Grilling the Chef: Jean-Louis Gerin
Vermont may be home to the Most Interesting Man in the World , but we don’t have a lot of knights. Now we have at least one: The New England Culinary Institute ’s new executive chef, Jean-Louis Gerin , has been knighted twice by the French government’s Ordre national du Mérite , as a Chevalier du Mérite Agricole  and a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres . He’s also racked up a silver toque from the Maîtres Cuisiniers de France  and, stateside, a James Beard Award  for Best Chef: Northeast, as well as a win on the Food Network competition show “Chopped.”
On January 1, Gerin, who has been in the States for nearly 30 years, will close his 28-year-old Restaurant Jean-Louis in Greenwich, Conn., and relocate. But for now, he’s splitting his time between Montpelier and Connecticut’s Gold Coast, where he and his sommelier wife, Linda, still have a 17-year-old son in public high school. When he graduates this spring, Linda Gerin will join her husband in her native Vermont, where her father opened Newfane’s celebrated Four Columns Inn .
Jean-Louis Gerin, who is president of the U.S. Chapter of l’Académie Culinaire de France , may be NECI’s most decorated chef yet, but he says he’s not in any rush to make grand changes to the school. “NECI is a well-oiled machine that is running very smoothly,” Gerin says. “I’m the egg yolk in the mayo — the cement. I’m gluing things together.”
Part of that “gluing” mission involves working closely with NECI’s dean of hospitality and restaurant management, Michelle Ford, to better connect its respective programs that prepare students to work in “front and back of house.” “The goal is to make front-of-house a legitimate part to the restaurant business,” Gerin says. “The chef is always going to be more glamorous — they have the creativity and the big hat, but we are getting very close to a European standard where the knowledge and passion it takes to be [a manager or server] is becoming as respectable as being a chef. We just have to speed it up and make it a respected position.”
Gerin, who already uses Vermont products in his Connecticut kitchen, particularly poultry, says he’s excited to make more connections with local farmers. Other plans for his first year in Vermont include hitting the slopes, working with NECI’s pool of “fine talent” and eating across the state. Meet the latest chef to shape Vermont’s culinary future.
SEVEN DAYS: Name three foods that make life worth living.
JEAN-LOUIS GERIN: Chicken. It has to be real chicken. When I moved to America, for the first five years, I didn’t serve chicken in my restaurant. I served it after I secured good farmers. Chicken is really an incredible food, and there is no end to your imagination in recipes.
Any kind of fish. And on the vegetable side, ratatouille. I love ratatouille. You can turn it into anything you want, from omelettes and frittatas to tapas thingies.
This is what I really, really like, but of course if you offer me a spoon of caviar, I won’t turn it down.
SD: Have you ever eaten something truly weird?
JLG: I’m not very adventurous, but I went to Guyana to see my little brother, who is running an organic hearts-of-palm canning company. I had a sort of ragout, hanging on an open fire.
Every time you ask what’s in it, they say, “Well it’s a long process.” Which means they reheat it every day and keep reheating it. You say, That’s it. I’m dying. You check your will and call your children to say good-bye.
SD: You’re a “Chopped” champion; what were your impressions of the show?
JLG: It’s long: 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. And TV, the way it works, they ask you the same question over and over. It’s like a mother; you just keep saying, “Yes, Mom.”
SD: What’s the last thing you ate?
JLG: I had the pleasure of dining [at NECI on Main ] last night with [past NECI executive chefs] Robert Barral and Michel LeBorgne. I had swordfish that was cooked to perfection. If you forget it a little bit, it just becomes dry. You can’t fix it.
I’m so happy, because this was the students’ cooking. To arrive at that level where the swordfish is cooked [so] that it stays in the middle almost like sushi; you see it’s been taken care of. I said, Yes! Our guys are doing that!
SD: Have you fallen in love with any Vermont products?
JLG: I use Vermont products down in Connecticut. The last two things that I bought [at Hunger Mountain Co-op] were cheese.
Wow! I don’t want to be a snob, but the evolution of cheese from the ’80s to now, the quality that’s produced now in Vermont, is just mind-blowing.
SD: If you could have any chef in the world prepare a meal for you, who would it be?
JLG: For fun, definitely Guy Savoy.
To pick his brain, probably [pioneering 19th- to 20th-century chef Auguste] Escoffier. I use [The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery ] as a bed-table book. The book is impressive; you can also use it as a booster for kids when they are small.
I love [Escoffier’s] charcuterie. At some times I start thinking, What if?
If you want to not impress me, foam something. I will probably laugh at you. It doesn’t impress me. It doesn’t bring anything.
SD: What’s the dish you’ll be remembered for?
JLG: Boneless Vermont quail stuffed with Escoffier chicken mousse. Every time I try to take it off my menu, I get people threatening me. That’s for the main course.
The appetizer is American caviar salad, which I created when my wife was pregnant with our first son. She was craving caviar, and it looked like we were going to go bankrupt. It’s just lemon juice, cayenne and chives in sour cream with three kinds of caviar, served over an endive salad. Those are our two best sellers.
SD: What’s the worst dish you’ve ever created?
JLG: When I just got my Pacojet [ice cream machine], I had a bunch of friends over for dinner and wanted to show off my creativity. I did an escargot ice cream with escargots, parsley, garlic and milk. I froze that and put it in the ice cream. It tasted bad.
Fortunately they were friends of mine, so right away they said, “You have to stop that; it’s really bad. If you continue like that, we’re going to remove the Pacojet from you.”
SD: What’s your favorite Vermont restaurant?
JLG: Whenever we have time, we stop by at Café Provence . It’s not a big change; it’s just an extra hour. It’s a great spot, and [chef-owner Robert Barral] has a fantastic car. He has a Citroën. We arrive in Vermont with an open mind and a big appetite.
SD: If money were no object, what kind of restaurant would you open?
JLG: I would open a restaurant with a casual attitude and amazing food. This is what Michelle [Ford] and I are working on. Come with your flip-flops if you like, but have a big appetite. I’m not saying decorum isn’t fun; it’s just that I did it already.
SD: What’s your favorite beverage?
JLG: Lime juice and Pellegrino. I’m very [snobbish]; I like vintage wines and in tiny quantities. It’s not an everyday thing, because I cannot afford it, and I’m married to a sommelier. She researches [wines] and says, “Don’t touch it; you’re not going to like it.”
SD: What kind of music do you like to listen to in the kitchen?
JLG: I stopped that because some members of my crew cannot focus. The kitchen is a creative place, but it’s also a dangerous place: There are flames; there are knives; there are people around you.
When I’m prepping alone, I have a great mix of Mozart and Eminem. In the new generation, I like that cute little girl that has the small voice — Taylor Swift. She’s just herself and doesn’t try to be anything else.
SD: How did your family eat when you were growing up? Do your kids cook?
JLG: I’m from the [French] Alps, so anything that has to do with cheese — cheese fondue. I’m coming from a family where the man cooks as a hobby. My father was a Sunday cook. My mother had to deal with all of it from Monday to Saturday, completely ignored by her four children. She was putting out lunch and dinner all the time. My father was making such a fuss on Sunday, it was, Oh, thank you!
My younger son is actually a good cook. He’s trying to see how much bacon he can use in anything. I’m surprised he didn’t create a bacon dessert yet.
[My older son], I think that he almost flunked cooking at [Greenwich] High School. The teacher told him, “Genetically you should be able to cook. Either you’re not paying attention or something is wrong with you.” I tell him to change his name.
SD: Growing up, were there any foods you thought were gross?
JLG: The same as now. The vegetable I really don’t understand is eggplant. The one I can’t deal with body-wise is raw peppers. I don’t like cucumbers when they aren’t peeled. In Europe, you peel your cucumbers, so please get to it, America.
SD: What’s your most embarrassing favorite food?
JLG: The little red triangle that you buy in the gas station ... Doritos! If you open my glove compartment, there is probably a bag in there. And every chef eats pizza.
SD: What do you think is the strangest thing about American food habits?
JLG: The snacking is all day. This is something for a European, it is kind of shocking, the constant munching on stuff, where there is no beginning and end. What are you eating now? I’m saying that when I’m driving with my Doritos, of course.