Alain Allegretti is the 39 year-old chef-owner of Allegretti, awarded two stars by the New York Times last week. From Nice, and specializing in Niçois food, he's put squarely in the company of other French chefs in NY. Allegretti, who worked for Alain Chapel and Alain Ducasse in France, is representative of a kind of culinary old guard: a strange realm of butchers and cooks all named Alain. In the classic brigade style kitchen, apprentice cooks are sent from station to station within a restaurant's kitchen. Often, as part of their training program, they're sent to work at a far-flung Michelin-starred restaurant in the mountains where all the bars close early. This was Alain Allegretti's experience. And now he works on 22nd Street.
Here, he answers questions about his style of food, his relationship with critics (and Sally Jesse Raphael), and why he doesn't mind New Yorkers who wheel dogs around in baby strollers.
How old were you when you started cooking? I was very young – I grew up on a farm and started cooking with my grandmother. But I was about 20 years old when I first worked in a professional kitchen. After culinary school I went to work for Jacques Maximin at the Chanteclair in the Hotel Negresco, which was great for me. I was lucky to be part of his team; at the time Maximin was one of the best chefs in the world.
Was is Jacques that sent you to the U.S.? No, I went to work for Alain Chapel in Mionnay. From Jacques Maximin I was planning to go work for Alain Ducasse, but unfortunately there was no space for me there. Ducasse told me, in the meantime, spend a little time working for Alain Chapel (Mr. Ducasse's mentor). It was a good culinary experience, don't get me wrong, but Mionnay is outside of Lyon and by 8 o clock everything is closed – it's dead. Luckily, a space finally opened up at Louis XV.
How long did you stay there? I was in Monaco for four and a half years.
Working, what, a 16 hour day? [sighs] Pretty close. It's like 14 hours. The restaurant was closed for two days a week, but I never actually had a day off because we worked events outside Le Louis XV on our days off. We worked a lot.
How did Alain Ducasse influence your cooking? I was working in one of the nicest kitchens on the face of the earth, working with the best products available, the best vegetables. The last thing they cared about was food cost and labor cost. So now, here I am. Can I use that at my restaurant here? Maybe not, probably not, but I'm so proud to have been a part of it.
The experience of going from working in restaurant with an astronomical food cost to becoming a chef-owner of your own, how does that work? At a restaurant like Louis XV, you have to enjoy that time but know that it's not going to last. After Ducasse I had my first sous chef position and my first chef position, and it was a reality check. That's when you see if you're a great chef: you run your own kitchen and you run a good food cost. I'm still buying really great quality but I'm careful about everything. I don't just pay for the center cut of the potato, I pay for the whole thing, so I've got to find a way to use all of it, maybe in an amuse bouche.
I heard you used to live on a farm belonging to Sally Jesse Raphael, who is best known here as a talk show host. I'm basically her French son. She was very helpful when I moved to America, like my American mom, and she helped introduce me to the right people. I love her farm; I get to grow vegetables there, herbs, gather eggs, and bring those great products back to our guests.
I've read all your reviews; most are good. Then there's Adam Platt's. There are 19 reviews that rave about the place, and one that kills me. I think that when he walked in he already had his mind made up about the place. I don't know why. I feel sorry that he didn't have a nice time at my place and truly hope he'll come back and I can change his mind, because I have a lot of respect for him.
It's weird. He says in his review that classic French chefs study supposed classic French dishes, like clams casino. I think I lot of people from Rhode Island would punch you in the face if you told them that clams casino are a French dish. He's a journalist and I have to respect his opinions even if I don't agree with them. And with my cuisine, we're two months old, there's room for mistakes. But in every dish? In every dish there was a problem? I'm here every day from eight in the morning to midnight, and I was here the two nights Platt came out. I tried everything. I'm from Nice and I grew up in both France and Italy. Believe me, I know how to cook pasta. Nobody's ever complained about my pasta.
It was an odd review. He suggested that all French cooks study Julia Child, and I'm pretty sure that's inaccurate. Absolutely. And another inaccuracy: he talked about me cooking Continental cuisine. I'm sorry but if you see anything Continental in my cuisine, let me know. There's nothing Continental about it. I'm from Nice, my cuisine reflects the South of France. I wondered if we were even talking about the same restaurant.
Your food isn't traditional Provencal cuisine. How would you describe it? Well, Nice was part of Italy so you'll find a lot of Italian influence in my cuisine. Does it mean I'm Italian? No. I am not Italian. Even though I grew up there a little bit, my heart is French. My cuisine is a lot of specialty from Nice that I change, update, and reinvent, but the idea is the cuisine that I grew up with, that I love.
Is there room in your kitchen for chemicals and experimenting with food? No, there is not. Different cuisines make the world great. I respect this kind of cuisine and I like it once in a while for fun, but that cuisine has no reference. If I give you ten kinds of mashed potatoes, you can tell me what kind is the best because you grew up with mashed potatoes. With this other cuisine, there's no reference point, so how do you what is good? Do I think it's a great cuisine, for people who want to experiment, yes. But for people like me, who grew up in a farm, not so much.
What are some of your earliest food memories? Every kind of pasta. Or a simple roasted chicken or roasted rabbit with carrots and potatoes. Or white polenta with sausage ragu. Wild boar stew. Those are some great memories for me.
What's your advice for a young cook? Back to my memories: when I finished school and started working with Jacques Maximin I realized that school brings you nowhere. I was the best in my school and I thought I was a genius in Nice but I realized that in fact I didn't know anything. I wanted to make money and work the stove but that's not how it is. I think the base is very important, I like for my cooks to learn everything, even like turning vegetables.
When you were right out of school did you have to turn crates of artichokes and stuff? Absolutely. The first thing I did for a month was actually to clean the kitchen. Jacques Maximin asked me, "Do you know how to cook?" And I said, "Yeah, of course I know how to cook." So he handed me a bucket and told me to fill it up with soapy water and had me clean the kitchen. I tasted everything I could, asked a lot of questions, but wasn't allowed near the stove. You have to work your way up, go through all the stages. Cooking is one thing, but you have to know how to prep it too. Basically, forget what you learned at school, start over with a chef who's willing to teach.
Have you turned on your wood-burning oven yet? Soon. We turned it on a few weeks ago to test it and all the smoke came back into the dining room. So I think we'll have to have someone look at it first. It took me two days to get the smell out.
What will you cook in there? Roast fish, or meat for two. Rack of lamb, cote de boeuf. Typical south of France stuff. Simplicty, straight to the point.
Do you have favorite places to go on your one day off? I love going out to eat, but not to check out the competition. I just want a simple place for a simple meal, not a multi-course thing with wine pairings. Every Sunday lunch I go to Cabana and have my arroz con pollo, which is the best one in town, with my mango daquiri. I sit at the bar. I like Gobo too. the vegetarian place even though I'm definitely not vegetarian. I love Asian food also, and I like to go to Fuschia on 58th and 1st.
Do you think any chefs working in the city are particularly underrated? Underrated is an unusual idea for me. At this restaurant, for example, I'm not looking for four stars. I'm looking for very solid two star reviews and to have my restaurant full. I'm not looking to do fine dining anymore. I will say that Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park is wonderful. I was really expecting for him to get something from Michelin.
What happened with that?There are other restaurants that got at least one Michelin star, and I don't know why Eleven Madison Park didn't get any. I think there were some unfair ratings given out.
Can you walk me though one dish on your menu and describe it for me? I'll choose the Ravioli Niçois [stuffed with braised oxtail and Swiss chard, Parmigiano Reggiano, orange beef jus]. For me, it represents my style of food. We braise oxtail and grind it with the cooked chard, mix in some Parmigiano, eggs, orange jus, salt and pepper. It's served with beef jus flavored with orange. All of the journalists really raved about it. Except Adam Platt.
All the interviewees get this final question: Strange things happen here. What's your strangest, only-in-NY story? I'm probably going to be very boring, but nothing happens to me. I have a very quiet, simple life. But really nothing. I've been here for nine years now and nothing's ever happened to me. I do see a lot of people pushing strollers that have dogs in them instead of children. That might be it, but after a while in the city you don't even pay attention to things like that. That's why New York City is so great.