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