Chef Pierre Chambrin has had a storied culinary career. Trained at Ecole des Metiers de L'Alimentation in Paris, he came up through the ranks the old-school way. He worked in some of the best restaurants in the country, in positions from apprentice to executive chef, ultimately running the kitchen at the White House under two presidents.
Chambrin has been executive chef at the Saint Louis Club for almost 19 years, delighting members with his culinary creations. ‘Chef Pierre’ is a member of the Maitre Cuisinier de France, which named him Chef of the Year in 2008, and the Academie Culinaire de France, which will be bestowing its Lifetime Achievement Award to him next month in Charleston, S.C. We recently were privileged to sit down with Chef Pierre and talk to him about his career and just what it takes to be successful behind the stoves.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
It's more classical. I don't like to do anything crazy—deconstructing things and stuff like that, I'm not too fond of. I like modern things if they make sense.
You were classically trained in France. Did you have to change your style when you came to the U.S.?
Yes, I did. When I first got here, I made Quiche Lorraine like we do in France--soft--and people sent them back because they wanted them crispy. I'd do a duck nicely roasted and they'd send it back because they wanted the skin crispy. I had to adjust a lot of things like that.
Since you have a classical background, what do you think of the current crop of modern American chefs who don't come from that tradition?
Like anything else, there's good and bad. If you do something modern and different, it's fine as long as it makes sense. I like to do different things sometimes, but with a solid base, not something crazy.
You were executive chef at the White House from 1992 to 1994. How did you get that job?
I was working at a restaurant a block away from the White House, and I knew the pastry chef (at the White House), and they needed a sous chef. I got the job as chef when the old chef retired and I was already inside in the kitchen.
You've been with the Saint Louis Club almost 19 years. What attracted you to the job and to St. Louis after having worked at the White House?
I actually worked for two weeks in New York after the White House, but I didn't like it. My daughter was 14 and my son was 10, and I didn't want to move them to New York. Here, I liked the kitchen. When I saw it, I thought I could do something. I changed the way business was done in the kitchen. When I came, the cooks were underpaid and there weren't enough of them. In banquet, for instance, there was one cook. So one party, one cook; three parties, one cook. It was absurd. You have to have enough staff. The kitchen should be run by the chef, not by the bean-counters.
Do you cook at home? If so, what do you like to make?
Yes, I cook simple things. Last night, I went to the Chinese market and bought a duck and put it on the rotisserie.
How do you feel about all the attention chefs are getting on cable television shows?
I was telling someone today, too many chefs now are more at ease in front of a microphone than in front of a stove. They're not chefs yet, they're actors. A lot of people who cook on TV—with some exceptions—are not chefs.
Do you think it's necessary to go to culinary school to purse a career as a chef?
School is fine, but when you come out of school, you have to tell yourself, I know nothing. I have to learn again. Those who come out of school and think they are chefs are fools.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out who wants to be a chef?
You have to be ready to work on Sundays, on holidays, at night. You really have to love cooking. If you don't, forget it.
You've been at this more than 50 years now. What keeps you going?
I love what I do. At 12 years old, I decided to be a chef, and I started culinary school at 15. I do not look forward to retirement. I'm going to try and stay as long as I can.