
During a visit to our restaurant by a well known critic, Jean Michel told his crew, "a person who knows food will judge you by tasting something so simple as a salad, so always season and taste!" A few words, but the power of the truth has remained. With this interview I have the opportunity to pay homage to the chef whose simple but lucid advice inspired so many ideas and insight into managing a professional kitchen, a man who powerfully reflects his own words about cooking that "you really have to love it or you wouldn't want to do it!"