Festivals are big business these days, so much so that FestForums focuses on the trend during a three-day conference that’s being held in Santa Barbara for the second straight year. In addition to the expert panels and keynote speakers sharing their insights from November 19 to 21 at the Fess Parker DoubleTree Resort, FestForums also brings in star power from the music, film, and food worlds, including Jack Johnson, Bruce Dern, Quentin Tarantino, and Cat Cora.
This year culminates with the James Beard Foundation’s Celebrity Chef Tour Dinner on Monday night, when Cora will cook alongside international luminaries such as France’s famed Gilles Epié, who won a Michelin star as a 22-year-old chef and then worked in Los Angeles for 10 years before opening his own place, Citrus Etoile, in Paris in 2005. Both Cora and Epié are also speaking on Saturday about going from the kitchen to the screen.
Epié spoke to me via Skype from his home in Paris last week.
Tell me about your connection to late Santa Barbara resident Julia Child. I cooked a long time ago with Michel Richard for her birthday when she was 80. All of the chefs from France in America were part of it. I loved her so much. I loved her TV show. She changed the world of French food in America.
What was your impression when you came to run L’Orangerie in L.A. in 1996? It was interesting because the cuisine was not only French; it was like California fusion. I was the only chef who was doing the real French food because I had just moved from Paris. I realized very quickly that I had to change because, especially for people in Hollywood, they don’t eat the French cuisine like we do in Paris. So it took me two to three weeks to figure it out. To bring the business back up again, I had to take out all the heavy ingredients of French cuisine. After six months, I had my first review in the L.A. Times by Irene Virbila. We got three pages; it was unbelievable. We moved from doing 50 people a night to 150.
Did learning the California cuisine help your career? Of course. When I moved back to France, nobody knew what real fusion food was. In L.A., I loved to go to Chinatown and Little Tokyo and Koreatown to see what was going on, what they were using. So when I came back to France, the chefs all asked me what I was cooking, and I said I had just come back from California, where everything has to be fresh and light. They copied me right away. They figured I was right.
How have you seen culinary culture change? In France, we used to have a lot of small stores, bakeries, butchers, small restaurants. The French people were laughing at Americans because everyone used to go to the grocery stores. Everything has changed in France. They’re shutting down the small businesses because they’re opening the big stores just like they used to do in America. The French are trying to become Americans, and they are basically fucking up all of the businesses. It’s sad. It’s cheaper. It’s all about the money. The economy is really bad in France, especially after all the attacks.
But now in America, people love to hook up with the butcher, the bakery, the small stores, and tiny bistros. Finally, Americans understand the way the French and Europeans used to live.