Chef Mavro Interview 2010

For the essay series Global is the New Local published in EnRoute Magazine in September, October and December 2010, I visited Hawaii and ate my way around the island of Oahu. One of the best meals, of the trip and probably my life so far, was had at Chef Mavro's, where extremely high-end does not mean pretentious. And where I didn't feel like keeling over after our eight course meal (like I did after eating what Tom Aikens had to offer, for example).
Here's the transcript of our conversation, which touches on his idea about "regional", the technical reasons his cuisine is so approachable and paradoxically light, as well as his creative process in creating a new menu item.
Chef Mavro: When I arrived in Hawaii it was just starting. You maybe know this story. When I arrived, many restaurants were doing “continental cuisine”. Mahi mahi with beurre blanc, even though Mahi Mahi wasn’t from here, it was frozen from Mexico. Everyone was doing a Caesar salad and a shrimp cocktail. But there were already a group of chefs Roy, Alan Wong, Sam Choy, and we say: we don’t do Caesar salad. So we created Hawaii Regional Cuisine. And we started of course to work with farmers who were doing specific ingredients just for us. Nalo farms was one of them.
But you know, all my life I have been doing only regional cuisine. In Provence I was maybe the first fine dining restaurant to do Provencal cuisine. “Gourmet” at that time meant French classics: buttery with cream. Provencal cuisine, 25 years ago, was considered too strong, too garlicky. Well… this is my roots. Provence. So even though my training was classic, I wanted to cook from my back yard, not from Burgundy and Alsace. I was still very modern, very nouvelle cuisine. My first rest Mavro in Marseille, I was bringing all the flavors of Provence in a very contemporary style. I was the only one to have a selection of wine from the Provencal terroire. I had close to 100 different wines, which at this time was “woah what’s going on?” But I thought if you’re cooking Provencal cuisine you have to serve the wine.
But I remember when I went to Los Angeles, I did the same thing. I had the same impression that I had in France. At this time everyone was talking about California nouvelle , but everyone was eating caesar salad and shrimp cocktail and chateaubriand. It was a nightmare for me. So I started cooking fresh Santa Barbara shrimp and produce from the valley. I was working with what I found.
I loved LA but for me, for a French cook, 24 years ago, LA was not the right place to be. I decided to move, so I went to Denver, where I was cooking Colorado cuisine. I was doing trout and venison and lamb.
I can only do this kind of cooking. It doesn’t make any sense to come to Hawaii and open a French restaurant and to cook Dover Sole. I has no sense. You cannot do something like that when you have all this wonderful fish in the ocean.
I don’t use stock and I don’t use demi-glace, I don’t work in traditional ways. To thicken a stock, I like to use vegetable. If I do a bordelaise, I use pinot noir and onions reduction. After that I smooth the sauce with a carrot puree, so my bordelaise has no butter, no oil. I also use celery root and fennel emulsion. Or cauliflower.
I’m cooking very light and flavorful. As soon as you cut the cream, I like it. I’ll use cream, but in a reduction, as soon as you cut the cream and butter suddenly you get to the pure flavor of your ingredients. You use some basil, then add cream, you lose 80 percent of the flavor. Instead of cream and butter, you use a puree of sweet onion, you multiply your basil by five. I like to make sure if you order a dish with basil, you taste the basil. People are making mistakes when they cook the basil. And if you cook it you lose it.
I think the contemporary way to approach the sauces is very important. What I like in molecular cuisine very much is the flavor extraction. Instead of butter and cream, you use gas. You suspend your flavor in air. I like that concept.
Molecular cuisine arrived in the US about 5 years ago. People began to talk about different restaurants, Alinea for example. But molecular techniques have been around since I started. Already Robouchon was using a canister to foam lagoustine. I remember I went there and I couldn’t understand it. Ferran Adria didn’t exist. And yes he’s now the master, and I like it.
But the more you go, the more you find out… you find out it’s nice because it’s light and flavorful and extracted… but it’s a lot of BS also, you understand? You learn that when you remove all the BS, there’s not much left. So of course you can impress people. In LA I was shocking people. And I don’t want you to come to my restaurant to be shocked.
So when I opened Chef Mavro, 10 years ago, I was foaming, clouding and bubbling, it was too much. It was extreme. We play, we have fun. But one day you think: what will be next? Let’s calm down a little bit. So if you go into the back, you’ll find a dozen gas canisters I don’t use any more.
We are still bubbling a salsa of fennel and lemongrass, and we do use the steam from the capucino, because I like very much the suspension of the flavors. And it looks like a bubble bath. So when I need it, I’ll use it. But it’s not the foundation of my cooking.
You have to understand when I was in Denver I was cooking very traditional, but in my modern way. Lamb and venison. When the Halekulani (hotel) called me, I didn’t know much about Hawaii at all. They asked me to come in to take over La Mer. I was the chef in the restaurant when we got 5 stars from Michael Carter Denver Post, he was a big food writer, even if he was in Denver, he had a national following. Halekulani learned of this, so an owner came to spy, he came every night for a week. Then he called me. He said: I have a restaurant in Hawaii, it’s called La Mer. And I’d like you to take over. I said: why not?
Then I realized that the restaurant was in a hotel, and I declined. I’m sorry, I’m a free spirit. And I don’t want to deal with the BS of a hotel. So they sent me a pre-contract, with a price on it, and I said: well if you’re going to talk to me like that, I’ll change my mind.
OK, how do you create a recipe? Let’s start with Tamarind Roasted Sablefish. Number one, I don’t like too much farm raised fish. Someone comes with a farm raised fish and I’m not really interested, I prefer a fish from the wild. One day someone came with sable fish from the island. It comes from water 3000 feet, pure crystal water from very deep, so deep and so cold, that when they raise this fish from the ocean, they need to mix the water together to get the right temperature. So they mix with surface water to get 15 degrees, and they raise this beautiful sablefish. At first I say I’m not interested, I don’t do ground fish. But then I try. I find it’s very nice. Since they are young and small, there’s not too much oil. It’s delicious. It’s nothing more than a blackcod, or what you call butterfish in Japanese cuisine. But I knew I’m going to use it.
Since this is a black cod, we decided to do something that looks like misoyaki butterfish which is a classic. But this is not a Japanese restaurant, so we found our way to do it. I don’t use too much soy sauce, because it doesn’t work very well with the wine. So starting with the idea of this famous dish misoyaki butterfish, but we glaze with tamarind. And tamarind is very wine friendly, a little bit nutty. So, tamarind. And we use also like a sugar palm for the glaze. So this was the fish.
After that we did something very interesting. And this was Kevin’s idea. He was visiting France when he was with Le Cirque in New York. He went to the Basque country on vacation, and he discovered something I didn’t know existed. He discovered espelette. It’s a pimento, a red chili with a very specific flavor, a little spicy but not too much. And dry it’s like a powder, like paprika. So we flavor our puree maui onion, like a soubise, with espelette and it’s totally delicious. And since we didn’t want it to be a Japanese recipe even though it looks like a misoyaki, because we start with black cod, so we did it with a greek yoghurt with essence of cilantro emulsion, and we tossed the radish and cucumber and celery with this emulsion. And I think it’s a very interesting dish.
But we start with an ingredient, sometimes a spice, and we work around the spice. But here we work around the sable fish. And from the sable fish we arrived at the recipe. And we’re going to keep this for one more season. We’ve had it for one season, but now we still have all the ingredients with no problem. So we’ll do it again. But after that it will disappear and never come back.
My father was a Greek immigrant, came to France when he was 5 years old. He was French, he wasn’t Greek anymore. But the family was in the sponge business, they moved it to Tunisia. So at 5 he became French (when Tunisia became French). He went to Marseille to dive for coral. My grandfather died on the bottom on the sea, diving for coral. Lots of greek diving accidents. This was a classic way to die for a greek diver. So my father was in France, in Marseille. And he became an engineer. Since ancestry, and time in Tunisia, he was an outstanding home cook and my mother was terrible.
So since my youngest ages, I was maybe 6 or 7, I was cooking with him in the kitchen and doing all these things. Like cousouse, mousaka, mix of Greek and Tunisian and French. And he was very good. And he gave me the virus. And I was 16 when I decided I wanted to be a chef. He almost killed me. That is not a job. So I became an engineer.
I started my own business, but I decided this was not for me. I was working and making money. But I decided to sell my part of the business to my partner. So I had money, and I started from scratch. I realized that to be a home cook, I had a reputation, and people were in line to be invited to my house, but this had nothing to do with running a restaurant. You can be a great home cook and a lousy chef. I realized quickly there was no room for amateur. Sometimes customers will say: When I retire I’m going to open a restaurant. I say: good luck. It’s a crazy job for crazy people.
This is a job with one part savoir faire, one part talent. There is only one way to peel a carrot, there’s only one way to cook a carrot. After that you can be creative. And I’m still not up to my expectation. I’m not done yet. I’m surrounded by very talented young chefs who keep me on my toes. And we work as a team.
I enjoy my food though, and this is new. I've startedto be quite happy with what we're producing.
Posted: Thursday, Sep. 2, 2010 12:02pm