Portrait

François Perret’s Road Trip through American Desserts

A renowned chef leaves a luxury restaurant to take the wheel of a food truck. This is the synopsis of the movie Chef, directed by and starring Jon Favreau. It is also the pitch for the Netflix series The Chef in a Truck, which follows the Ritz’s head pastry chef François Perret in a sweet-toothed odyssey across California.
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© Eagles Team Entertainment/HK Corp/Wild Bunch

François Perret likes “stepping out of his comfort zone,” but he did have two concerns before flying to Los Angeles. First, how would he get by without being able to speak English? And second, where could he find butter and cream from Bresse, his native region, which he adores, and uses in most of his recipes? His cuisine is daring – just look at his interpretation of the iconic madeleine, a “cloud” filled with fruit compote, honey, chocolate, or caramel. However, for the anxious chef, this Californian adventure was a way to “put myself in moderate danger” and a chance to “discover a country that I didn’t know.”

Leaving the Ritz and his 35-strong kitchen team, setting up in a food truck with two commis chefs, and traveling across Southern California in search of the finest desserts was the challenge proposed in 2018 by Eric Nebot, a French director and producer, a board member of the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, and a diehard foodie. “I thought the idea was so crazy that I didn’t even believe it,” says François Perret, who was voted World’s Best Pastry Chef in 2019. “But I knew that this trip would bring me so much.”

After one last gourmet meal on the Air France flight – caviar, grilled endives, and pan-fried foie gras – the pastry chef found himself in the “land of fast food.” This was also the objective of the experience, to unpick the tired clichés about America and revamp the Ritz’s stuffy image. The first stop was an industrial area in South Los Angeles, where Teddy Vasquez had parked his taco truck. This former Uber driver now heads up a team of six cooks and delights some 300 customers every day. This was a revelation for the French pâtissiers, who then discovered their own kitchen-on-wheels – a black truck decorated with the Ritz logo.

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© Eagles Team Entertainment/HK Corp/Wild Bunch

The interior was cramped – less than 75 square feet. The three chefs barely had room to move. Somehow, they managed to install the steam oven – one of the boss’s requests – but fitting the panini press was impossible. What’s more, the wind kept blowing out the flames on the cooking range! “I adapted and found a series of hacks,” says François Perret. “You have to be well organized when you work in a truck. You can’t forget a single ingredient or utensil. But I soon realized that when you know how to make good food, you can make it under any circumstances.”

A Culinary “Awakening”

The further they drove and the more people they encountered, the more the French team’s perspective changed. François Perret, who had worked in the kitchens of the George V and Meurice hotels before arriving at the Ritz, was unconvinced when presented with a multicolored corn-flake pie. But he reconnected with his childhood when he discovered the American ritual of dunking cookies in a glass of milk: “It’s universal! In France we do the same, but with madeleines.” Everywhere he went – a farmers’ market in Santa Monica, an ice cream shop in Venice Beach, an apiary, a dairy farm, or a pistachio grower in California’s Central Valley – he found the same passion for terroir and premium ingredients.

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© Bernhard Winkelmann/Flammarion
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© Bernhard Winkelmann/Flammarion

“I had no idea where we were going next. The production team led us, and every day, I was inspired by the shapes of American desserts to create new French recipes,” he says. This spontaneity gave rise, among other things, to a s’more made with choux pastry, a fennel salad with oranges and rice pudding (see the recipe below), a sweet taco with asparagus and candied lemons, another taco made with brioche, corn purée, and chili pepper jam, and an ice cream sandwich with fromage blanc mousse, caramelized almonds, and honey. “This trip was an awakening; it gave me so many new ideas!”

The pastry chef was so inspired that he drew on his experience to publish a recipe book and open Le Comptoir, a patisserie on Rue Cambon behind the Ritz. Aside from his traditional desserts, he serves tube-shaped croissants, pains au chocolat, mille-feuilles, and sandwiches influenced by American finger food, and even drinkable cakes. “In Los Angeles, everyone walks down the street holding cups. So I created a liquid version of my marble cake, my madeleine, and my strawberry tartlet. The receptacle doesn’t matter; it’s what you put in it that counts. We shouldn’t be scared of shaking up French traditions!”

 

The series The Chef in a Truck is now available on-demand on Google Play and on DVD.

The Chef in a Truck: The Fabulous Culinary Odyssey of a French Pastry Chef in California by François Perret and Eric Nebot, translated from French by Magda Schmit, Flammarion, 2021.

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© Bernhard Winkelmann/Flammarion

Fennel Salad

Ingredients (serves 4)

For the vinaigrette:
1⁄2 c. olive oil
3 tbsp. kalamansi vinegar (or another lemon vinegar)
3 tbsp. Pacific (alcohol-free pastis)
5 tbsp. confectioners’ sugar

For the oat milk rice pudding:
1 tbsp. cornstarch
1 oz. light brown sugar
3⁄4 c. risotto rice
4 c. oat milk

For the orange marmalade (optional):
1 lb. oranges
1 1/3 c. superfine sugar
1 tsp. fruit pectin (optional, but it gives a better set)

For the salad:
2 fennel bulbs
A little lemon juice
1 lb. lemon sorbet
10 pitted dates, thinly sliced (optional)
2 large oranges, peeled and segmented
20 Taggiasca olives (optional)
1 bunch fresh dill
Borage flowers
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Preparation

Prepare the vinaigrette:
1. Whisk all the ingredients together until evenly combined. Set aside.

Prepare the oat milk rice pudding:
1. Mix the cornstarch and sugar together.
2. Blanch the rice in a saucepan of boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain and rinse under running cold water.
3. While the rice is blanching, heat the oat milk in a large saucepan until it comes to a simmer. Add the rice and simmer gently over low heat until the rice is tender (about 15 minutes). Stir in the mixture of cornstarch and sugar, then bring briefly to a boil. The rice should be very creamy.

Prepare the orange marmalade:
1. Prick the oranges all over with a fork. Place them in a saucepan with sufficient cold water to cover them and bring to a boil. Drain and repeat 8 times, using fresh water each time.
2. Cut the oranges into quarters, remove the seeds, and purée in a food processor or blender. Transfer the purée to a saucepan, add the sugar and pectin (if using), and cook for 2 minutes. Let cool.

Assemble the salad:
1. Slice the fennel bulbs very thinly with a mandoline and toss in the lemon juice to stop the slices from oxidizing.
2. Place a teaspoon of orange marmalade (no more, as it is very sweet) in each serving dish. Add the rice pudding, a scoop of lemon sorbet, and a few date slices (if using).
3. Divide the fennel slices between the serving dishes, along with the orange segments. Drizzle over the vinaigrette and season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper, and serve garnished with a few olives (if using), dill sprigs, and borage flowers.

Advice from the chef

“This is a recipe that was tested in the food truck. At the time, I was not entirely convinced it would work. I didn’t think dates or marmalade should be added, or even olives. They can be replaced by a few orange segments instead, resulting in a fresher – and, for me, more enjoyable! – salad. A little sea salt and a few turns of the pepper mill will enhance the flavor.”

 

Article published in the July 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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