Nantucket Wine Festival founder Denis Toner met up with Cru’s Executive Chef in Beaune to get a taste of her most recent experience cooking in one of the top restaurants in France.
In a hidden valley just over the hill from Burgundy’s greatest red wine estate, Domaine de la Romanée Conti, there exists a tiny truffle “plantation,” L’Or des Valois, where I met visiting Nantucket chef Erin Zircher for lunch. Zircher was nearing the end of a fourteen-day apprenticeship at Levernois, a Michelin one-star restaurant just east of Beaune that is at the top of the region’s culinary hierarchy. As we sat for lunch in this rustic twelve-seat truffle shrine, the Nantucket chef described the joys and terrors of toiling in a world-class kitchen with its brigade of twenty uniformed chefs.
Cooking in France was not a new experience to Chef Zircher. In 2003, she spent the summer in the north of France at La Fleur de Sel / Ma Petite Folie in Brest, which combined a formal restaurant with a more casual bistro. It was one of the hottest summers on record, and Zircher remembers cooking alongside chefs with cigarettes hanging from their mouths wearing only aprons over their shorts. Returning to the States, she made her mark on Nantucket at the Boarding House from 2004-2011, and then went on to open Cru, where she is now executive chef and a co-proprietor. After two intense seasons, Zircher decided it was time to return to the idyllic Burgundy countryside to sharpen her skills for the upcoming summer. I was excited to learn what tricks of the trade she would be taking back to Nantucket this upcoming season.
Entering the kitchen of a French master can be a nerve-wracking experience for any visiting chef. I have seen chefs visibly shaking in their clogs when walking through a kitchen’s swinging doors. A Michelin-starred restaurant is a big deal in France — as it is in the US — and sometimes the pressure to retain the star results in autocratic and abusive behavior by the chef. Horror stories of head chefs berating cooks and throwing pans across the kitchen are not uncommon. Zircher was quiet and ready for the games to begin. She was introduced to Chef Philippe Augé who gave her instructions. Although he rules with a firm hand, Zircher saw that Chef Augé was more mentor than autocrat, and the kitchen ran harmoniously with all eyes kept on the prize. As she got into the mix, Zircher was quickly reminded why the French are revered for their cuisine.
“Everything came into the restaurant in its entirety — fish, chicken, pheasant, rabbit, suckling pigs — you name it,” she said. “The cooks would then break down the proteins and utilize everything they could. They would make stocks and sauces with the bones, terrines and mousses with the organs. Even the Swiss chard stems were blended into a delicious sauce for a pasta dish. It was incredible to see all of the ingredients treated with such respect.” Some of these ingredients, Zircher noted, you’d be hard pressed to find on a Nantucket menu. “Snails, snails and more snails! In Burgundy you will find them on every menu. They’ve been eaten for centuries and are an incredibly sustainable food source.”
The plates were clean in design, filled with concentrated flavors, and were often re- workings of old classics, much like Zircher’s approach at Cru. “The normality of using local and seasonal ingredients seems to be ingrained in the French,” Zircher said. “The results of a seemingly simple and straightforward dish transcend into something magical when made with fresh, perfect ingredients.”
As Zircher and I moved through our truffle-laden lunch, I couldn’t help but imagine what effect the chef’s time in Burgundy would have on her Nantucket menu. She mentioned that there would be a renewed emphasis on a great cheese plate that, no doubt, would feature such Burgundian beauties as Epoisses, Brillat-Savarin, Delices de Pommard, or perhaps an eighteen-month-old French comté. When the evenings are still chilly in June, Nantucketers can look forward to a hearty plate of beef cheeks braised in red wine, a Burgundy classic she saw perfected at the hand of Chef Augé.
“Many island chefs are introducing a global twist on the island’s offerings,” Chef Zircher said. “They are incorporating their winter travels into their menus, which ties in perfectly with our well-traveled, well-fed clientele.” So it is that diners on Nantucket can enjoy flair from afar without leaving the comfort of this island paradise.