The French Connection
After thirty years in Memphis, River Oaks chef/owner Jose Guitierrez reflects upon his distinguished culinary career.
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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.”