On the Line: Pascal Olhats, Part One

“I think it's time that Orange County made its mark in the country by being a restaurant scene. It's going to take some time. . . It's simmering, but we need to make it boil.”

It's unfair to associate Pascal Olhats with only one establishment, since he's spent the last 20-something years parlaying his name into a brand few restauranteurs accomplish. His flagship dining experience may be in the past, but that tradition lives on in the form of a brasserie, gourmet take-out locales, catering and garden creperie. And that's before we factor in his management of French 75 and Savannah Chop House.

Our initial introduction was at the OC Fair, where he won against The Burnt Truck in a Chopped-style competition we judged. After watching him entertain the audience, we understand how he's able to keep up with the dining scene. Pascal shares chance encounters with celebs and his hopes for the future one morning at his epicerie.

Your earliest food memory:
I have a sweet and fond memory I shared with grandfather when he made me rhubarb raw from the garden when I was 7-years-old. It was both sweet and sour. I didn't know you could eat both leaves and stems.

Favorite meal growing up:
Family pot au feu prepared by my mother. It is a dish of meat cooked with vegetables, bone marrow and pork belly.

Your best recent food find:
Stevia, a herbal, natural sweetener, is used for some food preparation. I recently came across stevia plants at a gardening store. I grow and dry it at home, so I have my own natural stevia powder.

Most undervalued ingredient:
Fresh ground pepper because there are so many varieties. A dish can change flavors depending on the type of pepper you use. There are so many kinds of flavors and colors. At the fair, I crushed some pink peppercorns which were sweet and spicy at the same time. It added a layer of flavor. My food looks very simple, but I create layers by the preparation.

It's like making wine. All wine is not the same. Any red wine looks the same, but it's just the color. You don't know until you taste it that there's layers from the way the grape has been aged, the maceration of the grape, the contact with the skin. . . it's crazy. The winemaker makes them all different.

Congratulations on winning at OC Fair's Chowdown! How difficult was the challenge?
The challenge was not too difficult, except that I've never used plantains before. When I came to California 30 years ago, I saw this cute little “banana lookalike” as I called it. I bought one and ate it raw. I still remember my mouth being so dry for hours! It's not my favorite thing.

How did Cafe Jardin come about?
Cafe Jardin was presented to me as a place where lunch was served once a week by volunteers. The foundation approached me to see if I could help them serve daily lunch fare along with catering weddings and larger parties so they could generate some funds for the Foundation to maintain the gardens. I came up with an idea to do a nice garden-style menu that uses some of the garden's herbs as well. We also have a small prix fixe for brunch that includes some breakfast items and some lunch ones.

How was your last Silversea Culinary Cruise?
The cruise is always a great experience. Not only do I meet and interact with the boat's chefs, but I always take my guests around to discover local food, markets and restaurants.

What fast food do you admit to eating?
When I want to go off track, I will go to In-N-Out Burger. I get a cheeseburger, protein-style with extra tomatoes and onion, and I add my own Dijon mustard.

What is your beverage of choice, and where do you get it?
Wine. Mostly white, but I appreciate a rose in the summertime. I'm more to the Rhone-style. I get it from my own wine shop on Bristol or from the wine clubs I belong to in Paso Robles.

How are you focusing on other areas (professional and personal), now that Traditions is no longer a priority?

I've been focusing more on Epicerie by offering new dishes, for example, gluten-free quiches, some quinoa and some kale salads. Also, I'm doing more private home dinners and more consulting to other restaurants in OC, as well as cooking Tradition's dishes at Brasserie Pascal.

One food you can't live without:
Dark chocolate, because it's good for you and it prevents me from eating other pastries, especially when I have a lot of temptation in my own business.

Where was your most recent meal?
My most recent meal was in Pasadena at a restaurant called Royce. It's a beautiful restaurant, and the food is special. One of the dishes the chef prepared for me was seared albacore.

Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Keep it simple, use fresh ingredients and learn how to use leftovers.

We noticed you have a line of coffee.
I'm not a big coffee drinker, but I do like great coffee. After several tastings, I came up with my own bean selection and roasting specification that is very smooth. It doesn't taste burnt, and it's easier to digest, so you don't get heartburn on a sensitive stomach. You can purchase it at Brasserie and Epicerie.

Tell us about your chef competition demo with Greg Daniels.
The chef competition was a lot of fun and we both won from it. He did sneak in some foie gras, but for me it was a winning challenge of a great chef and friend who has worked in my kitchen in the past. I am very proud of his well-deserved success.

What do you think of people who take photographs of their food?
At first I didn't like it, but I am so used to it now that even sometimes I take pictures myself as a memory of a meal. I will say that some overdo it and forget to enjoy the dining experience.

Favorite chef.
Paul Bocuse– he's French, and I served in his restaurants for two years. I spent so much time in his kitchen, that I learned a lot from him and his way of doing business. I learned that being a chef is not enough to run a restaurant; you need to be a front of the house person. He's my mentor in restaurant management. He always wanted to know how his guests were feeling. (He) always went to the tables. This was a really new concept. He was one of the only chefs going out into the dining room.

What seasonal specialties can we expect on your menus?
For fall and winter,starting in October. September still feels too much like summer here. I'm going to have some sauerkraut and also cassoulet.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten:
One time I had to try steamed veal eye when I worked in a restaurant in Lyon, France. It was a special veal meal where they cooked all the parts. It tasted gelatinous, but knowing I was eating an eye made it weird. I also ate a corsica cheese with crawling worms. It was good!

Favorite places to eat (besides your own).
I like to eat close to the ocean when I want seafood, so I like to go to either Cannery or Balboa Bay Club.

You're making breakfast. What are you having?
Usually I will make an egg white omelet with Gruyere and sauteed mushrooms.

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