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[Photo: S. Pratt]
When people talk about Le Pichet in downtown Seattle, they talk about it like it's a portal to the French countryside. There's a reason for it. A carefully executed and well-crafted, intentional reason. Chef-owner Jim Drohman, who opened Pichet in 2000 straight off an 8-year streak at Campagne (the last four of those spent as executive chef when his predecessor Tamara Murphy left to open Brasa) just celebrated his restaurant's 13th birthday on August 3. Another reason to celebrate: Pichet is coming off its most successful year ever.
At a time when every culinary superstar seems to be opening a new restaurant, Drohoman talks about how he and his business partner, Joanne Herron, have been able to keep Pichet popular from the get-go.
Why do you think Le Pichet is considered by many to be the 'most French' of all the French bistros in Seattle?
Well, right off the bat it's because I actually lived in France and went to those sorts of places and learned to cook in France. Fundamentally, French people think about food and decor and presentation on the plate different than Americans do. As an example, I read French cookbooks because the food in French cookbooks looks different than the food in American cookbooks about French food. Secondly, I would say that with Le Pichet, the idea was not to create something...often times in America, someone says, "I want to create a French bistro. I'm going to build something that looks like a French bistro." From my point of view, that wasn't really the point. I wanted it to function like a French bistro. That meant that the food had to be rustic, it had to be approachable, but also a little bit challenging for Americans. We had to make sure that we kept stuff affordable, very seasonal, traditional. And functionally, we try to work the way a French restaurant works. We open at 8 am, we do coffee, if people want to just hang out and read a book, that's cool. We stay open late. That, I think, is what people sense when they say it feels very French to them. It looks French, I hope, but it doesn't look like a movie set — no pictures of the Eiffel Tower or old movie photos. It looks French because it acts like it's French.
What are the biggest changes at Pichet since it opened?
The menu when we opened was shorter, had less items on it. I wanted to do something very, very authentically rustic, simple, French. And the feedback I got was that people wanted more choices, more complexity, things that were more involved and I sort of resisted that to a certain extent because I want to keep it very simple and inexpensive. We've grown the choices a little bit just so we can accommodate more tastes. Always, I hope, keeping in the style of the aesthetic we're working in, which is French bistro. That's one thing. What else. I think I've become a little more flexible as time goes by. Thirteen years ago I was younger and less willing to compromise what I felt was exactly the right way to do things. So, when someone would say, "Can I substitute this for something else," I would say, "No. This is how you eat it, you should like it." I think that I've come to appreciate the fact that restaurants aren't about cooks; restaurants are about the dining experience of the people who are there. In a lot of ways I think that to be French it's important that the staff and the kitchen kind of be invisible, because in a good French restaurant, your waiter always gives you everything you need but he's not intrusive at all in the same way that the kitchen should give you very good food but shouldn't be intruding into your experience and is, in fact, not the center of your experience; you're there to have a good time with you friends and our food and wine should be a great adjunct to that. So, I've learned to say, "You know what. People have different things that they want in this life and I'm alright with that."
[Photo: S. Pratt]
Is there anything you thought would do really well on the menu but was not well received for whatever reason?
In 2000, things like pork cheeks, things like calf's liver, all kinds of specialty meats — those were some pretty odd things to be putting on the menu at that time. In general, I've been really, really pleased that when we said we were basically going to serve fried pork fat to you, people said, "Okay, I'll give that a shot." When I said we were going to do pork liver or we were going to have calf's head or something like that, once they got to know us they were pretty accepting of that. Things that have never really worked out for Seattleites I think are like kidneys, for example. We served kidneys for a while and that was a real hard sell. Tripe, anything related to the digestive track. Although, I will say we recently served a salad made with chitlins (pig intestines) and that sold really well. I made a Corsican-style sausage one time that was pretty dominantly pork liver and it really tasted like hog. That was a bit of a hard sell, but definitely people have become a lot more accepting.
When we opened Le Pichet, I could buy pork belly really cheap, I could buy pork cheek, I could buy oxtail and that kind of stuff really cheap because no one was using it. In fact, I would speak to the meat purveyors and have them tell me what part of the animal people were not using that I could buy cheap — good quality meat of course, but it was inexpensive and I could keep the prices down. Now days, that's all reversed. Those things are really expensive.
Has Le Pichet always maintained a pretty consistent customer base?
I think yes. We have guests who have been coming in for the entire 13 years. One of the things I've always liked that to me is a measure of success of Le Pichet is that our clientele was not predominantly young or old or wealthy or not wealthy or whatever; we've always had a mixed clientele. At lunch, I don't think you'll find a more diverse age-wise group of people in any other restaurant in the city and that is to me exactly what implies a bistro in Paris — you have young people on a first date and you have people who are wealthy and everything in between. That has stayed the same throughout, which I think is pretty spectacular.
[Photo: S. Pratt]
Do you have a dish that has been wildly popular since day one?
The chicken liver, the gâteau au foie de volaille, has always been big. It's been on the menu every day we've been open. The poulet rôti for two has always been super popular, has always been on the menu. And our pâté albigeois, a country-style pate — those three things have always been on the menu basically every minute we've been open and still continue to be favorites. Also the salad verte surprisingly, because you think of salad verte as something you throw on as an extra and don't even worry about it. But for me, the salad verte and the roast chicken are examples of our philosophy of how we work: There is no trick. It's not complicated. You just have to not cut cut corners. For example, on the salad verte, every lettuce is torn to order from whole heads, organic lettuce and we dress it to order and that's it. It's very simple. Same with the roasted chicken. Everyone asks me, "Do you put it in a brine? What's the secret?" There's no secret. We baste it with butter, we put salt and pepper on. It's just that you need to wait an hour because otherwise you'll have to par cook it or cut it in two. You have to wait an hour and then you have to eat it right away, that's all there is to it. So, that's basically how we work. Try to get the best quality product and prepare it simply and don't cut corners and hopefully that shines through.
In Seattle, how does a restaurant maintain its popularity and relevancy for more than a decade?
A 20 year-old restaurant is a big deal, that's why for example when Le Gourmand or Rover's closed they celebrated, because it's a big deal. For me, that is a little bit strange because when I worked in Paris, I worked in a place that was fourth generation, run by the same family for years, and French people who run restaurants, at least in the past, have a much longer view of things. For example, this place I worked at, they had a cellar that had 5,000 bottles in it. They'd buy cases of wine and they'd hold it for 20 years and then sell it for five-times what they bought it for and that was part of their business model. Now, no one cellars wine because to think you could be open for 10, 15, 20 years — no one expects it.
[Photo: S. Pratt]
That having been said, what's the trick. I think for us, you have to always always always focus on the quality of what you're doing and always offer people a rapport between the price and the quality. In France, you can spend $1,000 on a meal and you can spend $10 on a meal and have those both be really, really good experiences if the price and quality are commensurate to each other. I tell young cooks that the kitchen is a tough business because anyone can cook a good meal one night, but not many people can cook a good meal 10,000 nights and that's what people want. If you cook a person five good meals and one crappy meal they don't come back, so you have to be on your game always, always, always, always and you have to consistently offer them a good rapport between the price and the quality; what you offer them has to seem like a value. And that doesn't happen unless you have a really good team. That's critical.
I think it's really important to keep a passion for what you're doing, which is difficult over years and years. One of the things that helps with that is your people — having them bring ideas, having them take on more responsibility and have input in the menu and basically take a measure of possession of the restaurant; I think that's kind of an invigorating experience. Cafe Presse, which we opened after Le Pichet was 7 years-old, was reinvigorating. Although it's the same register, it's French and sort of simple food, it has a different feel to it. It's younger, the food is more streamlined, more Parisian as opposed to Le Pichet, which is kind of a country-style restaurant. For me, that was a passion I had also. Being able to spend time at both restaurants helped me improve what I was doing at both.
I think a place stays relevant by the fact that the niche that it occupies is still under served. When I opened Le Pichet there were a number of restaurants where there were people who were sort of trying to micro-analyze and really dig into the traditions of a particular place. I think nowadays, there's a lot of cooks, very good cooks, but it seems other sorts of things are now at the top of the header, like farm-to-table, or whatever a cook happens to be creating that day. I feel like being so specifically concerned with French food and the authenticity of it has put us in a little niche that is underserved, so it still goes, you know?
[Photo: S. Pratt]
Are you still in the kitchen?
Absolutely. I have two days in the kitchen at both restaurants and then I have an office day. I definitely have a chef de cuisine at both restaurants who's in charge of day-to-day nuts and bolts. I still develop all the new dishes with my chefs, I'm in the farmers market every week. But yes, I'm in the kitchen every week.
People ask me all the time when I'm going to open another restaurant. My wife — Sheila is my wife. A lot of people think Joanne is my wife — and I, since we came back from France in 1991, we've always thought about how we were going to go back and retire and live in France. We bought a house in the southwest of France two years ago and right now it's a long-term project, but someday we're going to retire to there. The project nearest and dearest to my heart right now, in terms of creating something new, is my life when I retire in France.
The other thing is that a lot of people are opening a lot of restaurants these days in Seattle. God bless them for it, because they've got different skills than I do, but I can not figure out how they run more than two restaurants, frankly. I personally want to be in the kitchen for a significant amount of time and if I had another restaurant I'm not sure I could do that. When the day comes when I can figure out how to be in all of my kitchens at once, I might have more restaurants.
· Le Pichet [Official Site]
· Cafe Presse [Official Site]
· Jim Drohman [Blog]
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