Frederic Kieffer’s culinary odyssey

Though he was raised just west of Paris, chef Frederic Kieffer’s favorite holiday is a classic American one.

“Thanksgiving represents the harvest,” he says. “You go through the whole season to celebrate the bounty of the land, which you’re sharing. The field of cooking that we’re in, it’s all about sharing.”

He’s talking at l’escale restaurant bar, the elegant white-on-white French restaurant at Delamar Greenwich Harbor, where he’s the executive chef. (He’s also executive chef and managing partner of Artisan Restaurant, Tavern & Garden at Delamar Southport.) With his brunet coloring and clear-cut features, Frederic resembles a younger, taller Jacques Pepin. But his bonhomie, wit — as dry as white wine — and cuisine are all his own. Recently, he prepared a “Babette’s Feast” at Delamar Southport, featuring products from Red Bee Honey in Weston and Sport Hill Farm in Easton. (See related stories.)

“The honey gets more powerful as the dishes go on,” he observed that night of a menu that included a succulent crispy-skin Scottish salmon with an English pea purée, spotlighting Dijon-clover honey and a corn bread, with ruby red grapefruit and orange cream, highlighting buckwheat honey.

Now at l’escale, we were treated to equally delectable but different fare that included a savory tuna crudo (see recipe), a rich, creamy crabmeat corn chowder and — How could we resist? — a Georgette’s salad of kale, frisee, quinoa, carrot, radish, avocado, blueberries and pumpkin seeds in a light Dijon mustard dressing.

The two restaurants reflect the difference between Delamar Greenwich Harbor and Delamar Southport and, perhaps, between Greenwich and Southport themselves.

L’escale, where Frederic helms a kitchen brigade of 35 to 40, is a sophisticated French restaurant modeled on the jet-setty La Petite Maison Nice in southern France. In the United States, however, “you can’t be 100-percent French. You have to adapt.” So l’escale’s signature bouillabaisse — flavorful without being too fishy —  contains lobster, which no French bouillabaisse has. The lobster is a nod to l’escale’s New England locale.

With its pewter, copper and glass accents and a kitchen brigade of about 25, Artisan has the cozy, comfy, country feel of a New England inn and a cuisine that reflects the farm-to-table movement that Frederic is so passionate about. Again, he says, you can’t be 100-percent organic farm-to-table in the northeast, where the growing season is shorter than in other parts of the country. But Artisan is about 90 percent organic, he says, with much of the produce coming from places like Sport Hill Farm and Gilbertie’s Herbs & Garden Center in Westport, which Frederic says has “the largest northeastern USDA-approved organic greenhouse.”

Seasonal Artisan menus have included Gilbertie’s organic mesclun greens, Hamden, Conn. ricotta ravioli dressed with Sport Hill Farm’s summer tomatoes and a cheesecake made with goat cheese, tomato marmalade and a rosemary biscuit.

Local ingredients will play a big role in Artisan Restaurant, Tavern & Garden at Delamar West Hartford, opening in 2017. This Artisan will have a greenhouse that you’ll walk through to get to the restaurant as well as its own compost center.

When Frederic talks about sharing, however, he’s talking not merely about local cuisine but about expertise. This means handpicking and mentoring a staff that may not necessarily come out of the French tradition of cooking school, discovering which members really have the passion for food and teaching them a respect for the basics and for produce.

“It’s not just a zucchini, it’s a certain zucchini,” Frederic says. “And there’s a beauty to it.”

This is a philosophy that Frederic began to absorb when he was 14 years old. His family was not in the restaurant business, but they had a friend who had a restaurant. So Frederic went to work in his kitchen, washing dishes.  He studied cooking for six years — apprenticing at Taillevent, Le Chiberta and Hôtel Lutétia, all in Paris; and graduating from L’École Supérieure de Cuisine Française, where he learned the business side of cooking.

“Sometimes someone can be a good chef, but not know anything about management,” he says.

Frederic was supposed to work at a hotel in Paris that was still under construction. But he got a visa to come to the United States and thought he would “kill time” here.

That was 22 years ago. His culinary odyssey has taken him from coast to coast, embracing Tentation Potel & Chabot Catering  and the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan and The Music Center in Los Angeles.

He was one of three chefs involved in the 1996 reopening of Windows on the World after the first bombing of the World Trade Center. The restaurant would be destroyed during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“A lot of people, I brought them in,” he says of the staff there. “Such a tragedy. I knew them all. It’s not something you forget.”

After working in South West NY in Battery Park City and Water’s Edge Restaurant in Brooklyn and serving as the original chef for the now-defunct, celebrity-powered Man Ray, Frederic launched l’escale, which gave him an opportunity to return to his French roots in a cosmopolitan, marine setting.

He was also the original chef of Gaia (now Morello Italian Bistro) in Greenwich, where he honed the farm-to-table philosophy that he seeks to impart as well to the staff of Artisan Restaurant, Tavern & Garden at Four Columns in Newfane, Vt.

Today, Frederic lives in Fairfield with wife, Anita, and their three sons. She’s a good cook. And the boys?

“They’re good eaters but picky” he says, before adding, “we didn’t have a recipe for a girl.”

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l’ESCALE’S TUNA CRUDO 

PREPARING THE APPLE CREAM:
Peel and dice 4 Granny Smith apples.
 Combine the diced apples with the juice of 1 lemon, 2 ounces of apple cider vinegar, 1 ounce of butter and 1 pinch of salt.
 Bake for 30 minutes at 325 degrees or until brown and soft.
 Refrigerate.
 When cold, stir in 4 ounces of crème fraiche.
 Mix well and season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

PREPARING THE DRESSING:
 
Combine 2 ounces of date molasses with 1 ounce of apple cider vinegar, 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil and 2 tablespoons of pumpkin seed oil.

PREPARING THE TUNA TARTARE:
 Dice 24 ounces of fresh tuna and combine in a large bowl with 1 diced Granny Smith apple, 2 diced shallots, 2 tablespoons of toasted pumpkin seeds and 1 bunch of chopped chives.
 Season with sea salt, black peppercorn and 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.

FOR THE PRESENTATION:
 
Place one spoonful of the apple cream in the center of the plate.
 Place the tuna tartare mix over it in a ring mold to give it a round shape. Remove the mold.
 Drizzle the date dressing around the tartare and sprinkle a few toasted pumpkin seeds around.
 Garnish the tuna with micro greens.  Serves seven or eight.

For more, visit l’escalerestaurant.com and artisansouthport.com.

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