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Kitchen Q&A: Marcel Keraval

"Viva Marcel!" is apropos as the renowned chef returns to Clayton.

Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts

Many local diners remember—some even revere—Marcel Keraval. For 29 years, he operated Café de France (24 years downtown, five in Clayton). Before that, he opened L’Auberge Bretonne with brother-in-law Jean Claude Guillossou. Keraval was a chef in New York, in the Bahamas, in France… For almost 50 years, it’s all he’s ever done. In 2003, he suffered a stroke, from which he’s fully recovered. Which raises the question: When is enough enough? When does—can, and should—a chef retire? SLM asked him. In between lunch and dinner service, of course, at his latest outpost, Leon Bierbaum’s Chez Leon. Quelle surprise.

Do chefs ever really retire?

Not many. Not until they have no choice. It gets in your blood. And stays there. Chefs have to keep moving. [He smiles.] They get crazy if they don’t. Or they need a serious hobby!

Do you have one?

I like golf… [He smiles again.] Ah, maybe later on.

Did you go to culinary school in France?

In France, there are no high schools, like here. Kids go to technical school. So from age 15, I was trained to be a chef. And I never tried anything else, except when I was drafted into the army...and I did not cook there.

So is French military food better than its American counterpart?

The officers there had chefs cooking for them. The troops? They did not get the best stuff, but it was all prepared for them. Nothing came from a can.

My guess is that food is still very important to the French.

When the French travel, they don’t care about the beauty or the history. They remember the place by the food they ate. Many places get a bad reputation because their food is no good. I hear, “Yes, those pyramids are nice, but the food…” I say to them, “Enjoy that couscous… You are not in France anymore.”

How long have you been in the states?

I came in ’69. I arrived right when the Americans put the first man on the moon. Three weeks later was Woodstock, and a friend of mine invited me to go... I thought it was just a gathering of hippies. Friends who knew I was in New York just assumed that I was there.

What brought you to New York?

Chef friends who worked at French restaurants there. I was in the Bahamas at the time and wanted to get to the USA. I worked for three years at Rockefeller Center, at The Rainbow Room. Later, I heard of a big Midwest city that was settled by the French, but had few French restaurants.

Ah, yes. I understand.

It was 1976. My brother-in-law, Jean Claude, was chef at Westwood Country Club… We decided to become partners and open L’Auberge Bretonne. Ironically, he had been in the Bahamas at the same time as me. We ended up marrying sisters and moving here.

But something attracted you to downtown.

After three years, we took over a place called Chez Jean Pierre—a good chef, yes, but too high-priced. We called our place Café de France. Stayed there 24 years. Then, two months after we opened in Clayton, [French president Jacques] Chirac went against the war in Iraq, and all at once, people here became anti-French.

I remember… That was the birth of American fries.

That was a tough time. But we survived for five years. When it was almost time for me to retire, I had a stroke. But I recovered. Completely. So after we closed and I recovered, I said that the Lord has been very good to me… I better get back to flipping omelets.

So what came next?

I wanted to get my confidence back, so I thought that the routine of doing something like banquets would be good for me... So I went to work at The Chase hotel.

The Chase does a huge banquet business.

It was difficult at first, adjusting to that pace. Boom, they’re here; boom, gone. But I became fully secure there and secure in my abilities. I felt good again.

So what got you away from all that security?
Leon [Bierbaum] called and was looking for a chef at the new Chez Leon, in Clayton. He was looking for more French influence. [He laughs.] So back to Clayton I go.

What changes did you make?

A lot of adjusting the recipes, refining them. Each time I add to the staff, with new chefs, more changes can come. Some chefs cannot change… [Laughs.] I need chefs who can slalom. I don’t need to kill myself—again!

Isn’t classic French cooking known for not changing? Isn’t that the point?

Classic French chefs followed the cooking principles and recipes of [Auguste] Escoffier. But the new top chefs there have nothing to do with Escoffier anymore. French cooking was very good, yes, but it stayed the same for 50 years. Chefs have learned you can—and you should —modify.

So the Escoffier influence is gone?

His recipes are still there, sure, but chefs want to be more creative now. His influence is still there, but the results are different. There is more artistry, seasonality…chefs today all follow the terroir. Years ago, we did not care where the vegetables came from. And today, everyone wants lighter

Not a bad thing, is it?

Less butter, less cream…today we say to feed the customer, not kill them. Make it flavorful, but light. Customers do not want to leave a restaurant feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. We want to make them feel good! Years ago, in France, there was a famous colonel who would go into a restaurant’s kitchen and if the chef was not fat, he would assume the food not good and not eat there.

Sounds like “Don’t trust a skinny baker.”

Same thing. But not true.

Aren’t there still traditionalists there—and here--who like things like they were 50 years ago?
Yes, but today, we must satisfy as many people as possible. There are items here at Chez Leon, for example, we will not change—and should not change. The onion soup, steak au poivre, things like that. But I feel we can change things like bouillabaisse. We can introduce new techniques to venison, rabbit, pheasant—add a delicate sauce and reduce the portion to make them lighter, but still elegant.

Many times it comes down to trusting the chef.

Yes, even at Café de France, customers frequently would want to see “something new,” while others wondered, where was the Chateaubriand and the coq au vin?

What changes have you planned for Chez Leon?

More prix fixe options, more coursed dinners—five, six, or seven small items… It’s like tapas, except you trust the chef to make the choices. They cannot get French cooking done that way in St. Louis right now.

That is true.

I want to do a prix fixe at lunch, too, for $10. Same principle: Offer some choice—but in and out. You have to play smart.

Between traveling the globe and the travel channels on TV, diners expect new twists today.

It’s true. Diners are connoisseurs now. And most new chefs today have been to culinary school; they are more sophisticated. They know not to a call a sauce a “gravy.” Today, both sides know what a bordelaise sauce should taste like. They know if it’s missing something. Then there are the cooking classes, the cookbooks…it’s caused a rapid evolution in cuisine. I can see that here in St. Louis.

Is the next generation of St. Louisans getting more daring?

I think so. The young people are more willing to experiment and try the different ethnic cuisines.

Chez Leon seems to be the perfect fit for you.

Leon called me several times. First I thought no, then maybe, but I feel good, so I thought, “Why not?” I was lucky with that stroke… To me, it was a sign to keep cooking. So I do. I just don’t want to fall into my sauce!

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