The French Connection
After thirty years in Memphis, River Oaks chef/owner Jose Gutierrez reflects upon his distinguished culinary career.
Chef Jose Gutierrez in the mid-1980s at Chez Philippe.
photograph courtesy Jose Guitierrez
Mid-afternoon, around 2 p.m., is espresso time at José Gutierrez’ River Oaks restaurant. Before us on the sleek bar top is the paragon of espressos: a rich dark base crowned with a centimeter of velvety caramel-colored crema. Nearby, Gutierrez’ phone displays an identical image to that before us on the bar.
“I made this one,” he says, pointing to the espresso pictured on his phone. “The machine made this,” he says, pointing to the one in front of him.
“Watch,” he says. He walks to a machine at the end of the bar, pushes a button, and out pours a perfect espresso. “I could make it myself, but this is faster.”
Gutierrez leaves the espresso-making to the espresso maker. He takes the upcoming Saturday-night dinner service with a laidback assuredness. After 30 years in Memphis, 22 of them spent at Chez Philippe in The Peabody, Gutierrez has mellowed. He is, after all, the dean of Memphis cuisine, a master chef who has seen restaurants come and go, and a mentor who has played a significant role in nurturing many of the individuals who are at the center of this city’s contemporary culinary scene. And it’s been quite the journey . . .
There is, as if embedded in his genes, a comme il faut quality to José Gutierrez. Bred in the dire perfectionism of French haute cuisine — a world that led French master chef Bernard Loiseau to commit suicide in 2003 when it was hinted his restaurant might lose its Michelin 3-star status — Gutierrez has long equated quality of work and self-worth.
At least some of this mentality is a result of spending his formative years working under internationally celebrated master chef Paul Bocuse. In that “no excuses” kitchen, Gutierrez was made to understand that food quality is a religion.
“In France, the way you do things reflects on you, your family, and your past instructors,” he says. “You’re not allowed to make mistakes.”
Gutierrez’ family life set the stage for his self-determination. Born in the foothills of the Alps in the south of France to a single mother of Spanish descent and extremely modest means, Gutierrez and his sister were raised in a tiny apartment where the three shared not just a bedroom but also a bed. Every night, Gutierrez says, he and his sister would haggle over who slept parallel with their mother, and who would sleep next to her feet.
“One of the best times of my life,” he says with a smile. “I think everyone should live that way at some point.”
With little to no cooking experience (his mother was a terrible cook, he says) young Gutierrez nevertheless found himself in the kitchen. “I wanted to be a fashion designer first. I don’t know why. I just wanted the creativity part of it. But they rejected me, so I went to school to learn to be a maitre d’ or a chef.”
After formal schooling at the Professional Culinary School in Manosque and apprenticeships with Chefs Roger Petit and Francis Trocelier, Gutierrez went to work under Bocuse, where he experienced fully the rigorous life of working in a kitchen.
“When I saw Hell’s Kitchen, I thought, none of these guys would make it in France,” he says. “Not a single one. Bunch of sissies. They had bandages. I never saw a kitchen with bandages. When I cut my finger, I grabbed a tissue, tied it up, and continued service. Never show anybody that you’re in pain. There was never an excuse allowed.”
When Bocuse approached him a year and a half into his position with an opportunity to go to the United States, Gutierrez hopped a plane to Houston, Texas — still not totally sure of his decision — to be head chef at Restaurant de France for the Meridien Hotel. He was only 21 years old.
“My sous chef was 50 years old,” he says. “That’s why I grew a mustache. So people would take me seriously.” The mustache became one of his signature features, as did his exacting presence in the kitchen.
“I think my biggest challenge was coming from France, from a place with three [Michelin] stars like Bocuse, where people are extremely, extremely aggressive,” he says. “I never worked in a place where I didn’t have to fight physically. Here they said, ‘José, you can’t do that.’ But I couldn’t understand why if you said something it wouldn’t get done immediately, why people would be lazy or slow. Because, if you’re defined by your job, what does that say about you?”
Gutierrez tells tales from the kitchen like they’re war stories; about working through burns and knife wounds and maintaining all the while an unremitting focus on the food.
“It’s unreal. It’s magnificent. And I miss it,” he says. “You can’t explain it to anyone. Now people say, ‘José, sometimes you can be a little mean,’ and I think, thank God you didn’t know me 20 years ago.”
Two and a half years after he began cooking at the Restaurant de France, Gutierrez was offered a position as head chef of Chez Philippe at the newly reopened Peabody. In June 1982, he set out for Memphis.
“I came here because there were no French or Spanish people. No prejudice, I just came here to learn to speak English, not to practice my French or Spanish,” he says with his distinct French accent. He admits he’s still not totally in command of the language. He shrugs and smiles. “I don’t know, maybe I’m a slow learner.”
His accent, mustache, and unrelenting standards made him a formidable presence in the Memphis restaurant scene, which was at the time mostly a place of barbecue joints and blue-plate specials, with limited fine dining.
What Gutierrez did at Chez Philippe over the next 22 years was nothing short of what his Bocuse-influenced standards would allow. He got Chez Philippe in The New York Times. He was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs in 1990. And at the age of 36, he became a master chef.
“A master chef’s quality should never be compromised,” says Gutierrez. “He’s always trying to do better and better. We call it the sacred flame that pushes us, and that’s because of our training. You train, apprentice, and prove you’re respectable and that you don’t drink or do drugs.”
You also have to live and breathe cooking, he adds, to reach its nirvana: “That moment when you look at a dish and say, ‘Wow.’”
To that end, Gutierrez held extravagant themed dinners with special menus. For a dinner dedicated to Cristal champagne (the traditional champagne of the Russian tsars, who, ever fearful of being poisoned, could see into the clear bottle and detect any lethal additives), Gutierrez tracked down the 25-course menu that Russian Grand Duke Alexei Romanov dined on when he visited Memphis in 1872. Gutierrez based his 18-course menu off the 1872 original and invited the duke’s descendant, Prince Nikita Romanov, to Memphis for the occasion.
He hosted everyone from Kathy Bates to Julia Child. He put on “masters nights” for master chefs or master artists like the Memphis Horns and Sun Records rockabilly star, Carl Perkins. (“Every French person loves Carl Perkins,” he says.) He became friends with the mustachioed painter LeRoy Neiman. “LeRoy once told me, ‘José, your cooking is fine but your mustache needs a little work.’ I said, ‘Your mustache is fine but your painting could use a little training.’”
The food was avant garde, the presentation impeccable, and the distinctly French menu of Chez Philippe challenged the palates of Memphians.
But in the 1990s, Gutierrez turned an eye toward his surroundings, and began to shift toward a more accessible cuisine, a blend of Southern classics and French technique, dubbed “Nouvelle Southern.”
“I realized I was talking Greek to people,” he says. “The locals said, ‘José, you need to get acquainted with Southern food.’” Gutierrez had learned the Nouvelle Cuisine style — fresh, light dishes with an emphasis on presentation — from Bocuse, one of its foremost practitioners. But with his own twist, Gutierrez popularized Nouvelle Southern Cuisine, putting out dishes like catfish bourride, hushpuppies with shrimp Provençal, and turnip green ravioli with bobwhite quail à la king.
He even has his claim staked in writing: A certificate from the Tennessee Senate details a resolution commending Gutierrez for his service to the state and crediting him with the invention of “world-famous Nouvelle Southern Cuisine.”
This iconic cuisine also tempted Gutierrez away from his position as head chef of Chez Philippe in 2005. After 22 years, the master chef set out on his own and took his particular blend of Southern and French down the street, to open Encore a block south of the Peabody on Second Street.
Encore was acclaimed but ill-fated. His timing was poor; after four years, a troubled economy forced the restaurant out of business. Gutierrez left downtown for the first time in his Memphis career and, in April 2010, he took over as head chef at River Oaks in East Memphis.
You become a slave to quality, and you forget to live life,” Gutierrez says now of his early years at Chez Philippe. “People don’t understand how you can be so addicted to pain and suffering, but it gives meaning to your life.”
As head chef, and now owner, of the French-American bistro River Oaks, Gutierrez takes on this new phase of his career with an easier temperament. He recently celebrated 30 years in Memphis, three as head chef of River Oaks and his first year as its owner.
He says that while the food at Chez Philippe was interesting and pushed boundaries, it was often esoteric. “The reason I wanted [my own] restaurant is that I don’t want people to come see me once every six months, on birthdays, anniversaries. I want people who come three or four times a week.”
Gutierrez has found that in River Oaks, where he spends much of his time with his wife and business partner, Colleen, their daughter, Jolene, and their granddaughter. He makes time to ride his bike. At his Midtown home on a Saturday afternoon, his dachshund mix, Molly, at his feet and an espresso on the table beside him, he pauses to look up from the boxes of old menus and photos of the celebrities he has cooked for and the chefs he has cooked alongside.
“It’s great to live for your craft, but you have to live a little,” he says, and then dives back into the box for more photos. Many of these are featured in these pages. Enjoy!
Hannah Sayle is a staff writer for the Memphis Flyer.