Talking French cooking with Executive Chef Brian Siebenschuh of Restaurant Orsay
1. Tell us about Orsay.
Orsay is a French restaurant along the lines of a classic Paris bistro. We range from simple fare to fine dining. We have table wines for $20 a bottle and we also have wines for over $1,000 per bottle. We have people who come to us once a year for special occasions and will have filet mignon and lobster. We also have people who come during the week for a hamburger and a beer for under $20. Our other style influence, besides traditional French cuisine, is the American South.
2. What's a Paris style bistro?
It's a menu style that incorporates a classic canon of French cooking that you'd find in most Parisienne bistros. That includes things like steak frites, moules mariniere, escargots, and similar, classic dishes.
3. How would you describe French cooking in general? Are there regional differences?
There are definitely regional differences in French cooking. In Provence, along the southeast coast, dishes are lighter, using fish, olive oil, and garlic. In Normandy, there's much more foie gras, apples, butter and cream. In the northeast, on the border with Germany, the food incorporates more sausages, pork and cabbage. The bigger question of "what is French cooking?" is that it's just cooking. French cooking is the basis of western cooking. When you talk about browning a piece of meat and throwing in some wine and chopped up vegetables, then throwing some stock on and making a braise - there's a standard method today, but it came from France. When you look at the Culinary Institute of America, it teaches traditional French cuisine but traditional French cuisine is just about cooking, it's all these methods.
4. Do you focus on a particular region or style of French cooking or does your cooking represent all areas of France?
Focusing on just one region would be much too narrow. We cover a wide spectrum of French cuisine. We have bouillabaisse from Provence, which is a fish stew made with tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and fennel, which are the hallmarks of Provencal cooking. We have a pork chop dish which is from the more Germanic area. It's made with the pork chop along with braised cabbage, apples, and grain mustard. We don't brand our dishes regionally, although if you knew about the regional styles you'd be able to recognize them in the dishes. Dishes like steak frites, or steak and french fries, are available at any French restaurant you go to anywhere in France.
5. Are there new trends in French cooking or is French cooking more focused on the traditions that have been created over the years?
I wouldn't say there are new trends in French cooking, I'd say there are new trends in cooking and they're things everyone is looking at - everything's global today. A new trend in American cooking that's also popular all over the world is sous vide, or cooking in a sealed bag immersed in a water bath. That's something that's big today. And you have molecular stuff too.
6. Can you tell us about your role at Orsay?
I'm the Executive Chef and one of the original founders.
7. What did you do before Orsay?
Immediately before Orsay I had taken some time off from the restaurant industry and was working for a fine wine distributor. That's where I met my partner, Jonathan Insetta. He had a restaurant called Chew, downtown, which was one of my accounts. The location we built onto in order to create Orsay had a restaurant there previously, called Crush, which had closed in 2007. I had helped to open Crush in 2003-04. I liked the concept of offering French cuisine. I thought it fit the neighborhood and the overall market we were in. It turns out we were correct. Jon and I started to talk about it in mid to late 2007 and construction on Orsay began in early 2008. It opened in August of 2008.
8. Where did you learn French cooking? Did you go to culinary school?
I learned from working at a number of different places, some of which aren't around any more. At the time when I was working at the wine distributor I had a more traditional work schedule which allowed more free time to cook, experiment, and do a lot of self-learning. I never did go to culinary school. It can be good for teaching you the basic techniques, but that's something I find easy to understand and didn't think culinary school had much to offer me in that way. Some people get a lot of benefit from culinary school but I didn't think it was for me.
9. Did you always want to be a chef or is it something you came into over time?
It was one of those opportunities that popped up and I jumped on it to see what happens.
10. What do you like most about being a chef?
As an Executive Chef I like to be the boss, although that brings its own challenges - being responsible overall for anything that happens. I like to get feedback from people and we're fortunate that so many people take the time to write reviews on the different sites and post comments on our Facebook page. We get a lot of positive comments about the food and the experience people have when they visit. I get to know our repeat guests and it's nice to see that people are supporting what we're doing.
11. Where do you get your recipes? Are you utilizing classic French recipes or are you tweaking them to add your own style?
It depends. For the most part we start with something that's been done before and modify it a little. We're not doing things that are completely new and have never been done before. There are standard ratios for stocks, sauces, and vinaigrettes and there are standard techniques for cooking things like risotto and braising beef. Some things may be very basic and only have a few ingredients but I still take a good amount of practice and tweaking to hammer down the recipe. Other things are made more on the fly. We're at the point now where we've got a solid repertoire of recipes we've put together over the past 5 years. Some things are standards that won't ever leave the menu. Other things are seasonal and will rotate out.
12. Is French cooking difficult?
I don't find a lot of what we do to be challenging from a technical standpoint. The challenge comes in when you have to do the same thing, and make it as good as the last time, while doing it hundreds of times without screwing it up. A lot of people, especially when they're fresh from culinary school, have the idea that they are going to go out and be creative and invent new foods. But being a great cook starts with learning the basics before you go out and start putting weird combinations of spices together, with fruit on your steak and that sort of thing. The skill for a line cook is to be able to execute a dish consistently and well. That means tasting and adjusting to ensure your seasoning is just right and your dish has the right overall balance. Then you need to be able to multi-task like crazy to keep track of the 12 or 14 things you're cooking at a time and keeping in mind that dishes need to be completed in a certain order before getting the next bunch of things to work on.
13. Orsay has won the Snail of Approval from Slow Food First Coast and has also made a big investment in working with local suppliers. Why have you put such a big effort into locally sourced ingredients?
It's important to me across the board. We were one of the first restaurants in the area, along with Bistro Aix and Biscotti's, to put in reasonably large scale recycling programs. When we started there weren't any local companies who serviced restaurant recycling. Now there are a couple of companies who've gotten into it. Local sourcing ties in too. More than sourcing local I'd say that we try to source responsibly. In some cases that might be local and in some cases that requires importing in what we need. There's a lot of good domestic products. We're big supporters of places like Sweet Grass Dairy in Thomasville, Georgia. They make great cheese. But there are some products from Europe that are just irreplaceable. Things like certain cheeses from France and Italy, truffles, and some wines from France - it's just not possible to duplicate them. The things we import tend to be more artisanal or historical. So, there's local, imported and artisanal, and then there are products that are just more sustainable than other options. We support these as much as we can. It's easy to overstate how much you follow certain guidelines. I like to be honest about what we do - which means that we do as much as we can. But there are going to be times when our lettuce guy has a bad week and can't get us enough lettuce, or we're especially busy and need more than what's available locally. In those cases we're going to order a box of lettuce and it'll probably come from a farm in central Florida. We get our ground beef from Cowboy Meats, which is a local grass fed farm, but when it comes to things like tenderloin, there's only two tenderloins in an animal and we'll get 8 or 9 portions from it. We go through more tenderloins in a week than what Cowboy Meats gets from its animals in probably a whole year. So, for things like that we'll get an all natural product that isn't all dosed up with antibiotics but it can't all be as locally sourced as we'd wish because the local producers aren't at a scale to meet the demand.
14. Let's talk about the menu. For someone new to Orsay, who wants to get a sense for what Orsay is all about, what would you recommend they start with?
If you like raw oysters, we go through a ton of them every week. We've normally got oysters from the Gulf coast and from Indian River on the Atlantic coast. Those are your 2 local options and they're great. From a little more luxurious stand point we've always got oysters that are brought in for us from the Northwest - Puget Sound and the Washington State area, up into British Columbia. Then from the East Coast we'll have oysters from places like Delaware Bay, Long Island Sound and the Chesapeake area all the way up to New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island off Canada's east coast. Oysters are always a good place to start.
Sea Scallop Tartare is another good starter. Bouillabaisse is a classic seafood dish that's really popular. Steak Frites, or steak and french fries, is another great dish to try. We make really, really killer french fries by making them with raw potatoes. It's funny to read online restaurant reviews when someone is slamming a restaurant for using frozen french fries. They're all frozen! Almost nobody makes their fries from scratch. We do. Black Sheep makes their poutine fries. Same with Five Guys and Ted's Montana Grill, but those are the only places that come to mind. If you love french fries you just have to accept that they're almost all frozen.
15. What would you recommend for someone who wants to stretch a little and try something different?
90% of my servers will tell you that our Pork Chop is the dish most often recommended to guests who ask for advice on what to order. We're not really pushing any boundaries with it but we use really, really top quality Berkshire pork from a producer called Eden Farms out of Iowa. We've managed to convert a lot of people over the years to order the Pork Chop cooked a little below medium, just north of medium rare. It should have a little pink in the middle. It's phenomenal. Even in this day and age we've got a lot of people who still want pork done medium well or well done. We've managed to turn a lot of people onto what the FDA will tell you is undercooked pork, and people love it.
16. Are there any hidden gems on the menu?
Yes, we do a really good quality Trois Foie Mousse which is made from 3 livers - chicken, duck and foie gras. It's made into a a really, really finely textured, velvety mousse that you spread on slices of toasted baguette with a sweet-savory-tangy red onion marmalade.
From a temperature perspective we're always trying to push people's boundaries around how much food is cooked. Our Steak Tartare is the best I've ever had. I order it wherever it's served because I always want to try other versions. I haven't found one I love move. Steak tartare is diced, raw beef tenderloin. It comes with a lot of ingredients and what makes it is the balance of how everything comes together. Our version isn't much different in terms of the elements - they include red onions, capers, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, tabasco, and egg yolk. We don't have a magic bullet in terms of the ingredients, it's just the balance of everything there and how it's put together.
17. What's the most popular dish on the menu?
From an appetizer standpoint it's the Roasted Oysters with our roasted garlic cream sauce and lardons, which are thick cut, matchstick slices of bacon that are rendered down. We get all our bacon from Eden Farms, just like the pork chop. To the sauce we add a little spinach and parmesan cheese and roast it in the oven.
For a seafood entrée, the most popular is the Carolina Trout although our Pan Roasted Fish has been coming on strong since we changed it up. The Carolina Trout is a classic almondine recipe, made with green beans, almonds, lemon and butter. We change it up by using a warm vinaigrette with brown butter, which is melted butter, cooked over low heat until you toast the milk solids, which are the things in butter that aren't water or fat. When you toast the milk solids you get a nice nutty flavor to it. In French cooking brown butter is called beurre noisette - noisette means hazelnut. The rest of the dish is freshly minced Marcona almonds which are these really delicious almonds from Spain that are fried in olive oil.
For a red meat dish, the most popular is Steak Frites - steak and french fries.
18. What's your favorite dish on the menu?
I don't know that I have one. Steak Tartare and a side of french fries is awesome. It's nice and light from a portion size too.
19. Is there anything that's surprised you by its popularity?
Yes. When we get large cuts of beef in we break them down and use the bigger pieces for Steak Frites. The smaller pieces are perfect for stew. We'd been using those smaller pieces for a Beef Bourguignon, which is a classic beef stew made with red wine. Beef Bourguignon did fine but was never a big seller. One of the constant challenges in a restaurant is to balance things like that to make use of the full cuts of meat we receive. Because the Beef Bourguignon wasn't a huge seller it wasn't using up all the smaller cuts of beef that came with the bigger cuts. We had messed around with the idea of a Beef Stroganoff dish once or twice so we clarified the recipe and put it on the menu. It's been crazy popular. We sell 5 times as much Beef Stroganoff as we ever did Beef Bourguignon.
20. Do you have a dish that you'd consider a signature dish of yours?
No, I don't know that I'd pick one item. My signature is really around the concept of the whole menu.
21. On your website you talk about some of your innovations. Can you tell us about how you came up with a perfect poached egg?
That was really a joke. We were originally a dinner-only restaurant. About a year ago we added brunch service on Sundays. Everywhere I'd worked in the past, even at restaurants that put out a good, solid product for dinner, each place struggled with brunch. It's a tough service, especially for a place like ours that only has one early service a week. We're not like some places that serve lunch and dinner and have separate day crews and night crews. So there's a good chance that the person cooking your food or serving it to you was there until 1 in the morning the night before. That's just one of the challenges of brunch. I'd never worked anywhere where I thought brunch was a really great product and I wasn't going to put out a brunch if it wasn't going to be great. So, we spent a lot of time hammering down different techniques. The standard things that get screwed up at brunch are things like poached eggs that aren't any good - meaning they're under done with runny whites or they're over done. And they often have Hollandaise sauce that's broken or on the verge of breaking. It's not creamy, smooth and consistent - you start to see little droplets of grease, or beyond that, it's falling apart and separating. Those were two things we spent a lot of time on. We read a bunch of books and did a lot of research online. There's a lot of ways to poach eggs and there are people who will swear by every method. There are people who will tell you to put little cups in the pot and crack the egg into the cup. Other people will tell you to stir the water and co-ordinate it all to wrap the egg whites around the yolk. Maybe, before we settled on the method we use now, maybe when I was using the other methods I wasn't doing things right, but I don't think so. I think that people who swear by any method other than the way we do it just haven't tried our method. It's doesn't need to be that complicated. You start with a really big pot. We use a specific ratio of salt to vinegar. Then we crank the heat to get a full, rolling boil and drop in about 20 eggs at a time. It works perfectly.
22. Can you tell us about your Orsay Burger? It's a $30 hamburger that one food writer calls a BARGAIN! in capital letters. What makes it special?
It's not our only hamburger, so it's not like you need to spend $30 for a burger at Orsay. Our regular burger is about $14 and that's a bargain too - you get locally raised, grass fed beef, a house made bun, house made fries, house made aioli, and house made pickles at certain times of the year. The Orsay Burger wasn't an item from day one although our regular burger was. One day we were talking about Daniel Boulud, who's one of the top chefs in the world. He has a signature burger that he sells at his restaurant in New York, db Bistro Moderne. It's stuffed with braised short ribs and foie gras. We were talking about that burger and thinking about offering a high end burger because we were doing burgers already. We thought, "why not sear a chunk of foie gras and throw it on top with some red onion marmalade and call it a day?" And that's what it is. The difference between our regular burger and the Orsay Burger is the foie gras.
23. Stephen Dare, a chef himself and the food editor at Metro Jacksonville, says your Duck Cassoulet is your stand out dish and is what represents Orsay to him. Can you tell us what a cassoulet is and what makes your Duck Cassoulet stand out?
A cassoulet is always a duck dish. It's a super traditional, French-countryside, stick to your ribs kind of dish. It's slow braised white beans with a bunch of meat. For traditional cassoulet we use bacon, roasted garlic, poached Andouille sausage, some roasted pork and a whole confit duck leg. Confit is an old school way of cooking any poultry. It's basically poaching the meat in its own fat. For our Cassoulet it's duck legs poached in duck fat rather than being poached in stock. Confit yields meat that's super tender. For people who are new to confit they think "you cooked 2 dozen duck legs in gallons of duck fat!" It seems insane to them. But the cells of the meat have a limited ability to take up fat and absorb it. As it cooks, things break down, but it's a piece of meat, it's not a bun. It's not like the meat fills up with the fat. For every batch of confit we make the amount of fat stays the same - you never run out. The fat in the duck skin renders out into the fat it's cooking in so the amount doesn't go down. That's our traditional Cassoulet - what I'd call our Fall or Winter Cassoulet.
A few years ago one of our local purveyors told us that it was going to be a really good year for field peas with lots of local selection - White Acre peas, black eyed peas, and pink eyed peas, which are more commonly referred to as just field peas because nobody wants to see "pink eye" on a restaurant menu. These were local peas with a Southern flair so we told our purveyor to bring them in and we'd find something to do with them. Cassoulet is a very soul-warming dish - it's rich and heavy and good for a cold October afternoon. But it's less suited for the warmer weather. As a result we used to take it off the menu during the Spring and Summer season. With the peas we were able to substitute them for the slower cooked, heavier items. We just blanch the peas to give them a little bite. Then we add smokey bacon with pommery mustard and sherry vinegar to provide an acidic hit to balance the richness of the duck and lighten the overall dish. That's the style we use in the warmer weather.
24. Do you select all your own wines?
I do, for the most part. But like in the kitchen and the front of the house, I've got a really solid crew that helps out, many who've been with me since we opened the doors.
25. Do you try to pair mostly with French wines or are other regions equally suitable to go with your menu?
Other wines can be suitable - it's all about personal preference, within reason. French wine is a focus for us, making up about half our wine sales. We also feature plenty of American wines, from California, Oregon, and Washington State. If people are looking for a recommendation I tend to put them in something from France just because we have a bigger selection of carefully chosen French wines compared to what you'll find at most other places. There are a lot of places in Jacksonville that have great selections of Pinot Noir from California and Oregon but there aren't many places in Northeastern Florida that have as many Pinot Noirs from Burgundy as we do.
26. What is your Vin de Tables program?
Vin de Tables is table wine. It's an actual classification of wine in France that represents the lower class of wine. We've adopted the term. It just means it's our house wine. We've got house options for sparking wine, white, red and rosé. They're all real wines that we like and are happy to drink and enjoy. And they're $20 for a bottle or $5 for a glass, all day long. That's happy hour price at most places. We're one of the more expensive restaurants in town. We have entrees that can be $38 and we have bottles of wine that can be multiple thousands of dollars. I'm fine with that. Our goal is to provide good value at every price point. Whether that's $20 a bottle or $1,000, I think we're providing good value at all of those points. Our house wines are all good, balanced, well made wines. They just happen to be really cheap.
27. Orsay gets a lot of good attention for its happy hour. Why is that?
People like it so we're doing something right. Happy hour runs from 4 - 7pm every day and offers really good value. It's a selection of some of our signature cocktails, draft beers, and some items from our food menu that are more along the lines of appetizers and sharing plates.
28. Do you have a cocktail that's an Orsay specialty?
From our list, the Jalapeño Margarita is a day one drink that I don't think we'll ever be able to take off the menu. A more recent addition is something I'd seen someone do on the internet and thought would be cool to try. We use a little fan powered smoker and a tube that goes into a container of bourbon to infuse the bourbon with the smokey flavor, akin to a smokey peat Scotch. That's the base for a drink we call the Eastbound and Down. The cocktail scene in Jacksonville has come a long way since we first opened. Back then if a restaurant did have cocktails they wanted to make everything a martini and put it in a martini glass, when everything isn't a martini. A martini is a gin cocktail with vermouth and maybe olive juice or that sort of thing. These days there are a lot of places to have a well crafted cocktail, which I'm happy about.
29. Urbanspoon just named Orsay as one of the best gluten free restaurants in America. Can you tell us about your approach to providing gluten free options?
Gluten free wasn't something we thought about from the beginning but we started to see more and more guests asking about it. Some of it may turn out to be fad because there are a lot of people eating gluten free who aren't allergic to gluten. Ten years ago a lot of people followed an Atkins diet but that has become less popular over time. For me, eating gluten free would be tough - I love bread and pizza! There are a lot of people who want to eat gluten free and it was easy for us to put together. When we looked at our menu we realized that 90% could be gluten free with extremely minimal changes. We start with raw ingredients and cook all our food. We use almost no processed food. And if we do use processed food it's going to be something like ketchup. We buy Heinz ketchup because Heinz makes the best ketchup. Beyond a few things like that we start with completely raw ingredients. In French cooking we make a lot of sauces. It's common, and not always a bad thing, to thicken sauces with flour. But we don't make our sauces with flour. All our sauces are based on reductions. There's a couple of minor exceptions, such as having flour in the paté to act as a binder, But, except for those minor items, if something doesn't have bread on it or if it's not pasta, then it's gluten free.
30. What have been some of the biggest surprises running Orsay?
It depends on the day. I could walk into the kitchen in the morning to find that a pipe has burst and there's water spraying out of the wall. That's always a good one. Beyond things like that I'd like to say that we're where I saw us being at this point when we started out. Hopefully, when you look at us 5 years out we're still open and people are coming in and are happy with what we're giving them.
31. What's next for Orsay?
I wouldn't say that we're looking for any major changes, directionally. We're definitely not looking to expand our hours any more. Lunch service doesn't make sense for our concept and location. Just because I don't see any changes in direction doesn't mean we can sit back and be lazy. We've got to constantly stay on top of things, maintaining our quality, and keeping things fresh. We've got to give our regular guests enough variety, keeping the menu fresh while following the seasons. At the same time we need to be mindful of the dishes that resonate with people and that less frequent guests want to see if they only come in once a year. There are people who come to the restaurant, maybe 2, 3 or 4 times a year and they always order exactly the same thing. They may want to try new things but they love their favorites so much they find it hard to deviate. There's a drive among a lot of chefs to always be changing the menu and coming up with new items all the time. They're constantly looking to try the latest thing they may have seen on Food Network. But guess what - if you change your whole menu 6 times a year, well most people don't come in that often. You can be creating a lot of new things but most of your guests will never even know that you've added something to the menu because it's come and gone by the time they visit.
I think it's important to focus on technique and refinement. That might be the boring part of being a cook but one could argue that more important than creativity and constant new stuff is making what you do as good as it can be. And we do that all the time. We're always looking to see if we can make improvements to our core dishes. Sometimes we'll think "wow, it only took us 4 years to come up with that idea!" But it happens. It's a constant process at Orsay.
32. What are you the most proud of at Orsay?
I'd say it's the whole thing. One aspect that's not all that common in the industry is the number of staff members we've been able to hold onto for 3, 4, 5 years, that enjoy working here. They like their jobs, the people they work for, and in a lot of cases it's nice to have been able to give those people additional opportunities. Karey, my Chef de Cuisine, started as a line cook. Dean, who's her sous chef, also started as a line cook. Karey was with me on day one and Dean started about a week after we opened, so they've been able to move up in their careers. My Service Manager, Jason, started as a server on the floor. I've got 2 guys who are now Assistant Managers over at Black Sheep who started with me as servers and they've both been with us for over 4 years. It's nice to know that we've been able to give people a good place to work and earn a decent living.