Interview with Laurent Boucher

by Sylvie Reynolds, Ph.D.

“Laurent Boucher, the Executive Chef and Co-owner of Jessie et Laurent gives us a glimpse of the wind behind the sails of their very successful 32 year old San Francisco Bay Area business. Laurent and I have been close friends for many years and share a lot of common interests. We are both from Paris and have moved to California many years ago; we both enjoy sailing and boats; we both love food and cooking for the same reasons, which of course has given us a chance over the years to share many delicious meals together with our respective mates. So when Jessie asked me to do this interview with Laurent, I was absolutely delighted and it felt just as natural as preparing a “confit de canard!” Today I am very happy to reveal for you the more personal aspects of Laurent and what is really happening when the “toque” is off.”

What is your greatest passion?

I definitely love to make people happy, and I found out early on that preparing a “tarte aux pommes” or a roast chicken was most enjoyable for me, but mainly how thankful people were. They gave lots of positive comments and sometimes suggestions to improve a dish but I always appreciated the constructive feedback that I got and it is still true today. I am driven by the same feeling. So food is really my way to people’s heart. I was so lucky to discover this when I was very young and to make it my job today. And I am not planning to retire soon!

What is your favorite dish to prepare for family and friends?

laurent boucher baby pictureThis question makes me go back way into the past again. I make it a few times a year: it is my grandmother’s recipe for cheese fondue. It is fun to go shopping to gather all the ingredients; they used to be difficult to find in the States but now they are readily available. You are surrounded by friends and it is so great to enjoy their pleasure. And at the end when they think it is over comes the surprise: there is the“craquelin” at the bottom of the pot, and you add a couple of eggs, keep the heat very low and you enjoy these scrambled eggs with the crispy cheese. It is an unexpected gift at the end of the dish. I learn this trick at the Hotel School where I studied in Switzerland where it is a most popular dish.

What do you miss the most about France?

laurent boucher playing on the beachI don’t really miss a lot. But I have memories of week-ends with my family, cousins who organized parties. Our country house was at one hour from Paris, in Dammartin-en-Serve, where my uncle used to prepare lots of festivities like a baby pig or venison; he had installed in his garden a covered BBQ with a chimney to roast these dishes, and our role with my cousins was to brush the piglet with butter. The aromatic smells, the crackling fire, the glow of the embers, the sharing with family and friends, I have lots of memories of participating to that and I sometimes miss this wonderful atmosphere. My uncle was putting so much love into his entertaining, it was not half done, it was done in the best of ways. Not only my uncle but also my parents and grandparents entertained in the same way. They loved food and it was meaningful to them. I was very lucky.

What do you particularly appreciate about the California lifestyle?

One thing that I enjoy immensely here is the climate, so much light. I like being very close to the countryside where we have grapes, produce, all kinds of fresh things and also the Bay, the Pacific, the bounty of that, and my particular favorite: the oysters of Tamales Bay. I enjoy also the people who live here, so many of whom are world explorers, it is so interesting to hear what they discover during their travels.

How did you manage to adapt traditional French recipes to the California taste? What would you describe as your cooking style/philosophy of cooking?

laurent_boucher_interview6_sAt the beginning of my stay in California, Jessie was a big influence on me in terms of this cooking adaptation. She was the guide on what was possible or not. With my French background, I was used to rich butter and cream sauces, which we still use but at a much-reduced volume. I admired her methods, using tasty home made broths, fresh vegetables, and herbs with spices prepared with lean meats, fish, and seafood. If my old masters could taste my cuisine today, they would be surprised at its evolution.

In terms of cooking style, I was lucky to travel early on to places like Morocco, Tunisia, Spain, Ireland, Switzerland, Martinique where I discovered new foods. And I got inspired by all the places that I have visited. I like to use different traditional cooking styles and cuisines of the world. There are many ways of cooking, and each country brings its own ingredients and savoir-faire. It is very exciting to explore all these spices, flavors, techniques that are nearly infinite.

My philosophy of cooking is to always build on my knowledge, to challenge myself to improve that sauce, that dish, finding little ways to fine tune them, add a spice, modify the technique. And this is ultimately for the pleasure of the people who taste the food. At least, that is my goal!

What do you like to do when you are not working?

laurent_boucher_interview5_sI love sports such as skiing, fly-fishing, sailing, horse riding, biking, trekking in foreign lands or at home, and particularly swimming which I do about four times a week as a form of discipline. Every time I feel like a new man!

In my car I really enjoy listening to books. Right now for instance, I am listening to Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” and just before that I listened to“Travel with Charley” where Steinbeck travels with his dog, a delightful travelogue across America.

Gardening for me is a welcome form of meditation. I have lots of 20 year old Japanese maples and they keep me very busy.

Can we hope to get a recipe book from Jessie and Laurent in the near future?

I don’t know… Jessie is the one who was tickled with this idea in the past. She has the basis for a book. But right now, it is not in the cards. This may change, so stay tuned!

You work in close collaboration with your wife, Jessie. How do the two of you make decisions regarding the business?

InterView_Jessie_LaurentI think the right expression would be that it is “pretty organic”. It’s not complicated. We have been working together for 32 years during which of course our roles have evolved and changed. She takes care of the business side and I am involved with the production side. She manages the marketing, advertising and the menu planning. We review it together and choose according to the season and what is available locally. Being in the office and in contact with all the customers, she gets more feedback than I do. So it makes sense for her to do the menu planning. I bring dishes back home every day and she criticizes each dish to maximize the experience. If we don’t like it at 100%, we take it out or find new ways to make a dish more interesting or more creative. And we have to since many of our clients are repeat customers, so there has to be the right balance between what they expect because they had liked it before, and new twists to keep them interested.

Who is the main cook at home, you or Jessie?

There is no main cook at home. This is an occupation we completely share. Many times what was cooked that day is what we have for dinner so we do not cook a lot. When we do, it is simple food with few ingredients: melon/prosciutto, smoked salmon, steak tartare, Jessie’s famous pizza. So it is a good balance, never a problem or a hardship.

What would you describe as your professional signature dish?

I don’t think that I really have one signature dish. It all depends on the mood, on the weather… But there are some that I particularly like to make such as beef bourguignon, chicken stuffed poblano chiles with fire roasted tomato salsa, grilled red peppers stuffed with saffron risotto and sausage, Irish beef brisket and guinness stew for instance.

What is your favorite local restaurant?

Ha, there are so many wonderful restaurants around! We are very lucky. I particularly love Boulevard in the City, Picco in Larkspur, Bouchon in Yountville, Sushi Ran in Sausalito. But to me, a restaurant has to be a whole package, not only what is in your plate. I pay attention to the decor, the service, the atmosphere, the music, the experience has to be pleasing on many levels.

Do you sometimes choose your vacations around some countries or chefs whose cuisines you want to taste? What is your favorite country to visit?

I must admit that France is still my favorite country to visit. We are just coming back from a trip to the south west of France where we discovered picturesque villages and regions we did not know. We enjoy the countryside and during my research before the trip, I made sure there were some very good restaurants with one or two Michelin stars on our way. Eventually we went to nine restaurants with Michelin stars. The most memorable was Chez Bruno in Provence, where the focus is on truffles. My favorite dish was the lobster ravioli with foie gras and truffles, this was truly a religious experience.

Do you encourage your son to follow your footsteps?

Henri_Laurent_BoucherYes, I do encourage Henri to possibly work with us in the future. He has chosen to get involved in the kitchen over the past two years. He is very flexible; he started at the very bottom, sweeping, cleaning, prepping, assembling dishes like lasagne and moussaka. Then he chose to go to a cooking school in the City. He just finished it, learned a lot and really enjoyed it. He has chosen to go to New Zealand for the next two years to study the business aspect of adventure tourism. He would be very welcome to join us when he comes back, but who knows what he will want to do then?! I try very hard to let him make his own decisions and build up his own experience of the world.

Final Thoughts...

“In re-reading my conversation with Laurent, what comes across very strongly is once again how for him food is an expression of love. We have witnessed this duo in many forms from Babette’s Feast to Chocolate. Across the generations and the continents, people spend much more time and energy cooking than would be required just for relieving hunger. This consuming passion has been well described by Laurie Colwin, in Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen: “One of the delights of life is eating with friends; second to that is talking about eating. And, for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends. People who like to cook like to talk about food. After all, without one cook giving another cook a tip or two, human life might have died out a long time ago.”

Thank you Laurent for sharing your passion, memories, tips and many recipes over the years!”
Sylvie Reynolds