An Organic Experience
Getting dirty with Chef Frederic of Artisan Restaurant.
One might assume that a french chef would be aloof, perhaps even pretentious—anything but down to earth. Those assumptions are quickly put to rest after spending time with French-born Chef Frederic Kieffer of the new Artisan restaurant at the Delamar in Southport. Not only is he down-to-earth, literally and figuratively, but his culinary philosophy is firmly focused on sustainability and letting the ingredients speak for themselves. During a private tour of his garden, the master chef reflects on his culinary journey, providing revealing insights into his approach to cooking—and follows up with a true farm-to-table meal. He calls his food, “simple, uncompromised, and natural.” Anyone else would call it magnifique.
Arriving at Chef Kieffer’s Fairfield home early on an overcast morning, he greeted me warmly on the steps and quickly reviewed my footwear. “Hmmm, I should have gotten you shoes,” he said. “It’s muddy back there.”
“Back there” refers to a small plot of land behind his home that he has transformed into a petite green market. It’s equipped with a greenhouse for nurturing seedlings into hearty plants, a garden ripe with bountiful pickings, and a chicken coop that provides fresh eggs daily. He says this is one of his favorite places.
He learned to appreciate farm-fresh produce as a young boy in France. “My first job was at a nearby local restaurant that was run by a former pastry chef,” he begins. “They made fresh pastries every day. It was the simplest thing. As you walked by, you would see fruit tarts, basic French pastries, made with fresh raspberries. I love that. The fruit was fresh, the dough was rolled and baked that day. Everything was fresh. It’s what made me like to cook. From then on, I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
KEEPING IT REAL
Kieffer’s journey through the culinary world began early, as a student studying in France and doing an exchange program at Johnson & Wales. The relationships he built during that time would eventually lead him back to the States. He was asked by a friend to be part of the opening of C’est Si Bon, a French restaurant in Greenwich. Kieffer was excited to cross the Atlantic once again, “I ended up moving to Manhattan to work at a sister company [of C’est Si Bon] and eventually was hired by Restaurant Associates to run multiple restaurants and oversee all the events at the Museum of Natural History.”
The opening party of the Dinosaur Hall, with over 3000 guests, really put him on the map. He reflects, “This was my first contact with corporate America, and I really started to learn the business part of running a restaurant.” Later, he was hired by Joseph Baum as one of the three executive chefs to open Windows on the World. These experiences allowed Kieffer to hone his skills as both a chef and a businessman. Likewise, he was able to share in the creative process of composing menus, hiring staff and keeping regulars and critics alike happy.
His creations soon caught on with celebrities. “I was hired to work at a star-owned restaurant called Man Ray, run by Sean Penn, Mick Hucknall, and Harvey Weinstein. It was a crazy experience. At first I was intrigued by it. You’d look up and be serving Jennifer Lopez or Jack Nicholson, but I realized pretty quickly that there was nothing behind it. You couldn’t build relationships in those places. I wanted to find something else that felt more real.”
That reality would eventually bring him back to Greenwich with the opening of L’Escale. After a ten-year separation from Connecticut, Kieffer looked forward to returning and raising his family here. Two years later, another opportunity arose that peaked his interest like no restaurant had before. This new restaurant was called Gaia and Kieffer says, “It changed everything for me.”
What changed was his food philosophy, that has now become his signature. “Gaia was the first place I worked that had a real food message. It means ‘goddess of Mother Earth’ and was focused on bringing to the table what the earth provides. They were driven to be sustainable. That is the message I’ve carried with me since, at home and at the restaurant.”
“My new restaurant, Artisan, is about artisanal cooking. Even the environment at the restaurant is about that. The pewter bar is handcrafted; its minerals are an extension of the earth. The farmers that we go to, the bread makers—these are all artisanal works. We source only from New England.”
He is not alone in voicing support for this regional focus, meaning dishes inspired by local flavors, ingredients and traditions. Though not everyone is as authentic as this chef. “In my opinion, fusion cooking comes very close to confusion very quickly. Reaching out to the other side of the world, you sometimes think you’re building something new,” he explains. “You add ginger, maybe something sweet and sour—you may not actually know what you are doing, but people will like it. Guests will say, ‘It’s kind of tangy,’ and everybody likes a bit of sweet. You go through this phase as a chef, but once you come through it, hopefully, you come out clean. You start to ask yourself, ‘What am I doing? What is my food about?’ ”
The answer, Kieffer concluded, was simplicity. “It’s much harder to make a simple dish that’s memorable. Chicken. Egg salad. French fries. Simple food,” he says, earnestly. “You can lure them in with a great fois gras, but you judge a cook by the simplicity of the dish. There are a lot of techniques that will reveal in an instant whether you are on top of your game. It’s the basics. When you’re not sure, you add strange spices, a little chutney, you try to spice it up a bit more. Eventually, you grow up and go back to the basics.”
And back to the basics he went. “I plant everything: cucumbers, beets, potatoes, eggplant, peppers, tomatillos, carrots, kale. I’d rather get my food from my garden. There’s nothing like it. You haven’t tasted a potato until you’ve tasted one picked straight from the earth. Even something as simple as the eggs from the chicken coop are like trying eggs for the first time. It will change the way you taste food,” he says. He proved the point with an authentic farm-to-table meal later that day: the roasted chicken and seared salmon were accompanied by a garden fresh salad and sautéed vegetables that were just picked. Based on the oohs and ahhs that followed this meal, this Frenchman will inspire you to create a petite garden of your own.